WHY MUST WE WORRY ABOUT GROWING INEQUALITY IN ETHIOPIA? By Solomon G/S
In 2012, I wrote an essay titled “The Growing Inequality in Ethiopia” that was posted on a few Ethiopian Diaspora websites such as Abugida and Abay Media. In that essay, while trying to explain the manifestations of growing inequality, I did not justify or even explain why we should worry about the injustice of growing inequality. I will try to do that here because it is important for a number of reasons.
The 1960’s generation of Ethiopian youth was impressed and influenced by the egalitarian philosophy of Marxism. For the then Ethiopian society where class cleavages were apparent based on land holdings and other properties, the influence of an egalitarian philosophy could not be underestimated. Today’s generation has no overarching philosophy to anchor a belief in arresting the growing inequality in Ethiopia. While the time-tested religious influence plays an aspirational role for seeking equality, religion alone has been shown not to be sufficient. On top of that, the ethos and values of globalization superficially make inequality look “natural”. It is not clear how today’s highly-educated young Ethiopians working for multi-nationals, and for domestic firms – and who rightly claim that there is “money to be made” in Ethiopia – can hold their end of their generation’s bargain to help redeem this nation from the scourge of growing inequality. The 1960s generation introduced the “Land to the Tiller” slogan in 1965, fought hard for its promulgation, and helped in its implementation in 1975, as a result of which, we observe today a relatively narrower gap between rural haves and have- nots.
Grounding why growing inequality is unjust is hence urgently important.
From time immemorial philosophers and religions have preached and taken it as fundamental tenets that human beings need to be virtuous, and that societies need to be just. Aristotle and Plato believed that justice was the greatest virtue. With the advent of the industrial revolution, societal asymmetry in wealth accumulation and ownership of the means of production becomes pronounced. The gap between those who have and those who have not becomes an issue for Enlightenment philosophers. This seemingly mere economic issue becomes tied with the larger notions of justice, and equality, and the meaning of a person. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the last of the Enlightenment philosophers, argues for a person’s rights not to be based on religion or property rights, but rather on the idea that we are rational beings worthy of dignity and respect. His notion of the categorical imperative underscored that no matter what, a duty or a right applies regardless of circumstance. This gave rise to Universal Human Rights.
Kant’s categorical imperative residing in pure practical reason undercut competing philosophies, such as utilitarianism, which defines justice and equality obtaining when benefits go to the majority. In a utilitarian scheme, as long as the majority’s goals are met, the minority’s and individual’s concerns are secondary and subservient to the majority. Kant’s emphasis on the individual person’s worth and dignity also undercut other philosophies that summarized their beliefs as “the end justifies the means”. Stalinist repression and mass murder committed in the 1930’s Soviet Union was for a “better, and heavenly future”. This obviously violated the fundamental right and dignity of a person. Although this re-definition of man and society by enlightenment humanists was radical at the time, and gave rise to hopeful revolutions, it left off the ledger a huge chunk of humanity such as indigenous people, slaves, women, and captives.
Some 200 years after Kant, the question of justice and equality appeared to have left the landscape of European philosophy and transposed to American shores. American philosophers, the majority of whom were/are allied with Harvard University obsessed with the notions of justice and equality and have produced significant philosophical works in that regard. John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, Amartya Sen, Richard Dworkin are a few of the examples. The African-American philosopher Cornel West, formerly of Harvard, should also be a part of the pantheon although some in the philosophy establishment in the US continue to refuse to recognize him as a bona fide philosopher. His persistent activism against mass incarceration of blacks and browns and his fight for the poor in this country are commendable.
While the notions of justice and equality have become the domains of philosophers, economists also have chimed in, especially on the issue of inequality. Joseph Stiglitz’s work in that regard could be cited as an illustration, followed by Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, whose “Capital in the 21st Century” was a surprise best seller in 2014, and mention should be made of E. Saez at UC Berkley and G. Zucman at the London School of Economics. Then, of course, there are towering intellectuals like Amartya Sen, who engage both in philosophy and economics, and perhaps after Karl Mark, produce major works.
