There is no theory or school of thought on “developmentalism” or “distractionism.” The terms are used here to distinguish between two contradictory approaches to development: one that focuses on effective resource mobilization, good governance, long-term peace and stability, as well as a well-defined vision and functioning institutions, and another that is predisposed to frequent disorder and distraction caused by political instability, inter-ethnic conflict, and religious or linguistically prompted bickering.
In short, developmentalism is the best way to get out of poverty, exclusion, and homelessness. Distractionism, on the other hand, takes the public’s attention, scarce resources, and the attention of policymakers away from development priorities or projects.
Building on the peace agreement signed recently, Ethiopia should refocus on its development trajectory by addressing the root causes of the interethnic conflicts, including religious and linguistic tensions. This, of course, will require political will, developmental vision, and the dedication and courage of those who control the machinery of the state to take the country down the “developmentalism” path.
Rebuilding state institutions and getting people to trust and believe in the system of government is a good place to start.
For any nation, frequent distraction from addressing the root causes of underdevelopment is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, this has been the experience of most African countries, which have been grappling with multiple development challenges, including the inability to eliminate poverty and give their populations a decent living standard, ever since gaining independence from colonial powers over six decades ago.
Ethiopia was not colonized, but it is not an exception and still remains among the least developed of developing countries according to UN country classification. As is the case with most low-income countries in the developing world, Ethiopia’s development challenges are made worse by the interaction of external and internal shocks, as well as the instability and structural fragility that result from these shocks.
This phenomenon renders Ethiopia and many other structurally weak and vulnerable economies, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, subject to a perpetual decline in all indicators of economic development, prosperity, and wellbeing. To reverse this grim situation, the way out is to focus on mobilizing all actors and factors of development and recalibrate these to achieve inclusive, sustainable, and broad-based development.
The Horn of Africa is a turbulent region that has seen more than its share of conflicts, socioeconomic destruction, backwardness, hunger, malnutrition, and the fallout from the confluence of such adverse situations. One can safely argue that Ethiopia is the nation that has suffered the most in the East African region, undercutting opportunities and the potential that the country holds for growth and transformation.
These, in turn, have undermined Ethiopia’s potential role in lifting the economic performance of sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, given its strategic location, growing middle class, and sheer demographic size. All of these can serve as powerful tools to grow markets by mobilizing domestic investment, building regional value chains, and attracting foreign direct investment.
The widespread ethnolinguistic and religious conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa are the outcomes of systemic and intrinsic conflicts between forces of globalization, modernity, and social progress on the one hand and underdevelopment, bad governance, weak institutions, and a paucity of economic opportunities and resources on the other. Consequently, the prevailing assumptions that religious and linguistic differences will vanish in the face of globalization and modernization have become fallacies.
Instead, and despite outstanding socioeconomic and technological progresses globally, identities such as language, religion, or ethnicity are becoming stronger and more pervasive than ever before, particularly in Africa and Asia. However, while the Asian region has been systematically tapping the potential of diversity for production transformation and socioeconomic development, the African region is being held back by ethnocentric political narratives, inherent biases, and interethnic conflicts—all of which are anti-developmental.
Ethnic-based political narratives
Growth and development problems in sub-Saharan Africa are tied to and made worse by conflicts between different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups. Ethiopia is neither immune nor a bystander to this predicament. As one of the most ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse nations in Africa, Ethiopia’s ethnic-based political narratives are behind the country’s persistent, systemic, and structural vulnerability to internal and external shocks.
While diversity can become an asset on its own, it can also become a liability by being the most destructive force if not carefully managed. How quickly Ethiopia addresses its simmering internal conflicts, which arise from ethnolinguistic and religious fragmentation, polarization, and disenfranchisement, will determine the pace of the country’s socioeconomic revival, growth, and development. Various studies in sociology, demography, and anthropology reveal that religious and linguistic fragmentation and polarization can easily interact with identity politics, giving rise to disagreements, disenfranchisement, and eventually devastating conflicts.
Such conflicts can intensify both in scope and extent in countries that have poor or weak institutions and limited resources to share among different groups and expand public goods such as infrastructure, health, education, and water supplies to all citizens. How best to harness religious and linguistic diversity for development and ensure related freedoms is predicated on sound political, regulatory, and institutional frameworks. This implies that any country’s legal, regulatory, and institutional frameworks that aim to ease religious, linguistic, or other interethnic conflicts need to be clearly articulated and carefully defined in such a way that limits the encroachment of governments on the rights and freedoms of citizens.
This is because freedoms from subjugation and conflicts are vital ingredients of economic development, socioeconomic transformation, and the highest form of social cohesion.
Generally, the history of Ethiopia is one of celebrated coexistence of religions, cultures, and languages for centuries, making the country unique in a region known for ethnolinguistic and religious tensions. However, Ethiopia is having difficulty continuing with its glorious past as a nation of systemic interconnectedness among its major ethnolinguistic and religious groups.
For instance, the tension within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), which is one of the oldest Christian churches on earth, is proving to be challenging for Ethiopia’s supposedly “unity in diversity federal architecture.”
