(Not) about Ethiopian politics

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.

18 thoughts on “(Not) about Ethiopian politics”

  1. You make a good point. My only wish is that there would be more eloquent Ethiopians out there who would feel free to blog about the politics and everything else in their country.
    I may take you up on that offer to talk politics in exchange for a beer when I move to Addis in September. Though I should warn you, I drink Meta. But then I am a girl.

    Owen replies: Great. That’s a date. Get in touch when you are in Addis.

  2. Owen

    I agree with much of what you say in relation to this.

    First, the idea that citizens of developed countries have a particular responsibility to try to get their own governments to act in ways that are better in terms of development – to address issues that are, in Owen’s words, “properly mine to help fix”.

    Second, that the ability of outsiders (eg. me, with much worse Amharic than you!) to understand Ethiopian politics is limited and therefore our views should not be given very much weight.

    However, it seems to me that that things are – and should be – more complicated than a simple “outsiders should shut up, not be listened to, and concentrate on problems that are properly theirs to fix”.

    Globalisation goes beyond the borders. So too should rights, justice and accountabilities. The challenge is to find the appropriate balance between putting into practice that principle and the principle of non-interference/not-talking-about-stuff-that-is-not-“properly yours” to talk about/fix.

    more at http://www.alanhudson.info/2010/05/what-can-and-should-an-outsider-say/

    Owen replies: Thanks Alan. In turn, I agree with you. I’m not saying it is completely improper for an outsider to be concerned in the politics of another country. I do think that, if they are going to put themselves in a position in which their views are going to be taken seriously they had better acquire some serious expertise – at least including speaking the most important languages.

    While I think it is acceptable for other people to do this, if they want and if they do it properly, it isn’t something that I myself want to do, for the reasons I give.


  3. Thank you for this really well-argued reflection, which can be usefully referred to other countries and situations as well.
    Just a couple of points: 1. While I don’t doubt that it would be interesting to listen to Ethiopians’ opinion, and that many of them would have plenty to say and be the best interpreters of their country’s history and politics, there is (as remarked above) the issue of access to their take on democracy, politics, human rights etc., if sitting in a bar in Addis and catching people’s conversations in Amharic is not an option. In fact, it would be very useful if you could point out online forums and such (you have probably done this in the past already, and I apologize for being redundant, but I am new around here). 2. Although I generally agree on the matter of our having a responsibility as Europeans which should translate in focusing on holding our governments accountable, and of letting a country’s citizens’ voice be foremost when speaking of the national situation, it is also true that an outside glance sees things differently and at times more clearly than one which is closer and directly involved in what is going on. Symmetrically, this is equally true of your view on Ethiopian politics and of an Ethiopian’s view of English politics. So, yes, I actually think your opinions could be of interest, in a different way than Ethiopians’ citizens would be.
    Incidentally, I am Italian and one of the best contemporary historians of my country is Paul Ginsborg, an Englishman, whom I am grateful to for being such an intelligent and thorough analyst of my country’s complicated past.

    Owen replies: Thanks Savina. I agree with this thoughtful comment.

    I especially agree with the thought that outsiders can bring useful perspectives; and I like your example of Paul Ginsborg. But he really is an expert on Italian history; he speaks the language and understands the country. We should certainly value experts for their expertise, including outsiders. My worry is that my opinions about Ethiopia are sought not because I am an expert, which I am not, but because I come from a privileged and powerful position.


  4. My first reactions – after reading your post – were similar to Savina’s.

    Taking a slightly different take, why not point out some of the online forums/discussions that you allude to for a wider audience that follows this blog and your tweets. Perhaps I’m a sloth, perhaps I don’t know too many Ethipians, perhaps these forums do not figure out well in my google searches…But surely, you can highlight some of these for my benefit(and don’t presume I think so because your skin color is lighter in hue than mine)…

    These fora/blogs/sites could well be in English and attributable to ‘elites’…But sometimes those tend to give one a better idea of power play than what the ‘people think’…

    After all, whatever Whitehall pub you mentioned must hardly have the same sorts of conversations as those reflected in more plebian pubs in England…Yet, I suspect you learn quite a bit from what you hear there…