Michael Sandel says “to ask whether a society is just is to ask how it distributes the things we prize –income and wealth, duties and rights, power and opportunities, offices and honors. A just society distributes these goods the right way: it gives each person his or her due. The hard question is what people are due and why”. (Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? 2009).
The philosophers mentioned above, including Sandel, have tried to answer Sandel’s questions. A couple of them have used hypothetical scenarios to show that society would choose fair and just terms of values to relate to each other. Rawls uses what he calls a veil of ignorance behind which a society would pick principles of justice that form the foundation of a stable society, and one that cares for the least well-off in its midst. Dworkin uses an auction and insurance system where everyone in a society is given out what it needs initially, and insures itself against unforeseen bad events.
Although each of these philosophers have mapped out their separate ways in specifying what they believe to be a just and fair society, their differences for the most appear to be overstated (the only exception is Robert Nozick and we will see his philosophy shortly). Most of these philosophers are what one would call egalitarians: they are abhorred by inequality (in the US and elsewhere), and provide tools that they believe a society should use to improve the human condition. Sandel calls for a politics that gives greater emphasis to citizenship, community and civic virtue, and that aims for the common good. Amartya Sen says our politics have to provide citizens with their capabilities for their life plans. More than any one of them perhaps, John Rawls, has built a structure with adequate support for a well-functioning society.
Coming as the then dominant Marxist philosophy was about to teeter and collapse under its own weight, Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” came out in 1972 (about a decade before the official death of existing socialism). This book was then followed 20 years later by “Political Liberalism” which filled the gaps and holes Theory did not. Rawls work made the possibility of substantive equality under capitalism at least thinkable and something to strive for within the system. His work also is not just about equality in a vacuum, but equality predicated on individual rights and moral liberties.
This is in summary what Rawls tells us in his two major books:
“Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of a society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others”. This is his grounding his philosophy on Kant’s foundation that everyone should be treated as an end and never as a mere means to the ends of others. Rawls then proceeds to explain his two principles of justice: “all social primary goods – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored”. For Rawls treating people as equals is not levelling out all inequalities (that was the Marxist ideal in a classless society). Rather, it is about reducing or eliminating inequalities that disadvantage some people. Rawls also lays out the basic structure of a well-functioning society in spelling out the constitution, separation of powers, balances and checks, and the overlapping consensus informing the basic structure.
He reconciles liberty and equality and brings them together. Unlike Robert Nozick, for whom the state should be minimalist (a night watchman state) just enforcing contracts and keeping citizens safe, Rawls state plays a constructive, interventionist role to right ills, and ensure the stability and functioning of a well-ordered society.
Nozick, in his, “Anarchy, State and Utopia”, argues in tradition with conservative and libertarian economists and philosophers like Frederich Hayek, Milton Freedman, and today’s Rand Paul. Among their commonalities, they protest the state’s taxation role, oppose the welfare state, and believe in the sanctity of private property.
One such colleague of theirs, Harry Frankfurt, has a theory he calls “Doctrine of Sufficiency”. For him, economic equality is not a morally compelling social ideal. Under the Doctrine, someone could have almost nothing, but he may be content with his life. A contented person regards having more money as inessential to his being satisfied with his life.
The fallacy with this libertarian and conservative philosophy is in the fact that this denies the equal worth and dignity of a person other philosophers from Aristotle to modern days have addressed in that each person seeks basic goods such as healthy amounts of food, a decent shelter and health care, and capability to care for his family. A well-ordered and stable society assures that its citizens have access to these primary goods and others. It does not mean that everybody is equal. However, it means that no one should fall below the threshold deemed by a community to be acceptable and enabling. The current movement to increase the Minimum Wage across America, even in conservative states, is a long overdue recognition of the ill effects of growing inequality and indicative of the importance of livable wages.
