Dambisa Moyo redux: is Ethiopia’s governance model mimicking China’s?

Since the rise of development economics in the 1960s, the prevailing discourse around development has maintained that liberal democracies tend to grow faster than centralized, authoritarian societies (and this, in turn, is an echo of Max Weber’s then-revolutionary thinking). So, if you want development, focus on giving people freedom: they will use their political rights to start companies, whip their leaders into serving the collective interest and so on. Result: fully developed economies.

This approach has recently become the target of piercing criticism by Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo. This model is failing, she says: economic activity seems rather to flourish on the back of economic stability and infrastructure provision. In an already sufficiently developed economy you might think of market forces providing infrastructure (well, that’s the theory – don’t get me started here); but when development needs yet to be bootstrapped – and in a context of low literacy and low standards of education – such provision needs to rely on some central authority – a government. What kind of government? A pragmatic, technocratic one, made up of engineers and scientists rather then lawyers and journalists. One that emphasizes “getting the job done” rather than rules and processes, and economic rights over political rights. In one sentence: China’s government. And sure enough, China’s achievements in fighting poverty are astonishing: this one country has single-handedly lifted some 300 million people out of poverty over the last decade. I recommend you watch the video above in its entirety – especially if you are a Westerner, like me and like most readers of this blog.

I am just back from Ethiopia. It is one of the poorest countries in the world (per capita income: 570$), and it has a fairly poor human rights record. And yet, everywhere we went we perceived a fairly upbeat mood. With robust growth (double-digit in 2013, 8% in 2014), a booming tourism industry and an expanding middle class, many Ethiopians see their lives improving year after year. Crime rates are very low, and the streets safe. Many tribes and religions live together in peace, and Ethiopians seem to think this is a more or less permanent arrangement. With concern to human rights, the mood seem to be ambivalent: while people do not expect much change from the upcoming elections, they seem to be completely unafraid to discuss politics and criticize their leaders.

More than that: many are ready to give their government their due: the Ethiopian government has had the vision to embark in large-scale infrastructural project. Three were most cited to me: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the  Blue Nile; the new regional road network, connecting the country’s main cities across different regions (since regions were designed along linguistic/ethnic lines, this means “bringing Ethiopia’s tribes closer together”); and the new rail network, consisting of a planned national long-distance network, of the Addis Ababa light rail network (under construction – testing began the day after we left Ethiopia),  and of the Dire Dawa-Djibouti line (already in operation; construction work to prolong it to Addis is underway, with the first Addis-Djibouti run to take place in September 2015). These projects, and many more, were carefully planned and are available for public review in a document called the Growth and Transformation Plan (yes, it’s a 5-year plan).

Many Ethiopians take pride in the achievements of their country, and they seem to think yes, in principle you could fight to get different people in power, but why trouble? This crowd seems to be doing a competent job – whatever their ideology, they are quite good at technocracy and pragmatism – and by not having to get involved in politics we can concentrate on improving our own lives. This is similar to the mood I perceived in previous visits to China; another similarity with the Chinese leadership is the background of  Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, by training a civil engineer who studied and taught in Finland and the USA.

So, I guess, score one for Dambisa Moyo. I am afraid that, if Western countries want to inspire Africans with its style of governance, they will have to do a better job of tangibly improving life for their people.

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4 pensieri su “Dambisa Moyo redux: is Ethiopia’s governance model mimicking China’s?

  1. cavs

    Great article. However Ethiopia or China democracy can not be used as the baseline upon which impoverished countries can use to benchmark how much freedoms their citizens can have. Some of these governments are corrupt and zero development is being realized. So if you deny your people development, let them have freedom.I think. Enjoyed reading this.

    1. Alberto Autore articolo

      Well, cavs, this is really not my decision to make. I am simply observing how things seem to go and decisions seem to be made in these countries.

  2. paul

    Authoritarian forms of government might be just as good if not better than liberal democracies in promoting financial stability. But such goals are not the only measure of a free and stable society. Liberal democracies provide a more informed environment for policy decisions. Cabinets and parliaments are exposed to many competing views. In authoritarian systems there is an understandable desire not to be the bearer of bad tidings to the leadership. Space for a reasoned public debate is thus a key mechanism
    through which democracies usually achieve better outcomes than authoritarian regimes which usually rely on a mix of fear, successful economic performance or subsidies to the poor for legitimacy. When economic problems arise, popular support for the regime can quickly fade. Without the release valve provided by democracy, autocracies, from Russia to Iran, are forced to quell unrest with increasingly heavy-handed tactics, often making the survival of the regime ever more precarious.


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