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Institutional flux and vested interests in Ethiopia

Institutional flux and vested interests in Ethiopia


Dr. Yohannes Aberra Ayele (Associate prof.) 10-21-18


I was encouraged by Dr. Tsegay Behane’s article on AigaForum to write on the troublesome history of institutional structuring and re-structuring in Ethiopia. Dr. Tsegay is rightly worried that “downgrading” of the Federal environmental organization may be the result of the executive branch downplaying the importance of environmental protection in the process of massive investment to accelerate economic growth. It is almost universal for governments to be myopic, particularly during the takeoff stage of economic growth, until they learn a bitter but irreversible lesson later on. The stage of environmental management where we find ourselves in Ethiopia is known as the “frontier economics”. This stage is the takeoff phase of economic growth where natural resources are extracted massively without due regard about the rate of natural replacement of the extracted resources. In this paradigm nature is considered to have been created for humans not for its own intrinsic value (“anthropocentric”). An environmental enthusiast will be considered as an obstacle to progress at this phase in the economic evolution of nations. In its early years, when everyone’s eyes were on the dollar, the US Congress passed a land-grab act on the Everglades, the largest wetland ecosystem on earth. It was later on, when widespread ecological damage caused significant retardation in the economic growth of the southeastern states of the Country that a wetland protection act was passed by the same Congress.

No one should be advocating “biocentrism”, a complete preservation of the environment in which all people are expected to live a simple rural life without making any significant modification of the environment. No one should be trying to halt economic growth which uses natural resources for the sake of a complete preservation of nature. A major objective of humanity on earth is to live with a high enough standards of living. This comes from economic growth not from primitive hunting and gathering in virgin Jurassic forests and grasslands. What has to be stopped or controlled is the kind of economic growth that tips the balance between economic growth and environmental integrity in favor of the former. So, all kinds of institutional arrangement for environmental stewardship should be structured or re-structured keeping this balance in mind. Of course, maintaining this delicate balance is not as easy as it sounds on paper. Even with the noblest of intentions towards environmental protection, armed with the best environmental policies, it is a difficult job to strike the right balance. In fact, the best path towards maintaining the balance between makings a living and caring for the environment does not lie in formal institutions, but in the minds of people. Environmental protection has to be institutionalized in peoples’ day to day behavior. In all aspects of life, including the misunderstanding between nations that could possibly result in wars, prevention is better than cure. It is better not to deforest than to rehabilitate; it is better not to over-extract ground and surface water than spending a lot of money on drought-resistant crop varieties research. Cure may come from the activities of formal environmental institutions; but effective prevention comes from the mentalities of people. A carefree person defecates in the streets; the municipality picks it up. By converting the carefree person into a caring personality the municipality will have time to engage in other more beneficial activities than the nasty job of picking defecations from the streets. So, institutions for environment, whether they are ministries or departments or agencies, should be very busy with changing peoples’ mentalities in different ways: in schools, in edirs and other community based organizations, political parties, and most preferably organizing environmental associations in schools, universities, residential areas, work places, etc.

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There are very frequent changes in institutional arrangements in Ethiopia, which have been harming the stability needed to think clearly and act accordingly in a sustainable manner. Institutions are created to be pairs of hands for the implementation of policies. It is much easier to draft policy documents (compose them here according to context or copy them verbatim from other countries!) than to implement them. Frequent institutional changes may be understandable given the unexpected realities implementers face in targeting societies. Such changes are acceptable only if they are taking place after a thorough investigation and exhaustive consultations, involving all stakeholders including the grassroots, are made before any modification or radical change is made to the institutions. Is this what is happening in Ethiopia? Are the changes in the structure, status and names of intitutions being made with full knowledge and participation of all stakeholders? My well informed feeling tells me that it is not!

What the EPRDF could be credited for, among many other things, are its policies for disaster, water, environment, and others, which never existed before. Sadly, imlementation of these policies has been ailing all along the way and  it has been left to be playground for donor, individual, and group interest, while the majority of stakeholders were kept out as uninformed spectators. The frequency of changes is clearly indicative of shifting individual and group interest rather than something which is well thought-out by active and informed participation of all relevant stakeholders. The detrimental adage- “too technical for ordinary people”-is taking it heavy toll in policy implementation.

Let me start with the institutional changes that have been taking place in the Disister Risk Management of Ethiopia. The utter neglect of the victims of the 1972-3 drought shook the Nation from its foundations and the Monarchy that endured for millennia was uprooted for good as aresult. Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) was established by the Military government, which was popularly known as “the drought commission”. For that particular situation, where people and animals were starving and farmers were far away from their homes and farmlands, distributing relief and rehabilitating the displaced was the most appropriate action. The name and the mission of RRC were perfect. This was during Military rule. What the government thought in the decade after the 1972-3 drought was drought may never come again. Without any drought resilience measures in place another devastating drought hit Ethiopia in 1984-85. It was again what the RRC is equipped to do: distribute relief and rehabilitate people. The latter was done by the cruelest of all methods: forced resettlement of the victims in unfamiliar regions. RRC was first relevant, but latter on irrelevant; because the cause of drought, the ENSO phenomena, comes at 5-10 year intervals (sometimes shorter) and the government shouldn’t have waited for the weather anomaly to strike so hard. The proactive action had to wait until the EPRDF takeover and the 1993 a National Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Policy came to live up to the expectation of being proactive to disaster. A new organization emerged from RRC named Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC).

