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The Contradiction between Good Governance and the Developmental State in Ethiopia

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                              March 21, 2016

Good governance has now become the vogue, if not the primary policy agenda of developing countries around the world that seek aid from international financial institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The concept was launched during the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a major UN agenda initiated at the turn of the 21st century, a program of action to be achieved between 2000 and 2015, but most of the developing nations were unable to realize the MDG.

The concept of good governance, however, has no clear-cut definition or proximate explanation, and as a result various UN agencies and IFIs have come up with their distinct criteria as a precondition to good governance and to monitor their funding to the recipient countries. Hence, the definition-cum-criteria of good governance ranges from sufficient provision of goods and services to the conduct of public institutions; to decision-making process to democracy in general, and to fundamental rights of citizens and their unfettered and undeterred participation in political affairs.

Nevertheless, irrespective of the lack of general consensus in the definition of good governance, some observers welcomed the world institutions criteria and preconditions while others view them as sinister motives of the IFIs. William Easterly, for instance, argues that “the World Bank can hardly avoid some discussion of the nature of government in development, and they have been preparing reports on this topic – what they have vaguely called governance for years now” and he believes that concepts like liberty, freedom, equality, rights, and democracy are omitted in the World Bank report. Moreover, he says, “they play little or no role” in what the Bank calls “strengthened approach to governance.” Furthermore, Easterly tells us what the Bank told him as follows: “the World Bank Press Office explained to this author that the World Bank is legally not allowed by its own charter to use the word democracy.”1    

Based on Easterly’s rationale and empirical findings, thus, one can safely assume that the preconditions for good governance laid out by the World Bank and other global institutions are not sincerely designed to help promote democracy in the developing countries. In other words, democracy is irrelevant to good governance and from this premise we can infer the hollowness of good governance that we have been observing over the years in the so-called Third World countries. Out of this inference, in turn, arises a fundamental question: How can governance be good without democracy, unless we are hoodwinked by the impressive development agendas and the provision of goods and services by autocratic regimes.

Ultimately, we might come up with a model that could help us dispel some misconceptions with respect to good governance and thereby detect the flawed pieces of puzzle associated with superficial and technical approach to a refined policy on development. The model also can help us polish strategies for development by first avoiding glib definitions of good governance. Before we can resolve the intricacies of good governance, however, I like to make it crystal clear that democracy is central to effective and viable good governance.

In my book, ETHIOPIA: Democracy, Devolution of Power, & the Developmental State, I have dedicated the first seven chapters and the last chapter of the book to democracy. I have also critically examined the contradiction between good governance and the developmental state (DS). In most instances, and in the context of the Ethiopian society, I viewed good governance (with a substantial corpus of democracy) and the DS as polar opposites.

To begin with, the Ethiopian DS is bedeviled not only by lack of democracy but it is also bewitched by incessant and engrained corruption. “Thus, the primary task of the Ethiopian state should be to cleanse itself from the current endemic corruption, and this would require a reform to restructure the state apparatus by appointing talented professionals free of corruption, or a revolution that can completely unseat the status quo and lay the groundwork for the developmental state.”2 Additionally, “in order to have a genuine developmental state, the Ethiopian state must either operate democratically or found democratic institutions that could serve as catalysts in the development march.”3

Unless the Ethiopian state undertakes purgatory measures, bad governance could effectively derail or reverse the DS agenda of transformation; and the self-fulfilling prophecy of the DS may not be realized if bad governance, infested with corruption, serves as stumbling block. A DS enmeshed in a pool of bad governance is fraught with drawbacks and neither institutional pretensions nor brilliant paper policies or promises could deter the corrupt Ethiopian bureaucrats.

