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Passion for Development in Tigray: Can it be sustained?

Passion for Development in Tigray: Can it be sustained?

Yohannes Aberra, PhD   8-20-19

I don’t think there is any sober mind that does not believe that the only way for the future of Tigray is embarking on sustainable development. It is the only pill that cures all political, social, and economic ills. Everyone agrees that it is long overdue. Many of the predicaments that the people of the Region are suffering from could have been significantly avoided with an economically strong Tigray. No one dares to tell Catalonia to go to hell every time it holds referendums to secede. However, there is no more any need to lament about the lost opportunities. The people of Tigray have existed for 3000 years. Thirty years of imprudence on the part of the leadership will have to be vigorously and effectively compensated. Not much is lost because Tigray is yet to exist for another 3000 years and more. The thirty years of “volcanic” dormancy may be considered as an accumulation of energy for the series of strong eruptions to build mountains that last into eternity.

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Unless I am to be convinced that whatever triggered the eruption what we need is that the eruption has started anyway, I am not comfortable with the fact that what seems to have triggered the eruption is a small pocket of accumulated gas. In the geological metaphor I am using the eruption will certainly subside too soon if the motive force cannot be sustained for long enough. We got to have parameters that can more accurately gaugehow long lasting and productive the enthusiasm for the development of Tigray is. One has to go beyond the sensational media reports, the fervor expressed by the scholars, and young and veteranpoliticians in the conferences and panel discussions. The last thing I would like to be is a pessimist in this regard, but the history of cyclic boom and bust of enthusiasm about development in Tigray has taught us a brutal lesson: to be skeptical!

The key trigger of the current upsurge of passion for development of Tigray, I could be corrected if I get it wrong, is the recent development in Ethiopian politics. For the last three years all Ethiopian political odds are directed at the people of Tigray and the TPLF, a founding and key member of the still ruling (?) coalition. Ethiopian politics entered into uncharted and stormy seas in a sailboat. In spite of the lack of agreement in everything else the “change-agents” have a clear and unmistakable consensus: A rebel Region known as Tigray that has to be punished by all means available. Under such threat it is natural for any human society to try to protect itself by withdrawing into itself. This is an instinct not a political move. The tortoise shrinks under its shell so does the silk worm which grows a cocoon around itself. As the tortoise shrinks into its shell the first idea that sparks in its brain is how to feed itself in the duration of threat. Depending on how long the threat is going to last it will devise strategies to survive for as long. When it comes to human societies it is the academic, political and economic elite that take the lion’s share of devising such strategies.

There are times when the elites do not need a trigger to embark on such efforts for development; but many times they do. If the efforts for development are to be sustainable the motive force will have to be enduring. In the case at hand for Tigray there is a trigger which we have no idea for how long it is going to last. We don’t pray that the threat continues to serve us as a positive inducement to keep us together and be zealous for development. The threat should help only as a trigger for the chain reaction which does not need a trigger anymore once the chain reaction starts. The enthusiasm and the actions to bring about development in Tigray may consider the threat as a blessing in a bad guise to trigger the chain reaction which does not need the threat anymore. Once the threat subsides or disappears Tigray will have to be riding happily on the irreversible path to development.

The skepticism on the threat as a trigger is useful because it helps to consciously and systematically manipulate the threat in a way that ends its importance and its replacement by other motivators that have a more positive and lasting effect. Threat can be a rallying cry temporarily rather than permanently. It is counter productive and could create disillusionment if the threats of encirclement, deportation, invasion, etc. are perpetually used as motivators. Threat as a motivator is useful as in the case of Tigray where its political, economic, and academic elites have been by and large self-serving and inattentive to the economic lot of the people of Tigray. Once the threat subsides, it better be, it is the devoted that get going not the threatened that are no more! The motivators for the devoted are ending poverty and ensuring sustainable development in Tigray, in the absence of motivating threats, as a safety shield to prevent future threats.