In today’s Ethiopia, not only are the liberties of citizens trampled by the regime, but the rank of the destitute is increasing at a high rate. It is simply impossible for a citizen of the country to think that they have inviolable rights as human beings, that their moral worth and dignity as persons is being respected. The government itself is the source of their insecurity. Democracy, among whose constituent parts are public reason, including the right to dissent, and balloting are either absent or grossly distorted. Public reason and discussion, hailing from Greek/ Athenian democracy is simply absent. Political dissent is unthinkable, or when it is thinkable, it is prohibitively costly. The latest victim among a long list of victims is the prolific writer and journalist Temesgen Dessalegn (Athenian democracy from 500 years BC diffused into Greece’s neighborly empires –Egypt, Persia and India, but never to our Axumite Kingdom which arose hundreds of years later. Although those other neighbors, other than India, have nothing to show for democracy today, Ethiopia might have – just might have –picked it up. But this is speculative story for another day).
Without public discussion, and an informed citizenry, EPRDF’s democracy has been for the last 2 and half decades an item on display for foreign, mostly Western consumption and view. As to the periodic balloting, suffice it to state the 2010 results where the incumbent got over 99%. It says volumes about the distortion and hurdles genuine democracy is facing in Ethiopia.
It is in light of this that growing inequality in the country affects many millions of lives. Although Ethiopia does not face a serious famine on the level of 1974 or 1985, there are millions of its citizens that are severely undernourished, and it is one of 10 countries in the world with a specter of famine hovering. At least 30 million of Ethiopia’s 90 million people are victims of lack of basic necessities. As Seid Hassan repeatedly showed, upward inflationary trends disproportionately impact the poor. Had it not been for the World Bank’s safety nets project, this number would have been much higher. According to the Bank, since 2005, they have been approving credit to fund Ethiopia’s social productive safety nets project. This has reduced household vulnerability and food insecurity. On the average, about 5-8 million people annually depend on foreign aid.
While this is commendable to reduce mostly rural poverty, the ranks of the poor in Ethiopia seem to be growing.
Papers like the Guardian recite questionable data taken from World Bank and UNICEF (there has been credible evidence that the government cooks these data and recirculates them) about the success of Ethiopia achieving such milestone as reducing child mortality, and expanding health extension programs. However, in another reportage, NPR reporter Amy Walters (August 14, 2014) reports on the dismal condition of the flagship hospital in Addis Abeba, Black Lion Hospital: power blackouts, lack of cleanliness, whole families cramped out under trees, the neonatal unit assigning three to a bed, and shortage of basic supplies.
This is the hospital where the urban poor might be able to get some medical help. The rich and those with capabilities crowd the fancy private clinics and foreign hospitals.
Around the same time, on August 22, 2014, Caroline Knowels, of guardian.com, talks about our citizens making a living on Addis Abeba’s largest landfill called Koshe(see pictures). 200-300 poor people, backs bent and hooks in hand, daily fight for scraps with dogs, goats and birds. The cast-offs of affluence from the Bole area, and food discarded by airline passengers are the prized items. Occasionally, a person hoping to grab the best parts, jumps on the back of the trash truck and gets caught and crushed in the machine’s rubbish crusher.
Of those living a little better life than the “workers” at Koshe, only one in 25 households have access to improved toilet facilities which are not shared with other households. According to the Wash Ethiopia Movement NGO, nine in ten households in Addis Abeba use open pit latrines. At a community toilet shared by 35 households in a typical Addis Abeba neighborhood, the stench rank, they make a lot of users ill with typhoid and diarrhea. The community pays 1,200 birr for waste removal once a month and in some cases charges outsiders 1 birr to use them. In Addis Abeba, only 64% of the people have access to tap water. Only 2% of the population has a sewer connection.
