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Criticizing Ethiopian Development for the sake of Aesthetics is Unsavory

Criticizing Ethiopian Development for the sake of Aesthetics is Unsavory

Naizgi 03-10-16

One allegation of human rights violation constantly hurled at Ethiopia focuses on the effects of Ethiopia's mega development projects, villagization program and land-lease policy to promote commercial agriculture. In addition to HRW, most active in this latest humanitarian crusade in the tropical forests of Ethiopia include the Oakland Institute (OI), International Rivers (IR) Habitat International Council (HIC) and freelance individuals of no permanent institutional affiliation.

One can’t but notice that, unlike their other criticisms, which exclusively deal with infringements of individual rights, this cluster of reprimand focus on abridgements of If collective rights, notably where so-called indigenous communities are concerned. Coming from the likes of HRW, sensitivity to collective rights is a refreshing departure, though in this case it is meant as a rebuke to Ethiopia - perhaps the only state in the world with constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and the right to self-determination up to and including secession.

In any event, what binds together the right-promoting activist listed above by their bewildering acronyms is no less laden with paradox. As each claim to speak for indigenous communities disadvantaged, so the argument goes, by Ethiopia’s state-driven rapid development. Incidentally, any form of state intervention, even in areas of market failure, never sits well with neo-liberal thinking. Clearly this thinking is not academic but consequential, in that it is what animates the harsh criticism against every mega development project in Ethiopia. Witness how every clean-energy generating project is maligned as a threat to life-sustaining ecosystems and natural environment on which "indigenous communities” depend on for their livelihood. Further yet, these communities are said to be most at risk of extinction, unless rescued by exertion of external pressure to prevent Ethiopia from completing its grand hydroelectric and giant agro-  processing plan.

It is to this effect, then, that the self-appointed caretakers of 'people at risk”, cast the so-called indigenous communities as Voiceless and helpless victims. Victims of an insensitive development process pursued, we are told, with cold bureaucratic detachment from a remote and inaccessible center. Obviously there is no mention of the arrangement made to mitigate the pangs associated with, say, the relocation plan of village dwellers from selected development project sites to adjacent areas of clustered hamlets. Where, contrary to disingenuous outcry, the voluntary settling villagers can access previously unavailable public provisions of social amenities. By the same token, nothing is said, not even grudgingly, in favor of the greater long term pay- offs of each of these linchpin projects of Ethiopia’s first generation of GTP.

No doubt more complaints (partly understandable) is bound to be voiced in the name of this or that imperiled ecology, heritage site, sacred ground, habitat, vintage hometown, old tenement etc. in each case, the government expects to contend with a myriad of vociferous preservationists organized in the form of civil society. Each, ready as ever to blow out of proportion the ache that society must bear as the country’s transformative change enters the next higher stage. And expands, as it must, to the remote out-layers where the communities had never known public provisions of social services.

Floods of publications are regularly released by NGOs, calling on the international community to stop Ethiopia from causing harm to defenseless communities and their traditional way of life. On these alarmist publications, the uninformed reader is more likely to presume that a large scale hidden project of uprooting ethnic minorities is unfolding in remote parts of Ethiopia. From this point on, it is only a small step for the target audience to lend support to the concerted “Punish Ethiopia!" campaign for an alleged crime of ethnic cleansing. There is an irony here, is there not?

That the ethnic-based federal state of Ethiopia is accused of "wrenching" defenseless communities from their natural habitat and gang-pressing everyone into remote makeshift encampments of no egress. To sell this allegation of large-scale inhuman treatment, NGOs employ evocative metaphors, analogies similitude, even imageries lifted from narratives of ethnic cleansing elsewhere. A clever move, one must admit, though of doubtful use if the intention is to compensate for paucity of hard evidence that bear out lured stories of mass eviction of hapless populations.

