Not about the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi at a press conference after a meeting with the German Chancellor in the Chanclery in Berlin.

Following today’s announcement of the death of Meles Zenawi, and in response to the many requests I have received to comment about what might happen in Ethiopia, this is a good time to repost an article I wrote a few years ago:

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. …

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.

Read the full post here.

In the meantime, we are thinking of all our friends in Ethiopia, and the beautiful country which I have been privileged to visit often since I first went there thirty years ago.

3 thoughts on “Not about the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi”

  1. I appreciate the “Ask-an-Ethiopian” answer to folks asking you for a prognosis, and that you point folks to the fact that Ethiopians have a vibrant political culture, but it’s not really racist to ask a European for his or her opinion on an important Ethiopian political development, unless someone is asking the European *because* (s)he is a white European.  And surely, that is not the case here.

    I think most (if not all) people want your take on things because you have some expertise when it comes to Ethiopian politics & development, not because you’re a white European.  To suggest otherwise would not only require a more substantive argument explaining why asking for your opinion is racist (or else it risk insulting the victims of real, actual, explicit racism, in Ethiopia, no less), it would verge on what is often called “reverse racism,” an ugly and redundant term sometimes used to refer to the idea that black Africans and only black Africans are fit to comment on the politics of majority-black-African countries… that white Europeans have nothing useful to say about such matters.

    1. Thanks Jacob. I agree that ‘racist’ might be over the top. But I think it is more common than you acknowledge to turn to a European because they are white, at least implicitly. I am not an expert in Ethiopian politics – any more than than the average American is an expert in US politics, or the average Brit an expert in British politics. If people assume I am, then that seems to be at least in part because I am a white European.

  2. This has made me examine my reasons for thinking you had some expertise when it comes to Ethiopian politics.

    I don’t think it’s because you are a white European.  I wouldn’t go to Tim Harford for his opinion, even though he’s a white European, or Angela Merkel, or John Kay.  I can accept that this was a relatively minor contributing factor, but it wasn’t either necessary nor sufficient.  In fact I’d already heard from quite a few ordinary Ethiopians about Zenawi’s death on the BBC before I turned to you or anybody else…

    I think I thought you’d have something worth saying because you’ve lived in Ethiopia, you’ve worked there on and off going back as far as the 1980s, you’re something of a development whiz and Ethiopia is a pretty hot country in popular discourse about development, a search of the word “Ethiopia” on your blog turns up quite a few blog posts, the word “Zenawi” turns up a few posts as well, going back about 10 years, and, well, that was pretty much all it took to make me assume, sort of subconsciously, that you’d have something worth saying…

    But now that I think about it, that doesn’t really qualify you as an “expert” (though I did say “have some expertise,” which is a little different).

    I think what happened is that people (myself included) set a very low bar when it comes to expertise.  The difference, in my mind, between a person who has zero blog posts about Ethiopia and 10 blog posts about Ethiopia is much larger than the difference between a person who has 10 posts and someone who has 100 posts  —  there are diminishing returns to perceived expertise with each marginal word written about a given subject.  I hypothesize this as a sort of cognitive bias, not a deliberate belief.

    If we thought about it, we’d realize this is absurd, but we don’t think about it much — we just kind of read what people have to say, and go with our guts.  That’s what I did anyway.

    Obviously that latter difference is enormous — the one between 10 and 100 blog posts, not to mention the difference between 100 blog posts and having spent a lifetime of being an Ethiopian — but people give folks like you (not white Europeans, people who have written even a modest amount about a given subject) the benefit of the doubt, even if you’ve only crossed just a low threshold.

    Changing tack: the effect of race on people’s likelihood to want your opinion instead of, say, an Ethiopian is important, but we need a better word for that factor than “racism.”  People use that word to refer to this important “something,” but the way they use it has a very different meaning from the explicit sort of racism of, say, Livingstone or Teddy Roosevelt, and I don’t think the two meanings can fit inside the same word.  Suggestions welcome.

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