And how do the well-to-do Ethiopians live? Berhanu Nega cites an example in his book “Democracyna Hulentenawi Limat BeEthiopia”(p. 169). He says he had a talk to give at the Sheraton Addis along with other speakers, and at the end of the talk, a businessman he knows invites him for a drink. Berhanu orders a cold, domestic beer, however, his host insists that he would rather have him some other expensive drink, and motions to the bar tender to give Berhanu a glass of “that special drink”. As the bar tender busies himself with the order, Berhanu querries the bar tender what that special drink is. The bar tender reveals that a glass of that cognac costs a mere 1,500 birr! Berhanu refused to order it, and before leaving tells the host that the glass of cognac @1,500 birr is the annual income of an average Ethiopian.
Connoisseurs say that at the Sheraton Addis, there are 22 brands of vodka and 31 brands of scotch. EPRDF’s foreign partners rather than holding the regime accountable for the growing wealth inequality and prodding it to do its level best to narrow the gap, instead prefer to gauge Ethiopia’s progress by the number of newly minted millionaires. According to NW-Wealth.com, between 2007-2013, Ethiopia topped all African countries in the growth percentage of millionaires at 108%. Starting with 1,300 millionaires in 2007, it more than doubled them in 2013 at 2,700. If the trend holds, we will have 3,000 of them this year! While most of them may be connected to the party and it is a milestone for them to celebrate, this is a hollow victory for the 30 million Ethiopians that worry about their next meals. It is not hard to guess that members in this exclusive club include thieves like Towfik Abdullahi, and other high-placed government thieves.
A radical generation has made the maximum sacrifice some 40 years ago to see a just and fair Ethiopia. Instead, under the EPRDF, the reverse journey is accelerating in high gear. What is astounding is the utterances and practice of some of the TPLF people who purportedly fought on behalf of the poor people of Tigrai. TPLF Officialdom of course have mansions and beautiful homes in excluded parts of Makelle and in the Bole area of Addis. Some of them, swelling with ill-gotten wealth and corruption have become contemptuous of the poor folks they are lording over. Andualem Aragei, a prisoner of conscience of the TPLF, relates a story illustrating such hubris in his book, “Yaltehedebet Menged”, (p. 105). In jail, checking his financial standing, and finding that his bank account has little to nothing, they hurled insults at him repeatedly saying “you poor bastard! Son of the wretched poor!”!
What to make of this?
The EPRDF governance has not only left millions of poor people behind, but is manifestly corrupt top to bottom. Ermias Kebede, in his book, YeMeles Tirufatoch”, (p.64), talks about many examples of this pervasive corruption. Suffice it to cite the example of one such corrupt party member. Dr. Towfik Abdullahi’s corruption has no bounds. A Hariri and beneficiary of the corrupt system, the medical doctor has been notoriously falsifying medical records of would be emigrant laborer women to the Middle East. He demanded 1,000 birr each from these poor women for such a medical certificate, and told some of them falsely that they were HIV positive. A few daring women got a second opinion with an honest medical doctor and got a healthy diagnosis and exposed the corrupt malpractice of Towfik whom the system nurtures, and instead of confronting justice, in a second gig, ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the Ethiopian Sports Federation. And what about a colleague of Berhanu Nega when they both were officers at the Ethiopian Economic Association, who confided to Berhanu that he has been offered two positions by the regime to choose, and he is using the criterion of in which agency he can accumulate illegal wealth the fastest. The two governmental agencies were the Anti-Corruption Commission (sic!) and a Councilman position in Addis Abeba municipalty. Yes, the reader guessed it right! He chose the latter (p.192). Gebru Asrat, a one- time TPLF/EPRDF official, in his book, “Li alawinetina Democracy in Ethiopia”, corroborates what Ermias and Berhanu cite about the rampant corruption within the ranks of government officials (p. 195, 201, 204, 322, 362, and 396).