The turning point came when a certain Mulugeta Abebe from Addis Ababa University published an article in a journal in September 2009. On page 62 of his article he criticized the existing status quo of disaster management as “drought centered” disregarding other hazards like war and traffic accidents:

1. “Almost all actors in the disaster management community have invariably been preoccupied with and investing heavily in drought disaster. In other words, actors in the realm of disaster management in Ethiopia pay little or no attention to other hazards (namely, crop pests, flood, disease epidemics, war, civil conflicts and traffic accidents)” (Mulugeta Abebe, 2009).

I just leave the comparative importance of drought and those other hazards listed in the above quote o the judgment of readers. However, this article was far from being limited to being a personal opinion of the author. The writing of this article coincided, I don’t think it is by accident, with a new draft policy for disaster risk management in the same year. The draft policy document for disaster risk management was posted online dated March 2009; the article was published September, 2009. Given the long time lapse between submission and publication of peer reviewed articles it is an intellectual guess that the two are related. It is not the coincidence in time but the similarity in the “problem statements” of the two documents that has become starkly similar.

2. “The Policy (previous) directions for the response and management of crises were primarily drought-focused. However, multi-hazard induced disasters and related losses have increased in recent years. Epidemics (human and livestock) have adversely affected lives and livelihoods. An increasing frequency and intensity of floods demonstrates that Ethiopia is prone to multi-hazards other than drought that may have lower frequency but still important impacts. War and conflict have led to losses of lives and displacement. Signs of earthquake and volcanic activities were observed mainly in the rift valley of the country. Transport/traffic accidents is another major hazard that causes the loss of lives and property. (Draft DRM policy, 2009).

The introduction section of the new National Policy and Strategy on Disaster Risk Management (NPSDRM) 2013 reads as follows:

3. “Unlike in the past, besides drought, risk of other disasters like flood, human epidemics, livestock disease outbreak, crop pests and forest and bush fires frequency, scale, and intensity have been increasing due to climate change. Urban disasters like fire and other incidents are also rising because of fast growing urbanization. Also, signs of earthquakes and volcanoes have been observed in the country, especially in the rift valleys. Even though not frequently, conflicts triggered by different factors also need attention. a paradigm shift in direction led to doing business differently by moving away from a system that mainly focused on drought and supply of life saving relief emergency assistance during disaster to a comprehensive disaster risk management approach, which, unlike in the past, is being implemented with the aim of reducing disaster risks and potential consequences of disasters.”


Policies don’t need to change frequently because they are just principles or philosophies adhered to by governments to solve some chronic public problems. Managing disaster risk by all means is the sworn belief of the EPRDF government. This was clearly enshrined in the 1993 policy. That is enough for policy. Policies will have to change if there is a fundamental flaw in the principles or narratives pertaining to public problems. It is the strategies that need to change because it has to change according to changing situations for the implementation of the policies. If earthquake is becoming greater threat to the public than drought then strategies will shift away from emphasis on drought to earthquakes. You don’t change policies with every shift in the magnitudes of hazards. The statements, which look like allegations that the EPRF was not helping people suffering from hazards other than drought, are unfounded to say the least. Individual opinions are used as basis for changing policies. The groundless narrative which changed the policy was disastrously disproved when the devastating drought of 2016 downed on Ethiopia covering regions which never had drought before. GTP II was wrecked from the outset! The government was forced to shift budget from development projects to relief. Still, stubborn and defiant individuals were belittling the impact of the drought by saying to the media that the drought affected places contribute only five percent of the annual production. There was earthquake in Hawassa; may be that was more important!     

Between the draft policy of 2009 and the establishment of National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC) by proclamation in December, 2015 the institution for disister risk management was going over rough waters. In 2009, DPPC, which was established by the 1994 proclamation following the 1993 policy was reorganized as Disaster Risk Management and Food Security Sector (DDRMFSS), by a Business Process Re-Engineering (fashionable at that time!) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, MoARD. DPPC was “annexed” by the MoARD and came under a vice minister of agriculture. It is hard to understand who were playing this unnecessary but costly game. In one occasion in 2012 I asked one DDRMFSS official sitting in the previous office of the DPPC why disaster risk management came under MoARD. He said in an air of certainty: “It will come back!”. This is the nature of institutional changes in Ethiopia: going and coming back so easily. Three years later DPPC, which was “abducted” by MoARD as DDRMFSS came back home as NDRMC.

Effective disaster risk management is proactive. Hence, the best institutional framework for disaster risk management is where prepardness is mainstreamed into the national planning process. That is how vulnerabilities to disasters can be reduced sustainably. Keeping in mind that disaster risk affects all sectors there should be a strong link between the National Planning Commission and NDRMC. Having disaster risk units in ministries is not enough.