Corruption and bad governance could actually have a negative impact on the larger society in general and a disempowering function to respective government departments. Emasculated government bodies are unforeseen bonus to corrupt officials and in order to promote their selfish interests, the authorities presiding over ministries and other government agencies deliberately slow down or sabotage the democratic process. Why are these officials terrified by democracy? The answer is simple: Democracy entails rule of law, transparency, and accountability and this kind of system exposes the corrupt officials to the public. On the contrary, in the absence of democracy, the self-promoting bureaucrats can override rules and regulations that could potentially deter their “mafia-type” operation; and the government could either be paralyzed or exhibit a shadowy existence.

I very well understand that it is not easy to completely eradicate corruption, a social disease that is universal and not unique to Ethiopia. During the pre-election debates of 2015, Abay Tsehaye, one of the EPRDF top leaders, who was a member of the panel at Addis Ababa University, candidly told the audience that it is very difficult to control and not easy to deal with corruption. I may not be in full accord with Ato Abay but I kind agree with his contention, but I also believe that corruption can be contained and minimized if the EPRDF leaders take bold measures.

I believe Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was trying to delineate the contradiction between good governance and the DS in a recent EPRDF leaders meeting, when he forcefully asserted that there is so much talk about good governance, but ‘after such kind of meeting’ says the PM, ‘all we do is go our own ways and promote our individual networking.’ By that, he means, I gather, the officials are interested in promoting their interests rather than the interests of the people and the mission and objectives of the Ethiopian DS.

In point of fact, in a televised broadcast (Friday, March 18, 2016), Prime Minister Hailemariam acknowledged that good governance has now become the agenda of the people and the people themselves are talking about it. Furthermore, he said, “Although the government has conducted its own research pertaining to good governance, its research is based on the peoples demand and aspirations” (translation modified by me).

Town meetings on good governance have been taking place in the last three to four years in all major Ethiopian cities and towns, and now it is intensified at the level of the regional states; it is a very encouraging political scenario, but as stated earlier, unless structural change takes place, the public discourse could end up in ordinary chattering platforms where people vent their anger only.

The stalemate between good governance and the DS ultimately could result in what I like to call ‘creative stagnation’; the latter could sound contradiction in terms and it is true, because what we will witness in the end is sweet talks about good governance while the DS, tainted with innovation in development programs, encounters a snail progress, if not faces deferment of its variegated agendas. On the other hand, if the Government implements the requisite elements of good governance, then the DS would quickly meet its goals and transform the Ethiopian society for the better.

In the final analysis, what we need to do is come up with a political economy analysis of good governance in the context of ‘who governs’? If the government is democratic (or at least exhibits propensity toward democratic practices), and the country has democratic institutions (or some modicum democratic political culture), good governance could nestle on relatively conducive platform. If, on the other hand, the country is devoid of democracy, and has no robust constitution, open political debates, and an independent judiciary, good governance simply becomes out of question. It is for this apparent reason that I like to argue that we must evaluate the nature and characteristics of a given political system before we venture analyzing and critiquing good governance. For instance, we should recognize that corruption is a manifestation of bad governance and the latter, in turn, is a reflection of either a weak political system or a relatively backward political culture coupled by low-level economic development. In this essay, however, we are interested in examining elements that, in one form or another, affect good governance.

Professor Naveed Ahmed discusses good governance in the context of rule of law and argues that “the menace of corruption and absence of rule of law exacerbate impoverishment” and he essentially examines the attributes of good governance that many scholars have entertained thus far, but what makes his approach unique is that he identifies the media as the fourth branch of government in his native Pakistan. “The media exposes,” says Naveed, “the corrupt practices and inappropriate conduct of officials…the media plays important role in enlightening the public and holding government accountable.”4              

The media in Pakistan could probably expose corrupt practices and enlighten the people; after all, according to Professor Ahmed’s findings, there are over 70 TV channels in Pakistan, and it is possible that some of these media outlets are independent and could play a positive role in the fight against corruption, but this reality does not exist in Ethiopia. To begin with, Ethiopia is not blessed with multitude of TV and radio channels like Pakistan (it is quite impressive that this poor nation has over 70 TV channels), and the only one of its kind is the government-owned Ethiopian Broadcast Corporation (EBC). In the last two decades, of course, some media outlets like Ethiopian Broadcasting System (EBS), Ethiopian Reporter, and some FM radio channels have mushroomed in Ethiopia, but they are far from engaging in politics and exposing corrupt officials, let alone hold the government accountable.

