Ethiopia is a fascinating, country-sized petri dish that reveals what happens to a society and its people as a nation moves from backwardness to modernity. When I first visited Addis Ababa in 2000, I sipped beers in corrugated iron-roofed shacks as seasonal rains turned surrounding dirt tracks into quagmires. Now the city has a giant Chinese-built asphalt ring road and a flashy railway sleekly running to the Horn of Africa coast. Swanky high-rise hotels are appearing above shops selling cupcakes.
Compared to the fiasco of international assistance in neighbouring Somalia, Ethiopia is held up as a heartening example of a national government and overseas partners succeeding in reducing poverty and mortality rates. Hence Ethiopia is a development darling for many. But – and I’m sorry to be a party-pooper – elements of this transformation leave me dejected and concerned for the future of a place and people that previously always entranced me.
“The mere fact of emerging from economic backwardness, though positive in itself, does not resolve the complex issues of human advancement,” wrote Benedict XVI in his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. His words have been borne out by ongoing protests in Ethiopia. The government is facing unrest even though it has the most impressive economic record in Ethiopia’s history. The reasons for the protests are complex and varied. They include land grabs, a lack of political representation, and violations of human rights and civil liberties. But for many Ethiopians I have spoken to it boils down to them not being able to lead a fulfilling life.
“The government says that freedom is food, but that isn’t freedom. Food without freedom is pointless,” says Henok, a student nurse in Gondar, a city that has been a hotbed of discontent. “And we are not bothered about new infrastructure. We care about the system that affects our lives, and what our children will have.”
Benedict XVI wrote of the “damage that superdevelopment causes to authentic development when it is accompanied by moral underdevelopment”. To my eyes, many urban Ethiopians, certainly in Addis Ababa, seem in thrall to the “worship of material luxury and wealth” that philosopher William James observed in Western societies in the early 20th century.
Thus, I must confess that I prefer those Ethiopians who are poor and God-fearing. I don’t mean I’d like them to stay poor and cowed before religious authority. Rather, the ones that I like invariably seem to be both poor and to embrace religion (Christianity or Islam). They are the most charming and magnanimous, bursting with a good cheer that is increasingly disappearing in swathes of Western society (and now from the increasingly sour-faced new Ethiopian middle class).
Foreign aid and NGOs have played a problematic role in the creation of modern Ethiopia. They have created a dependency syndrome that drains the ability and will of many Ethiopians to tackle problems themselves rather than relying on hand-outs. Even leaving aside recent controversies such as Oxfam’s sexual misconduct scandal in Haiti, NGOs often haven’t set an ennobling example. Their workers and consultants earn astonishing salaries, jet off for weekend jaunts in Nairobi and Cape Town, live in palatial compounds and party non-stop. Added to which, their careers depend on Ethiopia continuing to have the problems they are there to “solve”. The whole edifice appears increasingly weird and flawed the more I encounter it.
“I don’t like NGOs,” says an Ethiopian who actually works for one that pays him an excellent salary. “If it was up to me they would all leave the country. There would be an increase in deaths for a few years but then we would be forced to sort things out ourselves and the country would be better.”
I’m not sure I’d go that far. But I have been told about, and witnessed, how charity and philanthropy between Ethiopians barely feature in the national psyche beyond helping the extended family. If foreign organisations will pay up, why reach into your own pockets?
Friends, family and acquaintances often ask me what is so great about Ethiopia. One thing I’ve never explained, but which strikes me now, is how living within Ethiopia’s less advanced society has a wonderful way of making you more conscious of how human we all are, of what being human really entails.
“We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealisation of poverty could have meant,” wrote William James. “The liberation of material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paying our way by what we are or do and not by what we have, the right to fling away our life at any moment irresponsibly – the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape.”
I’ve learnt some of that thanks to living there, but the lesson seems ever less applicable to modern Ethiopia.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist