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Reflections on ‘African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings’

                                       Ghelawdewos Araia


The objective of this article is to critically examine the overall thesis of Meles Zenawi’s paradigm shift with respect to African development. It is, in effect, an overview of the theme under discussion and the tenets and points of view incorporated in the preliminary draft presented by Meles Zenawi (henceforth MZ), the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

From the outset, however, I like to warn readers not to impregnate a misconception of the oneness of political proclivity (or ideological faith) and personal theoretical observation. As far as I am concerned I like to delineate (and cautiously de-link) what Meles has stood for so far – irrespective of his future commitment – and what he presented to the public now. I am interested in the latter, and it is in this spirit that I like to critique African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings. It is difficult to try to dissociate ones political devotion (especially for a head of a state) and his relatively scholarly thesis or presentation of an historical account. But if one can read and critique My Life and the Progress of Ethiopia without bias to Emperor Haile Slassie (the author of the title), one can definitely read MZ’s ‘Dead Ends and New Beginnings.’ Reinforcing my argument further, I like to simply state, if we want to learn anything, we must pay attention to the information to be learned irrespective of who provides it.

I have no doubt that most Ethiopians have burning curiosity why MZ came up with a comprehensive development analysis at this point in time. I too share this curiosity. However, I like to step a little ahead and catalytically catapult the ‘forbidden knowledge’ into a permissible curiosity. Whatever is produced and whoever delivers it must be evaluated in the context of a permissible knowledge. Let me, therefore, dissect and thematically highlight MZ’s thesis.

The leitmotif of MZ’s thesis is paradigm shift from neo-liberal to a ‘democratic developmental state.’ His work, by and large, favors government intervention in the economy and the prioritization of rural development. In the first part of Chapter I, thus, he argues, “government created rent does not necessarily have to be socially wasteful. It becomes wasteful only if solely self-interested maximizing individuals use it to create wealth at the expense of society and only if the state is incapable of improving on the market – i.e. there are no market failures.” Well said, but there is a problem in terms of what currently plagues the African state.

Out of the 53 African countries, it is believed that only 15 are relatively democratic and less corrupt. Actually, the “self-interest maximizing individuals” have virtually strangled the public purse and, thus, the preponderance of the predatory state in Africa is not surprising. It has to be clear, however, that the “self-interested individual” that catapulted the capitalist development in Europe is markedly different from the self-interested corrupt African officials. The former was essentially progressive (in light of overall historical development) while the latter is inherently regressive and anti-development.

It does not really matter whether the wealth makers, the early harbingers of capitalist development, or the kleptomania of the African state are few in number. After all, in most instances, history has been influenced and shaped by few individuals. Hence the Pareto Principle, aka the 80-20 rule or the law of the vital few or the principle of factor sparsity, is whereby 80% of the consequences are fashioned by 20% of the causes. Therefore, the rule-of-thumb application determines the fate of a given political economy in spite of the laudatory proclamation of democracy (government by the people).

MZ has attempted to reconcile the dual nature of self-interested individuals by stating, “only individuals with a blend of self-interested and non self-interested behavior can create a night watch man state, and such people are equally capable of creating a state which intervenes in the economy in the larger interest of society.”

I don’t see any problem with the above utilitarian sounding argument. In a nutshell, a watchman state can be forged in Africa, but the question remains how and when? Is there any fertile ground for the formation of such state, especially if examined in light of domestic fragility and global cynicism?

In Chapter 2.5, the author stipulates “technological capability accumulation as central to developing countries as it is to developed countries.” But he also acknowledges that “the neo-liberal assumption of efficient competitive markets has no basis in fact or in theory” vis-à-vis accelerated economic growth. Again, this is a correct argument. However, beyond the limitations of the neo-liberal paradigm, we must also seriously consider the impact of incidents such as terrorism on technological transfer towards Africa. The incidence engendered as a result of terrorism could be debatable, but corroborating this grim scenario, Sidney Morse indicates, “most experts believe the drop of capital flows like FDI are tied to the bust in technology sector world wide.”1  Additionally, the use of information technology must be complemented by a sustained flow of big data. That is a plus but not adequate by itself. The political leadership must have a quality of doggedness, endurance, and perseverance in the effective implementation of appropriate technology.