For starters, from the incumbent party's own self- interest, systemic mistreatment of ethnic minorities would be self-defeating. Fundamentally, because it is from the consent of these populations that the EPRDF and its allied parties derive mandate to govern every region of the federal republic. In any event, such criticism does not square with the standard reproach, that policymakers in Ethiopia place undue emphasis on ethnic rights over and above individual liberty. No wonder that not even the staunchest of the opposition parties impugn the EPRDF for policies or practices prejudicial to historically -marginalized cultural minorities. Barring external groupies of "survivalist indigenous communities”, neither can any credible think tank gain say EPRDF’s impeccable track record of upholding the exceptional protection that the constitution provides to ethnic minorities sidelined by previous regimes.

No doubt these communities strike environmental enthusiasts, ethnographers, anthropologists and sightseers alike as an exotic reminder of the primeval stage of man’s collective social evolution over an eon-span of time. Occasional tourists in particular seem to regard visiting such societies as a virtual travel in time to a remote past that offers a sensational real-time glimpse at what a rudimentary mode of livelihood in a context-specific cultural horizon looks like. That is why, many visitors to Ethiopia seem similarly charmed by the idea of preserving Africans in a state of noble savagery. That is why one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ethiopia is a jeep tour of the Omo River communities. The tours are like human safaris. Visitors drive from village to village on dirt roads, taking snaps of curious dark tribes - such as the Surma, whose women walk around topless and wear clay lip plates.

No wonder there is a lobby committed to preserve these sumptuous natural settings along with the inhabitants as tourist destinations, free from the polluting effects of any development activities. Nathalie Rothschild is right to point out that: in so far as they (NGOs) care about "indigenous peoples”, it is only because they regard them as part of the natural kingdom rather than human society. They view them as integral to the local ecosystem, which they want to keep untouched by modernity’s apparently corrupting forces.

According to the anti- Ethiopian lobby, the spoiler which stands in the way of this proposal is the regional governments with jurisdiction in the potential tourist reserves. This is no doubt true. For as much as under the present government, natural parks have sprouted, priority however is accorded to the improvement of the resident population through provision of basic education, primary healthcare, modern agricultural inputs, market access, and training facilities. Plainly in recent years more attention has been accorded to tourist promotion, Not, however, let there be no mistake, as a substitute to state-directed development in which the primary beneficiaries themselves play active role at every stage of the micro-level planning  and implementation process.

Nowhere is mass participation at the lowest level of decision-making more robust than in vast rural Ethiopia where 85 percent of the people live-off smallholding agriculture. No doubt this is an outcome of firm government conviction that top-down enforcement of policy, even if beneficent, is undemocratic. It is for the same reason that the representational system of governance is supplemented by direct participatory democracy where citizens participate in all deliberations of vital issues and partake in decision-  making at all levels.

From any perspective, the current pro-poor rural development scheme has, on many levels, brought unprecedented benefits to every region of medium to high population concentrations in Ethiopia. One can also confidently say that this pattern of development is the best that the so-called indigenous communities can hope for, considering what is on offer, precious little. In truth what is on offer holds little promise to these communities, except perhaps the iffy benefits that may accrue from seasonal tourists flow to the sites in question. Unfortunately income from sightseers scarcely suffices to make ends meet, let alone to generate resources needed to overcome the challenges of unsustainable reliance on the capricious fortunes of nature, particularly in an age of climate change and mounting demographic pressure. Unsurprisingly, indigenous communities are increasingly disabusing themselves of the wisdom of dependency on semi-value- added natural products and the generosity of nature lovers. With this has come realization that the gains of state-led sustainable development by far outweigh the temporary disruptive effects of transformation.

 However, bleeding-heart apostles of human rights continue to hammer on the cramps of rapid change as they are dead-silent on the benefits of development.  Their concern apparently has little to do with lifting "indigenous communities “from entrenched and localized situations of disadvantage from which they are unable to exit by the normal forms of political and economic initiatives." Instead, NGOs mock the very communities they claim to defend which, in their expert opinion, need not exit from “situations of disadvantage.”


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