The water sector institutions are more or less stable except name of the Minisry that has been changing without adding any value. Ministries have clear missions and job descriptions. It is not proper to display the job description on the name of the ministries. It is clear that putting job descriptions of ministries on thier names is not a requirement from central government. Otherwise other ministries could have done that. The Ministry of Education is just a Ministry of Education. It should not be Ministry of primary, secondary, tertiay Education. Similarly, the Ministry of Health, which has always been like that, will have be renamed as: Ministry of Health, pediatrics, gynacology, surgery, geriatrics, etc. The water ministry started quite correctly as Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR). It is well known that the Ministry is a "responsible body" for all water resource related activities in Ethiopia, as per proclamation, which include water supply and sanitation, irrigation, hydropower generation, etc. All this is implied in the name MoWR. Why woul it prefer to be redundant in renaming itself and make it too lengthy to read. I suspect, this is the work of individuals who wish to see thier specializations appearing on the name. A book should not be judged by its title and its cover-page photo. After MoWR, the name changed to a Ministry of Water and Irrigation; and to Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy; and latest, to Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity (MoWIE). In the previous name, energy cannot be a monopoly of water ministry. There are other sources of energy than water. The same is to electricity, which is generated by petroleum products in addition to water. It has now become common to hear the roars of diesel generators everywhere due to hydropower outages. Would the water ministry have tha mandate to regulate the use of petroleum, which is the jurisdiction of the Mistry of Mines and Energy?  A dangerous unregulated gap remains open.

The Ministry of Environment has also been busy elongating its name. First it was Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). It was perfect, because the name implied absolute empowerment on environmental matters. It was not clear why it had to be a ministry if a ministry is not more powerful than an authority. With a lame duck Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) law, which is a domestic-cat infront of the investment-lion, being a minstry does not add any strength. May be the government made it a ministry to weaken it or because those inside the authority needed the "upgrading". Such organizations are ministries in some counties, departments or agencies in others. The powerful environmental organization in USA is just an agency. After it became a ministry,  the former EPA added "forest" to its name. Why? Isn't forest an important part of the environment? Why redundancy in the name? The wisest guess one can make is this addition was motivated by the lucrative REDD which has become multi-billion business worldwide due the need for carbon credits from carbon sinks for European compliance to the Kyoto Protocol. A vice minister was assigned to the forest part of the Ministry. Apparently, the addition of forest to the name was not enough to draw attention from Global climate change mitigation effort, and thus, another addition was made to the name: "climate change". This time the name of the Ministry became Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change. The name was exactly the same as India's ministry of environment. The name change was not quite innovative. The more serious issue does not lie in the addition of climate change to the name of the Ministry. The question is  on what ground is the Ministry monopolizing climate channge and related activities? The truth is it was simply awarded by a letter from the former prime minister (RIP) taking it away from the National Meteorological Agency of Ethiopia (NMA). From the outset, it was NMA which served as Ethiopia's focal organization for UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its scientific wing the Intergovermental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). Climate is only one abiotic component of the environment. Climate change issues constitute a myraid of  political, social, economic, and ecological concerns and associated decision making. Climate change is about impacts, vulnerabilites, mitigation and adaptation. There are complex issues that development must be made compatible to a changing climate. So, climate change should be handled not by a single ministry, becuase not all the relevant expertise are found in that particular ministry. The task should be alloted to different ministries which must work in unison: Mitigation and the CC negotiations for NMA and Ministry of Mines and Energy; adaptation for Planning Commission (for mainstreaming into National plans), Disater Risk Management Commission (for climate change related hazards), Ministry of Health (for health related impacts), Environment Commission (for ecosytem impacts), Ministry of Water (on hydrological impacts of climate change affecting irrigation, water supply and Hydropower generation), for Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Urban Development for reducing vulnerabilies to climate Change impact of the rural and urban poor respectively.

The Ministry of Agriculture was also experiencing some hiccups. At some time in past its name was changed from Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Rural Development is not nessarily agricultural; but in Ethiopia it is true. No other ministry should be assigned to this task. So, it was appropriate. For a reason which evades logic, rural was taken out from its, but not awarded to anyone else. Taking natural resources instead was a clear overlap of missions with other ministries. Natural resources in the Ethiopian context include soil for the Ministry of Agriculture, water a mandate of the Ministry of Water, minerals normally owned by the Ministry of Mines, wildlife and thier habitats by the pertinent wildlife authority, etc. Instead of working together with other ministries on the shared resources Ministry of Agriculture seems to have been too possessive. By the way do you know that all natural resource degrees are awarded in agricultural colleges? The institutional restructuring in the Ministry of Agriclture has also had some duplication. It is expected that tranformation in agriculture is the historic responsibility of the Ministry. While that old guard Ministry is still in place another agency is established to lead the trasformation. Can anybody tell me what the Ministry is doing in that beautiful new building if it doesn't handle progress in agriculture?

I expect such frequent and unjustified flux in the institutional structures to continue unbridled in the future. I appeal to H.E. the Prime Minister to make restructring decisions based on open public consultations rather than results of in-party negotiations. Otherwise we will be destined to spend our years sharpening our knives, but not slaughtering the animal to fill our belly.



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