    While the tone of the comment to which you respond to may be a bit eristic, I think you didn’t do justice to the fact that perhaps you do have a more cosmopolitan duty (other than holding your government responsible) that can well align as a showing of solidarity with others – who are waging battles against an authoritarian regime – in the place you’re staying right now…

  5. Could Donald Levine be the Paul Ginsborg of Ethiopia? There are of course also Pankhursts,but I think they try to stay very low key when it comes to contemporary politics. Ethiopian problem strikes me as more complex what with the complex ethnic divisions, that are often downplayed by the Amhara. An Oromo friend from Addis claims Levine speaks and thinks like an Amhara (his book Wax and Gold is a classic and a must for anyone interested in Amhara culture), which to an Oromo is , of course, a bad thing
    I too would be interested in knowing about realiable sources for websites/blogs/forums on Ethio politics, but all I seem to have access to are very clearly biased politically backed sites, from one or the other, or yet another party. And most of the sites are full of rhetoric driven by political interests, not clear open minded analysis.

    I think I will have to buy you more than one beer, there is lots to discuss.

  6. Owen – By creating a barrier to entry, in a context where there is a demand for outsider’s views [with yours, for good reason, particularly valued], you’ve cornered the market, with beer as the currency. Smart move 😉

  7. Owen,

    Thank you for publishing my comment yesterday. And thank you too for your response – I don’t agree at all with your reply, but the fact that you took the time to respond so carefully is appreciated. I’d also like to say how much I generally appreciate your blog – your reflections on development aid and development are always thought provoking. That said, I feel I still have to counter the claims you make in your reply, as in my opinion they are a little disingenuous…

    In your reply you suggest firstly that for a foreigner to voice an opinion on the political situation in the country which they are living is tantamount to racism. Secondly, you state that in any case your principal concern is about improving the development policies your own government adopts. This is indeed a good point of departure.

    However, I would argue that your first statement is rather difficult to sustain, especially coming from somebody like yourself obviously deeply concerned with development. Should a migrant worker, for instance, living in the UK and paying taxes be considered ‘racist’ for offering opinions on British politics? I presume that if you are working in Ethiopia for an extended period now, you are paying local taxes (‘no taxation without representation’) – so I guess in some ways you are already implicated, right?

    OK, I know, a white English man living in Africa is rather different given our own particular historical baggage. But fortunately Ethiopia was never a British colony. So that particular sensitivity isn’t quite so valid (not, for instance, like the remarks of Ambassador Sir Edward Clay on corruption in Kenya a few years back, which clearly offended a lot of Kenyans, even though the essence of what he was saying was right).
    But are you thus saying that foreigners should simply keep their mouth shut? Or only voice their opinions in private? Even if the choices that a particular government is making are intimately related to developmental outcomes? Isn’t the point of your blog to contribute to making aid more effective? And can that objective be achieved by maintaining a silence over how a particular country is governed?

    As a British citizen like yourself (well, Scots actually), I have lived in four different countries of the last 20 years and have always become deeply interested in local politics. Surely, one of the main defining characteristics of anybody who works in development should be that they emphasize with the populations they are trying to help? (yes, that includes learning the local language). Unless of course we live in ghettos in the developing world, with our backs to the local community (as many foreigners regrettably do), that surely means that we cannot be indifferent to local politics? Given the emphasis we all place on good governance and democratization, this is only coherent, is it not?
    The inconvenient truth is that in its assessments who to allocate aid to (i.e. to provide foreign aid to), donor governments make such evaluations of local politics all the time – hence all our concerns over the division between ‘aid darlings’ and ‘aid orphans’. Musveni, Kagame, and Zenawi are all perfect examples, and all three have been in power now an incredibly long time (60 years between them!).

    Which brings me to your second point – you say that you are more concerned about getting British aid policy right rather than pontificating on the local political situation in aid recipient countries. Yet here you contradict yourself. In one of your earlier blogs, if I recall correctly, you actually said that we should not giving budget support if it means keeping a government in power which would no longer be there without that support. Yet British decisions about aid, in conjunction with other major donors (the US, Germany, the World Bank, etc.), continue to play a major role in keeping the Ethiopian government in power – Ethiopian government would be unable to pay for its own security forces, let alone health and education expenditures, without foreign help.

