Monday, January 3

Ethnicity , Poverty and War

In the archives of Foreign Dispatches is a post that highlights the unfortunate link between ethnic division and poor economic performance. Ethnic Homogeneity and Economic Growth in Africa draws upon this revealing paper by William Easterly and Ross Levine - Africa's Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions.

The authors define the problem ...
Africa's economic history since 1960 fits the classical definition of tragedy: potential unfulfilled, with disastrous consequences. In the 1960s a leading development textbook ranked Africa's growth potential ahead of East Asia's and the World bank chief economist listed seven African countries that "clearly have the potential to reach or surpass" a 7 percent growth rate. Yet, these hopes went awry. On average, real per capita GDP did not grow in Africa over the 1965-1990 period, while, in East Asia and the Pacific, per capita GDP was over 5 percent and Latin America grew at almost 2 percent per year. Much of Africa has even suffered negative per capita growth since 1960, and the seven promising countries identified by the World Bank's chief economist were among those with negative growth. Sub-Saharan Africa's growth tragedy is reflected in painful human scars.
GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is the total output value of goods and services of a country in a year while GNP (Gross National Product) is GDP plus income from abroad. Both are convenient measures of national wealth.

While the article does not address Ethiopia directly, the issues do apply to it. Ethiopia's per capita GNP was $100 back in 1973 on the eve of Haile Selassie's overthrow and today remains at $100 - one of the lowest on earth. Adjusted for inflation the per capita GNP today is $23.97 in 1973 dollars. Another way of putting this is that Ethiopians today have only a fourth of the income that they did thirty years ago.

Some sources now use a PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) conversion factor which attempts to provide a more meaningful value for wealth across national borders. The relative costs of the same amounts of goods and services in the domestic market as compared to the United States are calculated to arrive at the conversion factor. This gives an adjusted per capita GNP for Ethiopia up to seven times higher which is still subject to the comparative devaluation of inflation over time.

In the case of economies like Ethiopia's all figures are somewhat suspect because in a subsistence agricultural economy taking in up to 90% of the population, many or at times most citizens may simply be off of the statistician's radar. There also seems to be a semi-offical floor for reported per capita GNP figures of about $100.

Over several decades it seems at times that GNP is determined by simply multiplying often inaccurate estimated population sums by a factor of 100. Given the great levels of income disparity present, the average citizen apparently has to make due with substantially less than that already low figure.

The U.N. Human Development Report Index for 2004 provides a graphic display of the dire straits in which Ethiopians, desperate for development, find themselves.

so what does ethnicity have to do with this?

In their detailed study using a variety of economic and mathematical models, the authors compare the regions by computing the relative parts of the difference in growth rates associated with a number of explanatory variables and discover that "in sum, ethnic diversity differences are important for explaining Africa's tragedy versus Asia's miracle" and that
ethnic diversity alone explains between one-fourth and two-fifths of the East Asia-Africa growth differential and may fully account for some extreme country cases. While hardly supporting a mono-causal view of Africa's difficulties, our results suggest that ethnic divisions have played a significant role in Africa's growth tragedy.
The authors conclude that
High ethnic diversity is closely associated with low schooling, underdeveloped financial systems, distorted foreign exchange markets, and insufficient infrastructure.
These problems are not particular to Africa but are magnified there. In addition, detrimental activities such as corruption and the relative importance of black markets are associated with ethnic fractionalization.

As Foreign Dispatches notes, the ethnic homogeneity in states such as Botswana helps to explain the relative success there. FD also points out that Africa's current boundaries are largely the result of European agreements to divide the continent among themselves without respect to extant states, groupings or ethnic boundaries.

As we touched on in a previous post about military tradition, the tribally contentious and diverse states of Europe had centuries in the modern era - that they created - to consolidate their national identities. History has demanded that their former colonies get their 'acts together' in a timespan measured in years - in many cases this is simply an impossible task.

Ethiopia has great potential for escaping the horrors of a failed state. After all, just a few of its largest ethnic groups together - the Oromo, the Amhara and the Tigray - together number well over eighty percent of the population. These three along with other related groups have deep cooperative cultural, linguistic, historical and indeed genetic ties stretching back for centuries before the modern era.

In his book, Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society Donald Levine argues that the current nation represents an ingathering of intimately related peoples. The opposite view that Ethiopia, like Imperial and Soviet Russia, is a 'prison of nations' and the product of 'black colonialism' seems to be far more influential today. The post about the the TPLF (the current government) and the post about the old land tenure system under which many Oromo suffered show that visions of national unity are often not shared because of legitimate historical grievances.

However, it is also clear that war, ethnicity and history are manipulated to the advantage of elites whose personal interests are often far removed from those of the millions they supposedly speak for. Even in times of relative peace ethnicity is manipulated using divide and rule tactics to the advantage of rulers. In addition the most basic principles of governance are dedicated to the eternal constitutional ethnic separation of the population into tribal regions with no particular connection to eachother.

