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Oxford University wants to study Ethiopians election time propaganda and online debates, but why?

By Bekeret Gebru
Tigrai Online November 14, 2014

It strikes me how hard it is at times to differentiate coincidences from intentional acts. Though the dilemma, I think, would be close to resolution once that act is repeated. Frequently repeated acts of similar nature would probably push one to think that it would be naivety on their part to keep seeing or expecting the good in such acts.

This week I came across a job advertisement with the title “press release” on Tadias magazine by Oxford University Consulting. The advertisement stated that Oxford University Consulting is seeking 4 Researcher Consultants and 2 Senior Researcher Consultants for the Project “Online Hate Speech and Elections in Ethiopia.”

The advertisement further states that the “study will develop an empirically grounded understanding of the nature of online debates before and after elections.” In a simple and direct language, that translates to the search for soft spots in the Ethiopian political environment through the scrutiny of hate speeches by Ethiopians online before and after the election of 2015. 

The ad goes on to notify that “the positions will be on a self-employed basis for approximately 15-20 hours per week and initially for 6 months, which may be renewable for a further 6 months. Additional hours may be available depending on experience and the needs of the project. Junior Researchers will be paid at a rate of £9/hour, Senior Researchers will be paid at a rate of £14/hour.”

I cannot help but feel why spend all this money to identify and understand Ethiopian hate speech online. Apparently, I am not the only Ethiopian who felt that way as numerous comments by Ethiopians regarding the advertisement were filled with suspicion and a warning to Ethiopians at home and in Diaspora.  With a national election coming up on us in the near future, the mass collection and understanding of our correspondences, however bad they may be, online should be viewed with the caution attention that it deserves.

This move can enable foreign forces, especially those who have been working extra hours to incite color revolution in Ethiopia, join the online hate speeches we are not so proud of ourselves and guide them into directions we as Ethiopians would not like them to go. No matter how far apart and antagonistic our political stands are, we all know better than inviting foreigners to come and mess things up even further. 

Considering election result disputes have become an arena of social upheaval in numerous countries around the world with external forces creating a platform to promote their own selfish interests while degrading the sense of humanity in countries, announcements such these by Oxford University Consultancy should be handled with the due caution that they deserve. After all a close scrutiny of what they perceive to be a crack in the political environment in Ethiopia could be used for a more subtler reason than just another topic for research.

Although not vividly put in the advertisement, it becomes apparent for someone who reads the June, 2014 paper entitled “Mapping and Analysing hate speech online: Opportunities and Challenges for Ethiopia” as written and compiled by Iginio Gagliardone, Alisha Patel and Matti Pohjonen, that this new research is based on their recommendations. When noticing that the Matti Pohjonen, one of the writers of the paper, is the main contact person for the advertisement, everything comes into place. The advertisement states: “Applications should be sent to Dr. Matti Pohjonen.”

At the end of section three of the paper entitled “Hate Speech in Ethiopia,” there is a call for “two inter-related strands of work that could be advanced.” The first of the two stated:

Evidence-based academic research can provide a way to better understand what the real and perceived threats posed by hate speech are. Such research - and the engagement of a wide variety of stakeholders to discuss and refine it – can help dispelling some of the rhetoric around hate speech and its politicization. Such a research can also provide an “early warning system” that allows stakeholders to identify and detect potentially harmful trends. Research should not be limited to textual occurrences of discourse but also develop a better understanding of different messages communicated through art, music, and performance. By consciously avoiding taking sides, such research can also provide a platform for mediation through which the antagonisms underpinning hate speech could be better identified and steps be taken to mitigate them. This research can be combined with traditional measures of conflict mediation and conflict resolution.

All the above strand of work shows is the positive outcomes a research work would have considering it is handled by the “appropriate” stakeholders. What it omits is the harsh effect such a study could have on Ethiopians if used by forces that would like to incite violence in the country for a whole lot of reasons.

Not the first time this year

The fact that this is the second time in a matter of months that Oxford University has come up with highly debatable “scholarly” productions makes one think that the intentions may not be as straight forward as they seem.