Historically, education has been the creator of a level field ensuring poverty does not trap generation after generation of the poor. In meritocratic societies, with equality of educational opportunity, there is no reason that those born to poor parents should not break the cycle of poverty and change their life chances and status. Although such meritocracy was largely practiced in the West, recent trend lines show that only in the social democratic Nordic European countries this is assured. Other societies are being challenged by the power of money, inheritance and political connections.
We will next see if Ethiopia’s educational system under the EPRDF will contribute towards changing, and reducing the growing inequality in the country.
Declining quality of education adversely impacts more the poor, as those with resources have alternatives at their disposal to improve their life chances by the means of money and connections. To start with, educators tell us that the formative years of 1-5 are very crucial in one’s future educational success. In that regard, experts encourage wise investment in pre-school education and care of children. In Ethiopia, fate (or is it negligent regime?) is from the start against 68 children per 1,000 under the age of 5 as they prematurely die. This is in fact a far better number than the 200 deaths per 1,000 some 20 years ago. This is data EPRDF provided to the lending institutions and the World Health Organization in support of its claim of meeting the Millennium Development Goals of reducing child mortality by 2015. If the data is to be believed, still, the 68 deaths per 1,000 most disproportionately are deaths of children with poor mothers that did not have much to eat during pregnancy, and to get proper health care. Of those lucky enough to live, it is a safe bet to say that at least half of poor children are not going to school for lack of basic needs like food, shelter, and school supplies. This is strike 2 by fate. The small percentage (5% of poor children by some studies), then is faced with poor quality public schools that have little or no resources in contrast to those kids going to private and affluent schools. This is strike 3, and fate is not going to relent as it would pursue these hapless kids into middle and secondary education (where the dropout rate is 50% according to the Ministry of Education), and for those lucky enough to pursue their learning to tertiary level.
A few citizen commentators have written helpful essays on the current crisis in education in the country. The ones I have come across are on web pages inside the country and outside, including by Kal’ayu Abrha, Kidus Yohannes, Samrawit Hiruy, Assefa Belatchew, goolgul.com, and on a Wazema podcast, two educators, Abrham Alemu and Endalkatchew Haile Michael.
Their righteous indignation, fear, and concerns about the shockingly declining quality can be summarized and categorized as enumerated below.
1.The politicization of education: Meles himself opened the floodgates when he said in mid-2000 in the Ethiopian Parliament that his party focuses on one’s loyalty to EPRDF rather than on one’s educational level. This was not idle talk. As the Party’s practice over the last 2 decades have shown, political cadres make decisions in educational office appointments, they get the choice scholarships, and they lord over teachers and professors while being students (to the point of demanding test date changes, grade changes and the like). For these cadres, hard work and study are foreign notions, as they can get what they want, including jobs after “graduation” simply because of their affiliation and connection. This leaves the majority of poor students, who are unable to afford a private or foreign education, to get lower grades than the cadres because they have no influence, and eventually when they graduate to remain jobless, thus forcing their hand to compromise their principles and to reluctantly ally with a branch of the ruling party’s organizations.
2. Discipline: Because the system is so flawed and rigged, there is little incentive to observe school regulations, and law and order. Absenteeism, and only showing up on exam dates, is common, as are school site fighting and cheating.
3. Poor Quality of Education: This is a complex and circular problem. The quality of some teachers, especially those who are zonal university teachers, and to begin with got appointed not because of their undergraduate achievement, but due to “nativism”, and by the Ministry of Education’s decree, do not have to sit and pass a graduate university education exam, in turn go out with a master’s degree and go to schools where the bland lead the bland. This is on top of the worthless degrees that are bought offshore and that pass for qualifying proof of matriculation. Nowhere is this poor quality more manifest in the poor English knowledge of both teachers and students alike. The desire in majoring in math and physics (basic parameters for technology and engineering growth) is tragic. Although the government has a policy of 70/30 to encourage the reach of the education of science, as one of the commentators said “math and science education is feared with the intensity for the fear of AIDS”. As further evidence, Berhanu Nega quotes in his book a study by Forum for Social Studies in 2009, that said only 7.6% of high school students passed the national college entrance exam in 2007, and that number went even down the next year when only 3% passed (p.173).