    There is a general consensus nowadays that democracy matters for development, for its own intrinsic worth as well as the positive impact it can have on development (OK, not everyone coincides with the Amartya Sen position, but it is a powerful discourse nonetheless). But that brings to the forefront the question about the type of democracy we are advocating. In another blog, you chastised an NGO for claiming that aid money was being given to an Ethiopian government which ruled without support of 99 percent of the population. If again I recall correctly, you said that this claim was ridiculous, and that the government had in fact won by only 58 percent of the vote in the 2005 elections.

    Well, if the preliminary votes are anything to go by, in the election last Sunday the same government has won an implausible 93 percent of the popular vote this time around….not so far off that 99 percent figure for 2005. As Professor Christopher Clapham (someone who does speak fluent Amharic) explained at the time of the 2005 elections, results like this are simply not credible. Moreover, Clapham argued, the whole political situation in Ethiopia will not, over the long run, be sustainable – the country is in danger of collapsing into chaos as soon as the EPRDF losses control (as inevitably will be the case). http://www.ethiopians.com/Election2005/ChristopherClapham_CommentsonEthiopianCrisis.htm

    Judging by the terrible polarization of politics in Ethiopia over the last 5 years due to the constant harassment of the opposition and independent NGOs, imprisonment, elimination of independent media, etc., that assessment seems more valid than ever. The truly tragic thing is that many poor Ethiopian people understood perfectly in the 2005 elections the basic democratic principle that you can vote a government out of power, but felt betrayed when the west stayed silent in terms of condemning the subsequent manipulation of the vote (what is it Tom Stoppard once said about in a democracy? – ‘it is not the voting that counts…it is the counting’). The west offered only the mildest of rebukes to the Ethiopian authorities in the face of a violent clampdown by government forces (what Tony Blair diplomatically called an ‘overreaction’).

    In your reply to my comment, you suggest that Ethiopians have both a sophisticated and vibrant political culture. You are undoubtedly right that many Ethiopians are passionate about politics. But the simple truth again is that many poor Ethiopians (the vast majority of the population) are scared to voice their opinions openly, and certainly not in the voting booth. The EU has been the only truly valiant donor institution to condemn this terrible situation (as did both EU representatives Ana Gomes and Tim Clarke back in 2005, as you will recall). Other governments have watched on in silence, as have most the media (The Economist being a nice exception, with a very clear discussion of what is going on).

    Of course, as many NGOs and individuals have discovered, voicing an opinion in Ethiopia is a highly risky venture. As one of commentators on your blog acknowledges, even a deeply knowledgeable family like the Pankhursts who work at Addis Ababa University (and who speak Amharic like native speakers) do not express their views openly on local politics – fully aware of the consequences. But is it just out of fear that foreigners don’t express an opinion?

    The sad fact is that Ethiopia is geo-strategically too important to fail for most western governments (especially the US, but also for governments like the UK one, which have put a lot at stake on the performance of the EPRDF government). With neighbours like Eritrea, Sudan, and above all, Somalia, the policy is ‘better the devil they know’ than risk uncertainty and chaos in a truly democratic process. We get carried away with our development rhetoric, which is not consistent with what we practice. Our African colleagues are of course acutely aware of this inconsistency. My own sympathies are with the majority of the Ethiopian people who feel they are being sold down the river by the international donor community.

    And if reflections like this don’t belong on a blog about development, then we are probably just talking in cosy little circles amongst ourselves. A big shame, and for Ethiopians the making of another tragedy. They deserve better from us.


    [Owen replies: Actually, your summary of my first point is not what I said. I said it seems to be unconscious racism if other people privilege my opinions, as a European, above the opinions of Ethiopians themselves. Your argument against what you thought I said, but did not say, seems sound to me. But I don’t think it deals with the point I actually made.]

  8. Hi, Owen

    I’m moving to Addis in a couple of weeks, and I was actually thinking about blogging on Ethiopian politics. My question is more about the safety of a foreigner writing about politics in Ethiopia (especially now, after the elections). Is a third reason not to write about politics in Ethiopia the risk of having your site blocked (or worse)? Or is this not an issue?

