Transitional Democratic Governance and Economic Development: The Ethiopian Experience

Professor Desta, Asayehgn
March 29 2010

Desta, Asayehgn, Sarlo Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Economic
Development, Dominican University of California    

Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Western politicians and theoreticians have actively propagated the idea that the establishment of Western democratic governance in non-Western countries enhances economic growth. Similarly, policy makers of Western countries have also adopted Western democracies in their foreign policies that emphasize the promotion of democracy ( Daxecker, 2007).  According to Lipset,  “…democracy is related to the state of economic development. The more well-to-do a nation,  the greater the chances that it will sustain democracy” (1963, p. 31).  In other words, since governance is the power of exercising decision-making and the implementation of decisions, it could be a vital tool for long-term sustainable development.  In addition, as the individual is at the center of decision–making process in democratic institutions, his active participation is likely to maximize the goods and services produced, thereby significantly improving the economic health of a nation.” (See Girishankar, 2002.)

In  the same vein, other Western ideologies also argue succinctly that democratic governance is a system of administration that incorporates efficient institutions in order to secure the civil rights and freedoms of all people, resulting in economic development (Welch and Nuru, 2006). Regarding the African situation, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development makes the underlying assumption that democratic practices are complementary to the renaissance of Africa in the 21st Century. (See Kofi and Desta, 2008.)  Given this assumption, Habisso, for example, argues that democracy has utterly failed in Africa because the African elites failed to initiate, design, and implement:  1) genuine democracy; 2) industrialization; 3) agricultural reforms; 4) rural development; 5) education; and 6) African-based solutions to an existing socio-economic crisis (2010, p. 14).

To make the concept of democracy universally applicable, Amartya Sen goes one step further and outlines what he calls the ‘plurality values of democracy.’ According to Sen universal democracy  includes,  “first, the intrinsic importance of political participation and freedom in human life; second, the instrumental importance of political incentives in keeping governments responsible and accountable; and third, the constructive role of democracy in the formation of values and in the understanding of need, rights, and duties” ( 1999, p. 8).

However, over the years, there are general objections to the advocacy of democratic governance as a means of achieving sustainable development in non-Western countries.  For instance, in contrast to the tenets of democratic governance stated above, Mohamed argues that democratic values are in essence Western constructs. They are purposely geared to impose Western cultural values on non-Western countries.  According to Mohamed the components of Western democracy that were forcefully implanted on non-Western nations to make them be dependent on Western nations’ value systems include:  1) putting the individual at the center of good governance; 2) practicing of liberal views of human rights; 3) establishing multi-party systems of government; and 4) using the free market system to encourage competition (1994). In addition, some of the leaders of Third World countries are of the opinion that democratic governance is associated with their historical experience of the West, and can be a hindrance to achieving sound, healthy economies in non-Western nations, unless they are modified to reflect the cultural perspectives of non-Western nations.   Based on the notion ‘development first, democracy later,’ opponents of democratic governance argue that instead of  hallucinating and imposing lofty and unachievable values of democracy,  it would be better to give bread to the poor in non-Western countries ( UNDP 2002).  Those who are against the spread of a Western image of democratic government in non-Western countries further argue that the democratic governance promulgated by Western nations, inflicts suffering rather than freedom on those who do not belong to the ruling majority in a democracy. Given this, they are of the opinion that the vulnerable groups will be better served by the protection that authoritarian governance can provide, rather than getting hand outs from a class-based democratic system. (See for example, Sen, 2003.) In fact,  Habisso succinctly argues that imposing democracy on the poor and ethnically divided authoritarian states, and insisting they hold instant elections and democratize rapidly, can trigger some of the world’s bloodiest national struggles (2010, p. 6.) See also Daxecker, 2007.

Various explanations are forwarded as to the dialectic between the East and West. (See Dalton and Ong, 2005.)  For example, the leading hypothesis (based on economic ‘development first, democracy later’) forwarded by Lee Kuan Yew, the former president of Singapore, asserts that it is the Confucian tradition of respect for authority and family, and the emphasis on community over individual rights, antithetical to Western liberalism, which have contributed to developmental patterns in East Asia (Dalton and Ong, 2005, p. 1). Hence, given Lee Kuan Yew’s argument, in the short term civil or political rights can in principle be sacrificed for the benefit of greater good of the community. Though it can be argued that autocracies can be predatory because there is no one to control the autocrat, Lee Kuan Yew shows empirically that the disciplinarian states such as Singapore, South Korea, and China have shown faster rates of economic growth than the less authoritarian states of India, Jamaica, and Costa Rica. (See Sen, 1999.)

Over many decades, African scholars have attributed Africa’s poverty and underdevelopment to its economic dependence on the values of Western nations. Given this argument, a number of states in Africa have been endeavoring to transform the indigenous structure of communal organization by recasting it into a new and modern mould which fits the present African situation. As a negation to the Western political and economic models, Kofi and Desta, for example, have formulated economic development theories for the indigenous African.  According to Kofi and Desta: 1) Africa’s development programs  need to be built on existing local knowledge and capacities, or have to be adapted and agreed upon by the people in order for them to be beneficiaries of the development process; 2) If Africa is to achieve legitimate and sustainable development, local Africans need to be drivers of the change; 3) The African countries should examine critically Western capitalist economic theories, since they were developed for a different social order, and modify them, if need be, before using them; 4) African countries should critically study and examine the socialist models, adapt them and use the more relevant aspects; 5) African governments have to relinquish their direct control over many community organizations; and 6) Africa’s rural and urban poor must be helped to organize so that their needs are met. The poor cannot depend on benevolent rulers or non-government organizations. The poor people and the strengths of their numbers in organizations could truly help them to represent themselves in pressing their demands and subsequently becoming masters of their own destiny (2008, p.320).