In Chapter 4, the author argues that ‘agriculture is the engine of growth’ and taken in a historical context, this line of reasoning is indisputable. He further extrapolates that “equity accelerates the adoption and diffusion of agricultural technology. Equity plays a vital role in the establishment and strengthening of market support and other rural organizations and institutions. Equity enhances the linkage between agriculture and non-agriculture and increases the multiplier effect of agricultural growth on the growth of non-agricultural and structural transformation. Equity facilitates the accumulation of social capital which in turn plays a critical role in accelerating development.” I cannot agree more! Distributive justice is indeed vital to development if the latter is perceived as social welfare and not simply as economic growth. But, how is equity applied, implemented and sustained? Where will the huge finance come from to garner (subsidize) the effective utilization of equity? The government policy-planning spectrum should seriously consider such grand agenda as equity! Otherwise, the talk on equity and other justice-related concepts will only prove a watered-down version of our engagement or remain spectacularly implausible as to lack of their credibility. 

Before the discussion on equity, however, the author clearly puts the failure of the neo-liberal paradigm as is egregiously felt in agriculture, and countries that followed such a paradigm are “mired in poverty traps.”

We have known all along that development-oriented institutions have fostered glib definitions or superficial techniques in relation to poverty reduction. If Ethiopia indeed is going to overcome poverty once and for all and eliminate famine for good, it should meet the challenges of agricultural globalization whereby new agricultural countries (NAC) have been made to specialize only in exporting “labor-intensive and off-season exotic fruits (bananas, pineapples) vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers) and fresh cut flowers (roses, lilies)”2     for the industrialized world market.

In Chapter 6 and under 6.3, in regards to the developmental state, MZ argues “…behavior does not depend on the size of the state on the degree of its activism in economic matters but on the nature of the state…” There is no doubt that the nature of the state is of prime significance, but size also is equally important. For instance, country x endowed with natural resources and visionary leadership is better off than country y with strategic minerals and bad leadership. Lets assume that x and y are of the same size. Another hypothetical country z that enjoys the same blessings as country x happens to be tiny and thus plays a secondary, if not insignificant role in regional and world history. Georgia will not exhibit significant clout in international affairs as Russia would; same logic applies to Vietnam/China and/or Togo/Nigeria. Ethiopia is a big country in the Horn of Africa and it could play a significant role in regional and continental politics. It must reckon with its potential!

In the same chapter, MZ argues, “development is a political process first and economic and social process later.” This is a clear departure from the neo-Marxian thesis of economic determinism, and by design or by default it happens to be plausible. I myself have entertained the primacy of politics in development in many of my previous writings. The Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca is credited with developing the primacy of politics in society, or more specifically with developing the theory of elitism or the political class.  Mosca actually anticipated a universal theory of political society. For Mosca, elites are not hereditary and with this reality in mind, he foresaw a ‘circulation of elites’ in a given political party or a governing entity. He further argued that the circulation is manifested in a dialectical theory of constant competition between elites, with one elite group replacing repeatedly over time.

The Mosca phenomenon is clearly lacking in Ethiopia as is conspicuously absent in most African nations. How is it possible, thus, MZ’s developmental state would meaningfully realize its agenda in the absence of a democratically circulating elite? Unless MZ and his close associates are ready to revamp and overhaul the Ethiopian state, there is no way a developmental state could be realized.

MZ argues that ‘historical practice have shown that state intervention has been critical in the development process. Economic theory has shown that developing countries are riddled with vicious circles and poverty traps that can only be removed by state action.’  In Africa in the Global Economy, I have thoroughly examined the role of the state in African development and indicated that even world institutions like the World Bank have acknowledged the positive role states can play in development.3

In Chapter 7, the author discusses the importance of democracy with reference to the experience of Northern Italy and he makes the following factual and interesting remarks: “In the North there is a very dense network of civic organizations of all types and an individual is usually a member of a number of them at the same time. Such networks are horizontal and based on mutuality. People actively participate in public affairs. There is a large measure of trust. People assume and expect that the law will be obeyed by everyone.  People including politicians are relatively honest. Politicians and the people value equity and tend to seek mutually beneficial solutions, they do not take politics as a zero-sum game.” 

How is Mr. Zenawi going to reconcile the virtual absence of democracy in Africa with the rich democratic culture in northern Italy? Moreover, the Ethiopian political landscape of the last fifteen years have not witnessed a climate of democracy and tolerance, and unless MZ is anticipating a democratic Ethiopia of the future and his associates and himself are ready to lay the cornerstone for such a future, zero-sum politics will continue unabated in Ethiopian political culture.