    Cheers (and thanks for the blog)!

    Hi Joe. I look forward to meeting you when you arrive. I have no idea what the law is about blogging here. You should certainly find out, and take care to obey the law.

  9. Brilliant, brilliant post. I can’t laud this highly enough, to be honest. It really rings true for my experiences of Ethiopia too- and as much as I was able to talk with people in rural areas, I still wouldn’t say that I have a good grasp on Ethiopian politics- only the broadest brush strokes, the broadest resentments and feelings. I also agree with your assessment that people will generally value a white person’s voice above native Ethiopians’ voices- which are silenced enough by the government, without us doing it too. (Last time I was there blogspot wouldn’t work and people were also talking about email monitoring.)

    Now I miss buna in Addis 🙂

  10. Dear Owen,

    I really appreciate your reflections on who should speak out about Ethiopian politics. I am economist by profession and I want to spent few minutes with you when I come to Addis one of these days. Let me know.


  11. Well, a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language or really engage certainly shouldn’t go spouting off about political situations he’s unlikely to understand.

    But outsiders have a very, very important role to play in political discourse – it’s a tenet of anthropology, for example, that people from within a system of symbolic or cultural meanings are often not best placed to analyse them from certain angles. A range of perspectives is important. For me it doesn’t matter if the analyst comes from a place or not (though it’s nice to hear from everyone, those who are native to a political situation, those who are disinterested, and those who are involved outsiders). What matters most is that the analyst is intelligent and has something to say.

  12. An outsider who has access to the insiders can help pave the way to those insiders, though. How to Avoid Making Really Bad Mistakes I Made; Things You Wouldn’t Have Known to Ask; Background Information Insiders Won’t Think to Mention (everyone knows that)….

  13. On the contrary, while remaining cognizant of the superficial exposure and outsider-ism of any foreign commentator, I think having an outsider’s perspective is valuable. Of course no sane person would read those opinions without a huge grain of salt, but the commentary and surface impressions are still valauble.

    My question- if Ethiopians are so passionate and well informed about politics, culture, governance, why is the situation there so crummy?

    I too was impressed with the general awareness, and political savvy of common Ethiopians while I was there. But at what stage does such fertile ground for responsive democratic government actually yield change and results? The Ethiopian regimes are quite poor at governing, and the frightening control over day to day life remains a serious concern. The state of the government there is truly apalling, given the potential of the country.

    Certainly, individual Ethiopians seemed as least as interested, informed, and passionate about politics and aware of injustices than many Americans or British citizens that I’ve met.

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  16. wow betam yemigerm nheger nhew yemtawerute bewnht ahune be etiopia yale democracy ke bezu lefatena dekam bewal yetgeghe yehezeb dem wetet sihone degmom yalebte derjam likelbes yemayichile huneta layi nhew yihem lihone yechalew be korate ameraroche yemimera ye polotoca gizebemfetru nhew

  17. I don’t think this argument is consistent on several scores, but two matter most. Let me attempt to paraphrase your arguments and then say why I disagree:
    1. ‘I don’t discuss Ethiopian politics because my job is to keep the UK government to account.’
    Aside from the philosophical discrepancy here that you can work in overseas development absent a sense of global citizenship, you still have a big practical problem. The UK government is giving c.GBP330m to Ethiopia every year. You might wish to gauge what power this gives the Ethiopian government and the political effect this has as an outcome of UK government policy.
    2. Western voices and views on Ethiopian politics are irrelevant compared to those of Ethiopian citizens.
    I agree – it would be nice to hear the expressed view of the Ethiopian people. Unfortunately, fixed and violent elections mean this is impossible. The repriasals and imprisonment of journalists and activists make it even harder to gain the opinions of ordinary Ethiopians. Someone needs to speak out, and if that happens to be fortunate westerners like us, then so be it.
    Why you would wish to spend time talk about such things over bunna or beer, but not commit a view for publication, suggests to me not a meaningful principle, but a (justified) fear of the ruthlessness of the Ethiopian state.

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