4. Symbolism: The government seems to be perpetually seeking validation at home and abroad by announcing numbers and numbers only. The case of the over 30 university building is one such kitsch. No one questions about the quality and capacity of these institutions, not least the so-called development partners. They all parrot the “ 4 or so pre-EPRDF universities growing now into over 30” line. This shortchanging quality for quantity is not limited to the number of new universities alone. The regime awards its party affiliates to put workshops and produce posters to evaluate the “condition of education” in Ethiopia and to make recommendations. The never-ending workshops and recommendations have become a money making business to domestic and foreign partners of EPRDF, and thus money and resources that could have been allocated to make real dent in closing the gap between poor and rich, and improve education, is being circularly wasted.
5. Mercantilism in education: At present there is a cottage industry of unregulated neighborhood colleges and universities. They are degree mills. The instructors know not to give D’s and F’s as that would kill their market.
6.The regionalization of education: While the concept of decentralizing education in Ethiopia is excellent, as it will empower regions and provinces to properly manage the education of people in their respective regions, what is going on in EPRDF’s Ethiopia in the name of decentralized education is the raising of a generation that has no knowledge of other parts, cultures and provinces of Ethiopia. One of the goals of education is to contribute to the ideal of a common Ethiopian citizenship by teaching students about the geography, history and common virtues of its citizens. Unfortunately, in EPRDF’s Ethiopia, regions appear to have closed their doors, and looking at Ethiopians in other provinces as “Others”.
7. Lack of Academic Freedom: Centers of higher learning, especially universities, are places for independent thinking and free expression of thought. A university is a place of research and experimentation. If academic freedom is stifled as is the current practice, there is no vibrancy and life, and no new ideas to improve the nation’s future would be forthcoming.
8. No critical thinking in top to bottom education: An educational system afflicted with so many of the problems discussed above cannot be anything but a zombie, rote-learning, and walking dead system. Students want to conform and simply find jobs, rather than critically think and dissent when necessary.
9. Lack of Adequate Infrastructure: This should have been the easiest of the problems for EPRDF to solve. A regime that prides itself in erecting over 30 universities, and one that gets billions in development aid, has not been able to do basic infrastructure maintenance of some school facilities. Tables and desks are breaking in most schools; paint peeling off walls, there is a shortage of text books, live electrical wires in some schools are open posing danger; there are no working generators as substitutes for the frequent power outages; and there is no reliable internet service for teachers and students to reliably do studies and research.
In conclusion, there are a number of actions the so-called developmental state could take to improve the condition of the undernourished. Setting aside the fundamental issues of human rights, and opening up the democratic space, the regime could take narrowly focused economic actions. For one, it could listen to the counsel of the majority of citizens and attempt legally to get the port of Asseb. Millions of our citizens believe Asseb is rightly ours. That way, the port fee the government has been paying to Djibouti, according to Getachew Begashaw and others, to the tune of $745 million annually – breaking down to $4.03 per person per day for every Djiboutian, would rather be spent at home in poverty reduction. Two, the regime could vigorously, and not half-heartedly and motivated by politics, as it does now, prosecute corruption cases and stop the billions of dollars leaving the country, thus saving money that could have otherwise been spent on improving education and poverty reduction.
Who in their right minds would think that the children of Koshe residents would break the cycle of poverty and that they themselves would not continue to live off Koshe as their parents now do? Not while EPRDF stays in power, or stays on its current misguided course.
Fighting for narrowing the gap between rich and poor, and reducing the growing inequality in Ethiopia is a noble cause. The problem cuts across all ethnic groups, religions, and gender differences. It is an Ethiopian issue that must bring all Ethiopians of good will together in a socially just cause.