Similarly, Senghor asserts that traditional African communities have been destroyed through the introduction of private ownership as the means of production and exchange.  Therefore he argues that Africa’s strategy for development has to be built on the roots of communal solidarity and the traditional communalistic nature of Africa (Senghor as quoted in Friedland and Rosberg, 1964, p. 265).  On the other hand, though women unfortunately were not included in the community-based democratic discussions, Nelson Mandela asserts that local meetings in Mqhekezweni, South Africa, were very democratic. “Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in the purest form.  ...The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and equal in their values as citizens” (Nelson as quoted in Sen, 2003, p.16). As usual, Mandela’s observation is very instructive.  Habisso warns us that without high  literacy rate,  socio-economic development, visionary political leadership, and the direct participation of the populace in the determination of their lives for themselves, the imposition of democratic values could rather be rocky and violent or reversible, if applied to  multi-ethnic and divided poor societies (2010, p. 6).

Over the last five decades, by design or default, the Ethiopian political environment has been pursuing various externally designed economic paradigms.  For example, from the 1930s to 1974, though Ethiopia was ruled by a highly centralized and semi feudal authoritarian regime, its economic system was by and large designed to fit the laissez-faire economic system.  As stated by Chole, unlike the politics, economic policies allowed “…considerable latitude for the development of private enterprise, it is especially noteworthy that a concerted effort was made by Ethiopia to attract foreign investors (1992, p. 3).

When Ethiopia was ruled by a military regime from 1974-1991, its economic system was conditioned to reflect the socialist mode of production, and the commanding heights of the economy were nationalized and run by the state.  In short, until 1990, the military government created a command economy, managed by cliques and run by the state apparatus.  As a possible panacea to its constant hiccoughs, one year before it was laid to rest, the military attempted to diversify the Ethiopian economy into a mixed economy instead of one that was entirely run by the state.

In 1991, the military haunt was dismantled by the Ethiopian People’s  Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).  Based on a developmental state economic system (i.e., similar to the developmental strategy pursued in South Korea and Taiwan) with a mixture of market-based structures, the ruling regime has attempted effortlessly to pursue the basic tenets of a democratic developmental state.  However, since a transitional period is fluid, characterized by instability, it can relapse to any political arrangement, making it very difficult at times for the elite groups of EPRDF to implement the seemingly democratic policies. As Austin puts it “no society becomes democratic without pain, no state achieves economic development without struggle.” (Austin, quoted in Habisso, 2010.)  Similarly, in a transitional period, it is possible that organized and semi-organized opposition may emerge and contest not only the party in power, but the regime itself.  Furthermore, “…democratization may unleash ethnic conflict as elites wrap themselves in the flag in the face of weak institutions” (Daxecker, 2007, p. 528). As correctly put by Chole, in transitional periods, regardless of the wishes of policy makers or other protagonists, it  “would be unrealistic to expect quick –fix solutions, and any attempt to conjure such solutions is bound to be counter-productive over the long haul” (1992, p.3).

 Given the fact that the Ethiopian regime has openly declared that it is in the process of transforming its political system to a democracy in order to bring about a “renaissance for Ethiopia,” the major purpose of the study is: 1) to investigate the regime in power to see if it has attempted to achieve the salient features of a democratic system; and 2) to assess the effects of the declared transitional democracy on the economic health of the Ethiopia.  To map out the Ethiopian political and economic system, the operational definition of good democratic governance is used, which is promulgated by the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).  The indicators of good democratic governance by UNESAP show that it is:  1) participatory, 2) consensus-oriented, 3) accountable, 4) transparent, 5) responsive, 6) using effective and efficient management of resources and implementing sound policies, 7) equitable, 8) following the rule of law, and 9) employing a process by which those in authority are selected, monitored, and replaced (UNESCAP 2010; UNDP 2002; and WORLD BANK,2007).

To assess the developmental aspect of Ethiopia,  the three major indicators used are: 1) a social and human development index,  i. e., level of literacy, access to primary health care facilities,  nutritional level, gender equality, child mortality rate, etc.; 2) economic factors such as raising people’s living conditions, per capita income, access to housing, access to sanitary conditions; and 3) environmental  indicators such as: access to water facilities, access to secure land, access to improved sanitation, energy consumption, ecosystem stress, etc,. (See, for example, Desta, 2010, p. 27.)   

 Using the nine characteristics of a good democratic system, the purpose of this paper is to trace historically how changes in the Ethiopian political process correspond to or contradict changes in the three types of socio-economic, and environmental factors.  Section one of the paper surveys the political, socio-economic, and environmental structure of the country from 1945 to 1974. In Section two, changes in the political system which correspond to the changes in the socio-economic structure from 1974 to 1991 are presented.  In Section three, the major changes of the political, socio-economic, and environmental policies from 1991 until the present are mapped out. Finally, based on the major findings of the study, some constructive policy implications will be drawn and some possible strategies for linkages among political, social, economic, and environmental factors will be initiated.  To be continued

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