Just a few months ago, the 2014 global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) of Oxford University was launched. Those involved in its preparation claim that it “complements traditional income-based poverty measures by capturing the severe deprivations that each person faces at the same time with respect to education, health and living standards.” These three dimensions of poverty are then divided into ten sub-divisions: years of schooling, school attendance, nutrition, child mortality, electricity, sanitation, water, floor, cooking fuel and assets.

If someone is deprived in a third or more of the ten indicators, the global index identifies them as ‘MPI poor’, and the extent – or intensity – of their poverty is measured by the number of deprivations they are experiencing. This year’s index has come up with a new measure of poverty – destitution. A person is destitute if he/she is deprived in at least one-third of the same indicators, but according to more extreme criteria than those used to identify the MPI poor - such as having lost two children, or having no one with at least one year of schooling at home. Other extreme criteria include the presence of someone at home with severe malnutrition, no access to clean water or a round trip of 45 minutes to find safe water by foot, dirt or dung floor and open defecation.

In 2014, the global MPI covered a total of 108 countries which are home to 78% of the world’s population. Some 30% of them – 1.6 billion people – are identified as multidimensional poor. Of these 1.6 billion, 85% live in rural areas, which is a markedly higher percentage than income poverty estimates of 70-75%. Most live in South Asia (52%), followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (29%), and most – 71% - live in middle income countries.


Despite making the largest reduction of destitution out of all the countries covered by the research at 30%, the index claims that “Ethiopia is still home to more than 76 million poor people, the fifth largest number in the world after India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan.  87.3% of Ethiopians are classified as MPI poor, while 58.1% are considered destitute. In rural Ethiopia 96.3% are poor while in the urban area the percentage of poverty is 46.4%.

The index has ranked Ethiopia as the second poorest of the countries it analyzed next to Niger. That has widely been reported by various electronic media rather not exactly as if Ethiopia has been rated the second poorest country in the world. Considering the 108 countries analyzed include only 31 low-income Countries, with the other 77 constituted by middle and high income countries, the research is clearly a long way off from ranking all low income countries in the world. The index just makes the point that Ethiopia is the second poorest of the 31 low income countries it analyzed.

Another peculiar thing about the index is that it has ranked countries that spell anarchy and chaos as better off than those with rapid economic growth and development. The lower Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) value assigned to Somalia, a country that has been stateless and unstable since the early 1990s, as compared to Ethiopia, a country that has recorded average double digit economic growth, peace and stability over the last decade, is indicative of the hardship involved in identifying the right parameters of poverty.

A quarter of a century of statelessness and weak government marred with social division and conflict obviously derives any nation into the extremes of poverty as social service provision becomes non-existent besides the destruction of already established social services and the country at large. In such a society, the provision of formal education along with the establishment and running of modern health care facilities is barely possible. Recurring cycles of armed conflict and economic stagnation also don’t help attempts to expand access to electricity, sanitation, water and nutrition. On top of that, Somalia was hit by the most severe drought in the region for over half a century just a couple of years ago. The constant worry about security and the potential danger to people and their loved ones also infringes on standard of life.

Ethiopia’s GDP per capita has increased four folds from 120 USD in 1990 to 500 USD in 2013. Export has gone up tremendously with semi-processed goods among the ranks in stark difference to the export of primary agricultural goods back then. The country’s production capacity has also shot up with agricultural and industrial production enjoying a bask in the sun. The recurring cycle of famine has finally come under control. Ethiopia has become one of the biggest economies in Africa.

All international organizations, including the World Bank, have as a result hailed the achievements of Ethiopia in economic growth and poverty reduction at one time or another. The United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the African Union (AU) along with governments of various countries and other economic institutions have at different times come up with reports acknowledging the changes in the country.

However, the Oxford Research stood against reality to label Ethiopia as one of the poorest countries in Africa and the world. The recent online hate speech research of Ethiopian at election times strengthens the suspicion that Ethiopians already have to the institution.

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