I know all beginnings are difficult; but key principles should not be compromised however nascent any effort is.The compilation of  road map for development, the identification of innovative pathways for development, and narrowing down development paradigms to regional and local peculiarities requires the participation of all stakeholders regardless of their academic status. It is appreciable that the initiative for the identification of pathways to sustainable development in Tigray has come from a global society of Tigrayan scholars. Somebody has to pull the trigger of course! Initiative almost always comes from individuals to groups of citizens. However, the processing of what is started by the button-click of the scholars should not be done only by the scholars. That development must be participatory in order to be sustainable has by now become commonsense knowledge. A farmer does not need a degree to know what it needs to have and how to get it. Debating about development pathways or options requires a practical union with reality on the farm field and city streets. The role of scholars lies in articulating the needs and means of attaining them identified by the grassroots. It is not possible to realize sustainable development if the elite consider the grassroots stakeholders as located on the receiving end of the wisdom of development scholars. Grassroots do not need to know the difference between neoliberalism and revolutionary democracy. Their life is not improved by incomprehensible and abstract philosophical debates.

Worse still was the fact that those that were considered to be the deliverers of the people of Tigray from poverty to economic and social progress were the scholars in the diaspora. I don’t bear grudges on the diaspora.  I admire their initiative; but if their wisdom only is taken as the most reliable solution to the problems of the development in Tigray, the entire effort is going in a totally wrong direction. The role of the diaspora, scholar or otherwise, is huge in the development of Tigray in terms of providing state-of-the–art expertise and also their participation in the investment sphere as they possess a critical source of hard cash. I don’t think trying to please the diaspora is appropriate. They did not come to Tigray to be praised and admired, but rather because it is their historical obligation to do so! The Regional government should not have gone out of its way to create an unwanted chasm between the “invited” local scholars and the “celebrated” diaspora.

The discussions in the various group sessions and in the plenary have clearly shown that the Regional government should have done the other way round: celebrated local scholars and invited diaspora scholars. The facilitators in the various presentations and group discussions were disrespectful to the local scholars that came voluntarily and packed the halls. The limited chances to ask, comment, etc. were selectively given to the diaspora. This has clearly created discomfort and regret in some of the invited local scholars. Many felt humiliated and unwelcome. The climax of the ill advised focus of attention on the diaspora scholars was what was written on the posters spread ubiquitously throughout the City: “Diaspora Union for the existence and security of Tigray”. Every time I see it I read it as if I saw it for the first time. I was thinking of the tens of thousands of ordinary Tigrayans who perished, and those now who are spending hot days and chilly nights in trenches to protect Tigray. Of course, they don’t have hard cash but they have their lives to give willingly. The Regional Government has to make sure that this is not repeated. It will deplete the ranks of the enthusiasts for the development of Tigray.

Another major problem that has to be addressed is the way the Conference was conducted. Quo Vadis means “Where to?”. This implies that no one person or group has the complete answer to the question. This question was asked because the business as usual of development in Tigray was not working, and some other new pathways to sustainable development have to be identified, debated, selected, and tested. It is when the track you chose takes you nowhere that you ask the question “where to from here”. You don’t ask if you know the answer. If you don’t have a scientific formula to calculate and come up with a solution set what you do is brainstorm. By joint construction of reality, that is how you emerge with a possible option or pathway. It is the synergy of ideas crystallized from several novels, old, even odd propositions and options.

The conferences and group discussions were so customary that most participants were just listeners and spectators. Bureau chiefs or other officials present what is being done in the Region. It was no different from what is presented as a report in Regional or zonal councils. The facilitators in the plenaries and the 14 group sessions, who seem to be determined to make their respective session as “peaceful” as possible discouraged digressions and interrupted the flow ideas regardless of their usefulness. The entire goal seemed to use the time right not the right ideas. The way the sessions were conducted looked like a teacher-centered classroom in which the interaction was between a participant and the facilitator. There was no chance to talk laterally to one another between participants. It was typical of a thesis defense session where the candidates fire every bullet in his/her arsenal to abort the questions and comments forwarded by the examiners.

I returned my head drooping because the days I spent were not as productive as I thought they were going to be. Inviting so many scholars with a lot of new ideas, but turning them into audiences of the reports of the beaten track modus-operandi of  bureau activities was demoralizing. The whole idea was to provide additional inputs from scholars to Regional sectoral bureaus who have the liberty to take it or throw it. I wrote this commentary article as a constructive criticism. Tigray cannot afford to fail this time. It will be a disaster to its future. TPLF should go for an unforgettable history by loosening its grip where it should never be: Development!


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