Odds and Ends:What does it take to get it right about Ethiopia?

July 03 2009

Ethiopia has myriads of problems to grapple with and only pro-poor policies can extricate it out of these problems. That is why the government has consistently focused on its commitment in the fight against poverty. There are indications that there is much in the way of success that can rightly serve as a source of optimism; but Ethiopia also acknowledges that it has to redouble its efforts to ensure the sustainability of its achievements. As if the challenges that have yet to be met are not daunting enough, however, improving Ethiopia’s image has been very difficult thanks to a ready tendency by media institutions and so-called think-tanks to highlight the negative over the positive. Of course,  Ethiopia is no stranger to unfair caricatures. Indeed, a quick perusal of internet sources would reveal that Ethiopia’s name is readily synonymous with one sort of disaster or another, and more often than not, unfairly so.

Of course, there are problems and they don’t disappear because we wish them away. But there can be an element of self-fulfilling prophesy in many of the characterizations some media institutions and think-tanks make about developments in Ethiopia. In what could possibly trigger a spate of conspiracy theories among some people, there has been a pattern in which a positive portrayal of Ethiopia’s progresses—decidedly few and far between—are quickly drowned out by a rather noisy story of doom and gloom that will almost certainly follow its heels. In a recent such unsettling sequence, two diametrically opposite reports were out on the state of governance and economic development in Ethiopia. A brief look at the content of the reports would go a long way to help show the point we are trying to make.

Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace (FfP) this week issued the Failed State Index for the fifth time in which Ethiopia is ranked 16th , falling in the “Red Zone”, or the group of countries that are the most vulnerable to failure. The authors of the report claim to have used a total of twelve indicators ranging from demographic pressures to human rights as well as delegitimization of the State. Whatever their motives, the authors of the index clearly have a methodology that appears to aim at failing to show the true picture of any given state.  To the extent that they get it somehow right about some countries, it owes more to their ready willingness to be selective about their facts than to the reliability of their methods. Ostensibly, the FfP uses an original tool that it calls Conflict Assessment System Tool (CAST) which helps determine the index. What the tool does is, of course, very interesting. The software is fed with some key words related with the key indicators and it then makes a cursory scanning of electronic resources on the internet. Based on how many hits it can find on any given indicator, the authors can calculate the extent of danger a country is in. It is a form of determining how vulnerable a state is by counting the number of times online articles referred to a country as vulnerable. If we were to take this method to its most absurd limit, it would mean that the less a country allows information about its state of affairs to be available online—say because it has little by way of electronic access or it strips its citizens of an unfettered freedom of writing or speech—the better ranking it can get in the Failed State Index. So much for the scientific nature of the methodology. The people at Foreign Policy could and should have a better use for the funds—funds that, ironically enough, are meant for peace.

The government of Ethiopia realizes full well that the country is not out of the woods yet. A lot remains to be done. But it also believes that it has the right combination of policies that have already started to pay significant dividends. What is more there is the political will to ensure Ethiopia’s renaissance through hard work and the strides that the country and its peoples have made in areas of governance and economic development are testament to the inevitability of success. This is not a self-serving claim; it has also been confirmed by institutions that are more serious-minded than half-baked researches based on bogus methodology.

As the UN and the World Bank reports this past week clearly indicate, Ethiopia is one of the very few countries who are poised to not only make rapid economic progress but also whose success in political governance has shown continuous positive progress. According to the UN, in Africa only Ethiopia and Cape Verde have a realistic chance to meet the Millennium Development Goals of   halving poverty by the year 2015. The World Bank’s assessment of the progress that countries have made in good governance over the last few years clearly shows that Ethiopia is one of the very few that have shown a strong performance.

The fact that the two differing characterizations about the same subject appeared in the same week makes the contrast really stark. But what is more interesting is the fact that the indicators used by the UN & World Bank on the one hand, and Foreign Policy; PfP on the other, are basically the same. The results, paradoxically enough, could not be more different. Clearly, the Foreign Policy people were overstating their case when they claimed to have used a scientific methodology to come up with the Failed State Index. No wonder countries that have dismal performers according to the World Bank and the UN appear to fare better in the FP index.