The Ethiopian constitution clearly and systematically “codifies the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state.” While constitutional inconsistency and lack of clarity have been the sources of identity-based politics in Ethiopia, it is in the best interest of the country that the government upholds the supremacy of the relevant provisions of the country’s constitution in addressing religious, linguistic, and ethnic standoffs.
Fostering constructive dialogue, social cohesion, and religious peacebuilding will be key for Ethiopia, not only to restore peace and stability but also to promote socioeconomic progress and pursue the ‘developmentalism’ agenda. In this respect, Ethiopia can draw lessons from the East Asian experience. Beyond providing spiritual guidelines and ethical standards, religion has been an important force for statebuilding and, by implication, nationbuilding by promoting common traditions, cultures, and social cohesion. Given its development challenges, Ethiopia cannot afford to be trapped in a vicious cycle of conflict, be it linguistic, religious, or interethnic.
In this regard, a paradigm shift in Ethiopia’s political narrative away from one based on ethnic identity towards a national identity-based political narrative is urgently needed today more than ever before.
Another area of recent tensions between Ethiopia’s dominant ethnic groups relates to ethnolinguistic disagreements and disenfranchisements, now resurfacing as the source of religious tensions. Ethnically and linguistically diverse countries such as Ethiopia should formulate and implement smart, pragmatic, and forward-looking policies to address ethnolinguistic fragmentation, polarization, and disfranchisement.
Such policies must have at least three-pronged approaches: adopting an international lingua franca (the language of global opportunity) side by side with language(s) that foster social capital and social harmony. In so doing, the government should avoid imposing languages but instead espouse the societal benefits of interethnic learning. This can include mobilizing and rallying public support through clear communication tools and promoting the fostering of social capital as opposed to political or ethnic capital.
The choice and application of languages as national and international lingua francas must balance four key priorities. The benefits from global megatrends (such as globalization and interdependence), fostering national unity in diversity, recognizing minority languages, including vernaculars and dialects, and undertaking cost-benefit analysis to determine the viability of a given language or languages must all be looked at.
Such an approach is key to reversing socioeconomic decline or stagnation, fostering international competitiveness, and facilitating economic growth and development with distributive justice.
These noble objectives cannot be realized through ethnic identity-based politics due to the inherent biases in such a governance model. As with dealing with religious contentions, linguistic divisions are harmful to the cohesion of societies and the mobilization of scarce resources to address common problems of underdevelopment, poverty, and destitution.
These problems must be addressed through a national dialogue, under the umbrella of national identity-based political narratives, instead of the current ethnic-based political approaches to development, wellbeing, and prosperity.
The way forward
Given the scale of its developmental challenges, Ethiopia is better off following the ‘developmentalism’ approach by addressing the root causes of interethnic conflicts, including religious and linguistic tensions. This requires rebuilding state institutions, championing national identity-based politics, and fostering public trust and confidence in the governance system.
Without vibrant and functioning institutions and an effective public mobilization under a unified political agenda, it will be difficult for Ethiopia to re-launch inclusive and accelerated economic growth and development. It also requires ensuring equal access for the poor and marginalized groups to productive assets and basic services, including education, healthcare, and other vital services, without ethnolinguistic or religious bias.
Another important area that requires urgent attention and public consensus is the establishment of functioning legal, regulatory, and institutional frameworks in such a way that the government does not encroach on civil liberties, political freedoms, and religious freedoms.
Beyond enacting policies, strategies, rules, and regulations, what is critically important is their strict implementation and enforcement with effective actions and commitments to achieve inclusive growth and sustainable development outcomes. Moreover, mobilizing and empowering citizens and forging strategic alliances with the public, including at the federal and state levels, is vital in disseminating information about development policies and strategies as well as outcomes for shared prosperity.
To build national consensus on policy approaches, it is also important to raise awareness and set up clear ways for information to flow back and forth between state institutions, private and civil society stakeholders, and the general public. It is important to ensure equal access to economic resources and opportunities, which are often sources of grievances, although they may manifest in different forms.
In short, for multiethnic, multireligious, and multilingual nations such as Ethiopia, ethnic identity-based politics is a recipe for disaster. An inclusive and national identity-based political narrative and governance are the way out from current and perpetual instabilities, conflicts, fractionalization, and polarization at all levels. This requires active collaboration with and engagement of all citizens in the development process, irrespective of ethnicity, political affiliation, or ideological considerations.
Removing social, institutional, and political barriers, impediments, and all forms of discrimination is vital for the socioeconomic progress of all nations. In this context, Ethiopia’s development policies and strategies should focus on how to best tap the potential of every citizen and mobilize public action towards the full and effective implementation of these policies and strategies.
The stark choice for Ethiopia is therefore between two mutually exclusive approaches: developmentalism or distractionism, but obviously the latter is a disastrous option.
(Mussie Delelegn Arega (PhD) is the A/head, Productive Capacities and Sustainable Development Branch, Division for Africa, LDCs, and Special Programs, at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of UNCTAD or the United Nations. The author can be reached at [email protected].)
Contributed by Mussie Delelegn Arega