People sometimes ask me to write more about political situation in Ethiopia (eg in a comment yesterday on my website).
This has caused me to consider why I don’t write much about Ethiopian politics. I decided that there are two reasons, which shed a little light on my attitude to our relationship with developing countries, so I thought I would share my thinking here.
First, why would anyone be interested in my opinions about Ethiopian politics?
Suppose a recent immigrant to your country, who barely spoke your language, had visited only some of your towns, and knew well only a few of your fellow citizens, were to position himself as an expert in your political system. How much notice would you take?
Why do you want your analysis of Ethiopian politics to be intermediated by a European? Isn’t that a little bit, well, racist?
Ethiopians have a sophisticated political culture. They are justly proud of their long and deep social and religious traditions. Here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia gather in coffee shops or bars and talk endlessly about politics, culture and society. They consume a vast array of newspapers, some of which are openly critical of the government, with their machiatos. There is a lively debate online, both among resident Ethiopians and the diaspora.
The discourse among “ordinary” Ethiopians about politics, history, and human rights is far more sophisticated and well-informed than you would hear in a London pub about British politics. (With the possible exception of the Red Lion on Whitehall …)
I first came to Ethiopia 28 years ago (extraordinary as that seems) and I have seen many changes in this country, almost all for the better, some of which I try to chronicle here. But my Amharic is limited – certainly not good enough to have a conversation about political rights or ethnic diversity. I have good Ethiopian friends, but I don’t think their views are representative of anything other than a small urban elite.
If people were really interested in Ethiopian politics, they could easily find out more from the real experts by listening to Ethiopians themselves. There is a huge range of opinion, grounded in a strong sense of history and a much more profound understand the nuances and the diversity in this enormous country.
People who want to know what western observers think are not giving enough weight to the views of Ethiopians themselves. I think that is unconscious racism. Just because I’m a white guy with a laptop should not privilege my opinion over that of Ethiopians themselves.
So the first reason I don’t write about Ethiopian politics is that Ethiopians can, and do, speak for themselves, and with much more knowledge, and much more at stake, than me. They don’t need me to act as an intermediary.
You are probably thinking: since when did not knowing anything about a subject prevent this guy from expressing an opinion about it? That can’t be what holds him back.
There is a second reason I don’t write much about Ethiopian politics. I want to focus mainly on holding my own government and society to account for our impact on the world.
Our choices make a huge difference to the lives of people in developing countries. Our policies on trade and corruption affect their economic development; our approach to financial markets and the environment spill over into the lives of people we have never met. If we choose to use it, we have the power to lift people out of poverty by giving more aid, and managing it better.
These issues interest me most because they are properly mine to help fix. As a citizen of Europe, it is my responsibility to demand that we open our markets to trade from developing countries; that we stop our firms paying bribes and selling weapons to corrupt governments; that we share our technologies; that we stop polluting the planet and compensate the world’s poor for the damage we have already done to their livelihoods; and that we restore stability to financial markets. It is my responsibility to argue that we should increase our aid programme from tiny levels today and that we spend that money better.
What the Ethiopian government does is hugely important for the future of Ethiopia. Of course I have opinions about the choices they are making. But I do not want to spend my time complaining about someone else’s government when there is so much to fix about my own. It is too tempting to blame the victims, instead of getting our own house in order.
So there are two reasons why I don’t talk much about Ethiopian politics. First, I think we should pay more attention to Ethiopians, and not require their politics to be intermediated by privileged but ignorant outsiders. Second, while industrialized countries continue to make choices which help to consign a billion people to deep and grinding poverty, my priority is to try to sort that out.
That said, if anyone wants to buy me a beer here in Addis, I’ll be happy to spend the night shooting the breeze about what is going on in Ethiopia and the wider world. Let’s put the world to rights.