One other issue that we must be clear on is that some DS countries (e.g. The Tigers and China) have transformed their respective societies without democracy. But in the end, even these countries were compelled by historical circumstances and global reality to gravitate toward democracy. The Republic of Korea and China, thus, adopted democracy and market economy respectively without relinquishing the mission and diminishing the role of the DS, and by doing so they have gradually and steadily moved from a dictatorial political system to relative good governance with relative transparency and accountability. These countries, however, have yet to overcome corruption; in fact, President Xi Jin Ping of China has recently launched massive anti corruption campaign directed first against high-level government officials, and now spread to the countryside to crackdown low-ranking authorities.

If we focus on good governance vis-à-vis international assistance, it would be advisable to follow Professor Asayhengn Desta’s proposal: “If Ethiopia is to accept Western assistance, it needs to examine critically the Western capitalist economic theories, because they were developed for a different social order. Ethiopian policymakers need to modify the ‘one size fits all’ in order to adapt and use only the most relevant aspects for Ethiopian culture and its way of living.”5   

My proposal, as already indicated above, goes beyond good governance-aid nexus and focuses rather on structural change within the Ethiopian state and overall reconciliation between democracy and the DS. By way of conclusion and in an effort to formulate a sound and viable good governance policy, I will reiterate the significance of reconciliation that I have analyzed in one of my works:

Reconciliation within the larger Ethiopian society is predicated on democratic governance, and in this regard the DS must first democratize itself, and that is the only way it could strengthen democracy within the larger Ethiopian society. In the final analysis, thus, the Ethiopian state would shoulder two significant roles, among many others: 1) state-driven economy and 2) participatory democracy. The state plays a central role in realizing the two criteria mentioned above, although the state must encourage the private sector in playing a role especially in fostering resources and augmenting economic growth. The reason I want the DS to play a major role is reasonably justified because as Steven Friedman convincingly argues, ‘[the] civil society has no meaning unless it is conceived of in relation to the state; to talk of a viable and effective civil society in the absence of an equivalent state is a contradiction, for it is the state that provides and enforces the legal framework from which the association of civil society derive their freedom to associate and that arbitrates the competing claims within civil society and it is from  engagement with the state that civil society derives its rationale.6

The engagement of the Ethiopian civil society with the government is now channeled via the ongoing town meetings on good governance, but we have to wait and see how far this grassroots movement is going to go. Again, if the government seizes the moment and exhibits a forward moving mission, and most importantly priority is given to democratic governance, then Ethiopia will witness full-fledged good governance. The latter is not a gift to be delivered to the people; the Ethiopian people should earn it via democracy, a system that can altogether empower them and give them assurance of a sane political order that governs with justice, freedom, liberty, and equality; reduces poverty and eliminates famine once and for all. In its very broad context, that is what good governance should be.


1.    William Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor, Basic Books, New York, 2013, p. 7

2.    Ghelawdewos Araia, Democracy, Devolution f Power, & the Developmental State, Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2013, p. 137

3.    G. Araia, Ibid, p. 138

4.    Naveed Ahemd, “Rule of Law and Good Governance: A Critical Examination of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”, pp. 10-11; p. 20

5.    Asayhegn Desta, “Modifying the ‘One Fits All Size’ Good Governance Agenda of Ethiopia”, www.africanidea.org/Modifying_good_goverance_fits.html

6.    G. Araia, op cit, p. 226

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2016. For educational and constructive feedback, please contact Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia via dr.garaia@africanidea.org