In fact, MZ himself argues, “it is therefore the developmental state that will have to prepare the ground and accelerate development at the same time.” But, again, do we have the requisite elements in Ethiopia for such groundwork? As far as I am concerned and as I have indicated in one of my works entitled Humanizing the Ethiopian Political Culture4, the Ethiopian phenomenon clearly demonstrates that our rationality is bounded and our adaptability limited. Put otherwise, there is no fertile or conducive groundwork for launching the developmental state. Although I may welcome the rationality of MZ and similar thoughts must be encouraged as standard operating procedure, we must recognize that we need to decidedly engage ourselves practically to foster democracy in Ethiopia. This may sound abstract and impractical but I have attempted to clarify the notions, elements and characteristics of democracy in many related articles that I wrote in the past.5     

As I have indicated earlier, the main thrust of MZ’s work is rural development. He says, “we have argued that widespread and relatively equitable ownership of assets is a requirement for accelerated development. It is clear [that] accelerated agricultural development will have to include commercialization, it cannot be based on sustaining subsistence farming.” That is a fair and just statement, but more specifically what will happen to poor farmers in due course? Will the developmental state salvage the poor peasant from poverty through subsidy of provisions or wittingly let them disappear gradually? It is quite apparent that commercialization of agriculture entails relatively robust mechanized agriculture that would effectively brush aside poor farmers that are bound in their primordial small plots of land. The poor farmers could be the ‘unfortunate class in history’ unless the developmental state seriously considers their fate. On the other hand, unless the peasants are made partners to commerce agriculture (graduating from their abject poverty to a new hybrid of wealth creating middle class farmers!), the entire edifice of the developmental state could be a romantic enterprise.

At the end of Chapter 7.4, MZ again entertains the justification for the formation of the developmental state. Very much like Gaetano Mosca, he argues that ‘policy stability and continuity could be achieved even when parties regularly replace each other in governing the country,’ but he also tells us that ‘such a situation is very unlikely to emerge in a developing country. He further argues, “The most likely scenario for a state that is both democratic and developmental to emerge is in the form of dominant party or dominant coalition democracy.”

I personally am opposed to a ‘dominant party’ theory and am in favor of a ‘dominant (preferably, ‘strong’) coalition democracy.’ ‘Dominant’ insinuates dictatorship; ‘strong’ implies a solid foundation for a coalition that is inclusive and ready to launch a broader democracy. Moreover, as I have discussed in Political Culture in the Context of Contemporary Ethiopian Politics, “the best solution…does not lie with extremes; it lies in the middle of the continuum where political rivals enter a covenant for a greater good of the nation. In effect, they compromise a deal in order to fashion a comprehensive, yet accommodating national agenda that, in turn, secures cooperation, transformation, and stability.”6  

The Asian Tigers as effective interventionist states, and of course their success stories, are discussed in Chapter 9 through Chapter 13. Their ‘miracle’ success especially in agriculture is emphasized. Whether Ethiopia and other African nations can emulate the Tigers remains to be seen, but we must also underscore the unique historical circumstances that enabled the Tigers to succeed.

In Chapter 14 MZ discusses ‘the genesis and crisis of the predatory state in Africa,’ and this is a fine expose of the marginality and disadvantaged status of Africa. Due to European hegemony, African marginality and subsequent distortion of African history by the colonialists, the world got the impression that Africa was a recipient and not a giver of civilization. That this was not the case was thoroughly discussed in my article entitled Modernism, Post Modernism and Afrocentrism: Meanings forEthiopia.7  

In 17.1, agriculture under economic reform is discussed and more so the necessity of agricultural technology is emphasized and the failure of the neo-liberal paradigm is re-emphasized in this respect. When it comes to financing the agricultural projects of the developmental state, we are confronted by African marginality and conundrum of globalization. Unless adequate finance is secured for rural/agricultural development, it is impossible to even witness the initial stage or kick-start in agriculture.

In 17.3, not to my chagrin but to my pleasant surprise, MZ said the following: “Unless a country has sufficient infrastructure, an educated and healthy work force, world-class managers and professionals and well functioning support institutions, it is unlikely to attract much FDI.”

In the last fifteen years, I have argued all along that the EPRDF government needs to attract Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals and utilize their expertise and talent. So far, I have not witnessed the use of Ethiopian professionals en masse for nation building, notwithstanding the few and far in between favored officials that hold ministerial positions and other portfolios. If the Meles regime is indeed in favor of ‘educated and healthy workforce, world-class managers and professionals,’ it should openly extend its hands to all Ethiopians, especially those who are scattered all over in the Diaspora. Irrespective of our differences and political inclinations, I personally like the government of Ethiopia to reach out fellow Ethiopians who are willing to contribute for the transformation of their country and the welfare of their people. I am making this kind of clarion call not for my own selfish interest, but for the sake of my beloved motherland.