Offically, the reason for the current ethnically based government is a desire to avoid conflict and to generally provide for legitimate self determination. Unfortunately, with issues ranging from internal commerce to education, development measurably suffers. Indeed, given increasing competition for resources in a system where ethnic division is encouraged, the prospects for widespread ethnic warfare are frightening.

the potential for conflict

Ethiopia in 1998 was a demobilized and inward looking country following many years of internal and external war under the Mengistu dictatorship. Her military was dismantled and replaced by the former guerrilla army that had won and was leisurely transforming itself into a formal military. Like most armies in the third world, it was dominated by the mission of regime security. In the few months after war broke out with Eritrea that year, the army expanded by several hundred thousand well trained and equipped men organized into numerous divisions and corps which were ably led by a central general staff and supplied by competent support services.

At great human and monetary cost they won the war in what became the rout of a formerly feared and always victorious enemy. In the recent past the current Ethiopian government has its roots in that guerrilla army that bested the large and lavishly equipped forces of the Mengistu dictatorship. During the five year Italian occupation most of the country outside of the major cities was under the control of the resistance.

The point being made is that making war is something that Ethiopians by the necessities of survival have had to do very well when properly motivated. Studies showed that back in the 1960s, Ethiopians were among the most heavilly armed people on earth in terms of modern weapons held by individuals at every level of society. Today those weapons are mainly AK-47 assault rifles and present in even greater numbers. The nightmare vision of an ethnic conflict that could dwarf the machete based genocide in Rwanda is a real possiblity.

It should also be noted that Ethiopian society has traditional social restraints that make it remarkably law abiding in general. Throughout the reign of the Mengistu dictatorship, the police were mainly concerned with pressing a reign of terror on any possible opposition and indeed after the fall of that regime towns and cities went without any formal law enforcement for up to a year or longer. Even at times of great political chaos there has been little in the way of rioting, looting or general increases in citizen on citizen violence.

The danger lies in the capacity for organized violence at any level initially directed by opportunistic actors in power and elsewhere who assume that they can always manipulate people as they wish. Ethnic agendas are daily infused with meaning and relevance by the very nature of current governance and any sense of common identity is denied except for the occasional celebration of sports champions.

In his new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Jared Diamond discusses events in Rwanda. He sees a situation where population pressure and its economic consequences were most responsible for violent ethnic conflict that could in turn be used by elites for their own advantage. Given a dedication to ethnic factors that common sense and now Easterly / Levine show are related to poverty - and given the ongoing dedication to a guaranteed poverty generating economic system that does not allow for private property - the prospects for a cycle of poverty, competition and increasing ethnic conflict that may spin far beyond the bounds of stage managed divide and rule sentiment is indeed nightmarish.

There is absolutely no reason that the above must happen and that the talents for organization and the degree of national sentiment held by Ethiopians can not be directed in ever more productive directions. The current system of tribally based governance actively abandons meaningful economic and social growth in the service of the overly jealous and unnecessarily insecure grasp of power by Ethiopia's rulers.


When the globally and historically right path to peace and development is so obvious why is it ignored? The current rulers are NOT, as many vocal observers suspect, determined to destroy their own country because they are villianous by nature. They are NOT part of a larger anti-Ethiopian conspiracy directed from any foreign country or countries. NOR are they unable to grasp what their policies are doing.

Primarily they want to stay in power, for themselves and secondarily for what they imagine - conveniently or not - is the long term benefit of the country. They are also observant witnesses of recent history and the fates of the two modern Ethiopian govenments, both almost omnipotent to observers in their day, that they have replaced in power. They see that, however unlikely it may seem at any given moment, they too can be replaced if events are allowed to slip out of control. After all, that is why they are where they are.

Their struggle was such a difficult and bitter one that much of their world view is understandable even if it is not acceptable. Even if they don't always believe it - the war is over and they have won . Another 'revolution' would, as all such adventures eventually do, cause further decline and in any event is unlikely to happen.

No one can reasonably want such a catastrophe but it may happen because the government is playing with fire. As we have seen with the case of ethnicity - it is so potentially harmful in the very best of circumstances that it is impossible to imagine how emphasizing it can be of help.

Essentially, Ethiopian governance is based on a sense of insecurity in power that feeds on itself and leads to a cycle of ever greater harm and insecurity over time ... and a lack of imagination and appreciation of the risks and benefits of changing course.

The most basic tasks of government in a country at such great risk of failure and with such a desparate need for development are of course, to maintain order but equally importantly to prepare the country for the government's own eventual orderly replacement. The real challenge is to create a society for all where there is no fear associated with not being in power.

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