To be sure, the unexploited experience of Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals potential is tremendous, and if the Meles developmental state is going to bear fruit and meaningfully uplift Ethiopia, its agenda should be grasped not only conceptually but also at a gut level emotionally.

In 21.2, the author expounds ‘the possibilities for the success of the democratic developmentalist paradigm.’ In this Chapter, one argument that made uncomfortable, but sounds logical nonetheless, is the following: “if developmental states are to emerge in Africa they will emerge and succeed not only because the neo-liberal paradigm has visibly failed but also because the global environment and the domestic environment are permissive of such a development, if not conducive to it.”

Firstly, MZ does not substantiate the permissiveness of the global and domestic environment; secondly, I am of the opinion that neither the Ethiopian domestic environment nor the global climate is favorable yet for the take-off of the developmental state. My argument is based on two factual realities: 1) as I have indicated in many of my writings, Ethiopians as a whole were unable to liberate themselves from quid pro quo politics; they were unable to make a transition from feudal bravado to a bold democratic platform (such as dialogue, peaceful coexistence, and negotiated settlements of disputes). For this cultural predicament, the government, civic leaders, opposition parties, and Ethiopian intellectuals are responsible; 2) globalization has yet to prove that it is indeed meant to benefit African economies. It may have created some economic opportunities and new vistas in development agendas, but it has also served as a remote control for somewhat invisible corporations (without accountability) against African interests. There is no doubt that Africa was better off during the Cold War era than during the colonial period; it could have been better off now compared to the Cold War times. But the “permissive attitude of the major powers” is untenable and unpalatable to me insofar the lingering cynicism and bias against Africa continues.

Interestingly, although MZ sounds optimist in his argument of permissive environment he seems to share my own stance when he states, “the external environment is, however, not rosy from the point of view of democratic develpmentalism.”

Another interesting argument that MZ brought forth and that reflects the current Ethiopian reality is the following: “there are vested interests who benefit from the current dysfunctional system that are likely to vigorously oppose the new paradigm. The rent-seeking business, the “ethnic entrepreneurs” who have used ethnicity as a means of accessing state power and accumulating personal wealth, many of the domestic “NGO and VO entrepreneurs” who have used domestic NGOs and voluntary organizations as instruments of patronage and personal welfare, if not wealth accumulation, are likely to at least initially vigorously oppose the democratic develeopmentalist paradigm.”

If MZ is thinking about his own Ethiopia and its problems and is ready to use the broom at his disposal to clean the mess, that would be a step in the right direction. If the concept of the ‘vested interest’ is conjured metaphorically, however, the realization of a developmental state could be remotely conceptualized and not implemented practically.

Chapter 21.3 is about ‘steps in the direction of the African Renaissance.’ The author states that ‘developmental states come in all shapes and sizes and therefore there cannot be a single blue print for all democratic developmentalist states in Africa.” This is absolutely right. To begin with, Africa is highly diverse in terms of size, culture and historical experience. This reality apparently presupposes that Africa as a whole should not be compared to the Asian Tigers. Moreover, the blue print of the developmentalist state should first be experimented at individual countries level or at regional level (like ECOWAS or SADC).

Under the same sub-chapter, the author tells us, “in the end leadership is bound to play a critical role…” to realize the developmental state agenda in Africa. In relation to leadership, we must reckon with the hard fact that quality leadership seriously matters. By quality leadership, I don’t mean that all leaders in the government be erudite and intellectual, but I strongly believe that a visionary, committed, and patriotic leadership is prerequisite to the effective implementation of the developmentalist state. Incidentally, MZ has been emphatic on the problem of ethnic-based political patronage through much of the body of the text of his work. However, like most African nations Ethiopia suffers from political patronage and unmistakably from ethnic-based politics. It is for this apparent reason, therefore, that I suggested earlier the PM of Ethiopia need to clean up his mess before he ventures on the grand agenda of the developmental state.

In this sub-chapter, the author explicitly tells us that ‘the rural areas are crucial to the success of democratic developmentalism…rapid and sustained development in African countries will crucially depend on agriculture.’ While this reasoning reflects the realities for most African countries, it does not necessarily apply for some. As pointed out above, Africa is diverse and priorities for countries are most certainly variegated. For instance, Egypt, a country that depends solely on the Nile, could not possibly adopt same rural development agenda as Ethiopia does. Similarly, Botswana’s priority in development has been mining industry instead of agriculture.

As far as I am concerned, Botswana is one of the earlier developmental states in Africa and I like to share with the PM, my Ethiopian readers, and the general African audience what I wrote about Botswana in “Africa in the Global Economy:”

“Botswana’s success lies in its implementation of a diversified economy and its commitment both to democratic governance and to a strong private sector through its Financial Assistance Policy (FAP) that made the country a major exporter of goods, which, in turn, guaranteed independent linkage with the global economy. Botswana’s commitment to the corporate sector is, of course, directly linked to the country’s political commitment to ensuring democratic governance that includes an effective partnership between the state, the private sector, and civil society. In fact, Botswana has consistently committed itself to alleviating poverty and to expanding public education and primary health care. As a result of its on going success, Botswana is now depicted as ‘the brightest spot’ and/or ‘the jewel that shines brighter’ on the African continent.”8  

Finally, MZ emphasizes the strengthening of the state, the establishment of new institutions, and the effective state intervention in addressing market failures. “A fundamental transformation and building up of the state,” says MZ “is thus bound to be a central tenet of the paradigm.” Furthermore, he states, “the state will have to be strengthened primarily by transforming it from the locus of personal wealth accumulation to an effective instrument of restructuring the playing field and enforcing the new rules of productive investment.”

It is in light of the above statement that I have made recommendations time and again so that Ethiopia adopt a policy of non-partisan inclusion of Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals.

Whatever the merit of the developmental Ethiopian state of tomorrow, it seems to me that the regional states and local governments should be the bulwark for the implementation of the policy and development agenda of the central government. Lets assume the central government is like an octopus with an overlooking head and strong tentacles. The rural areas in Ethiopia, thus, should serve as strong (empowered) tentacles and not as weak detachments. Otherwise, the entire edifice of the developmental state will collapse ignominiously.

The developmental state should not only be an interventionist, monitoring, gargantuan apparatus. On the contrary, it should serve as a platform for citizen involvement in the political process and nation building. It should relentlessly seek feedback from the masses if indeed the latter are going to be the massive backbone and bulwark for state policy and actions.

Finally and most importantly, the developmental state should purposely foster tolerance and encourage an ambience where a myriad of ideas can be propagated and flourished. As I have stated in many of my previous writings, state policy, like science and other enterprises, is a gregarious business and it is by interacting with other people and by clashing ideas that one could get a satisfactory result for a sound development agenda. After all, the developmental state is a system and not an individual phenomenon.

Some people may perceive the MZ thesis as some form of re-emergence from obscurity; others could surmise that the author’s insight may have appeared slowly, in separate disconnected flashes that may have taken years to coalesce into a coherent idea. The above conjectures could be true, but in spite of the various assumptions I like to reason that any initiative must be evaluated at face value and given the benefit of the doubt. My only fear is that the MZ agenda, like plethora of AU, ECA, UN, WTO etc. proposals and rounds before it, could encounter the fate of a crashing tree in a forest when there is no one to hear its sound. Unless there is a committed leadership and a reservoir of audience ready to cooperate in the making of the developmental state, all policy recommendations pertinent to development will evaporate in thin air. Lets wait and see for the implementation and fruition of the developmental state in Ethiopia.




  1. Sidney Morse, “How Will Sub-Sahara Africa Technology Transfer and Investment Fare in a Post September 11 ‘New World Order,’” African Link, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2001
  2. Korbla P. Puplampu, “Globalization of Agriculture: Lesson From Ghana,” in Malinda Smith (editor) Globalizing Africa, African World Press, 2003, page 386
  3. Ghelawdewos Araia, “Africa in the Global Economy: Aid, Debt, and Development,” Globalizing Africa, Ibid, pages 190-95; see also Ghelawdewos Araia, “Africa’s Place in the Global Economy,” www.africanidea.org/critcal.html
  4. Ghelawdewos Araia, “Humanizing the Ethiopian Political Culture,” www.africanidea.org/humanizing.html
  5. Ghelawdewos Araia, “Designing Continuum to Enrich Ethiopian Educational Discourse and Debate Culture,” www.africanidea.org/designing.html and “Education for Tolerance: Sustainable Dialogue for Human Dignity,” www.africanbidea.org/tolerance.html
  6. Ghelawdewos Araia, “Political Culture in the Context of Contemporary Ethiopian Politics,” www.africanidea.org/political_culture.html
  7. Ghelawdewos Araia, “Modernism, Post-Modernism and Afrocentrism: Meanings for Ethiopia,” www.ethiomedia.com/newspress/modernism_040705.html


Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted at ga51@columbia.edu for educational and constructive feedback.