The level or development of the commodity economy, or commodification in general, in Ethiopia is perhaps one of the lowest in the world. Production for the market and earnings in terms of cash became nation-wide only recently. Bartering was common in transactions in rural markets until recently. It is not certain if bartering has given way completely to exchanges in cash even today.
The introduction of mobile phones and their wide use in the countryside, which has helped in setting prices for goods that the rural population sells, does not mean that the modalities of transactions and trade in general have been commodified in the country. Far from that.
Since the end of the Cold War, as a result of the one-time socialist countries’ (save North Korea’s) conversion to the market system, transactions in world trade have become not only immense but also intense, encompassing every country in the world. Decades after the primary role that the new information technology took in the economy, digitalization is now playing a key role in the process, particularly in the import/export aspect. This is as far as world trade goes.
When it comes to the modalities and levels of transaction applied inside each country, the choice of modalities depends on the concrete reality each country is in. In other words, even if Ethiopia is bound to continue its engagement in world trade, the modalities of internal trade, and particularly transactions, should depend on the concrete reality of the country’s economy. Ethiopia’s policymakers should, first of all, be grounded in the reality of the country. Wishing is something else, but it should not substitute for reality.
A realistic appraisal of the concrete economic condition and the reality of globalization must be the foundation for any meaningful economic analysis and policy-making. Once such an approach is adopted, it is then possible to identify and bank on the economic sectors that can serve as a springboard to galvanize the national economy both at macro and micro levels. The dichotomy between objective and subjective can hence be cleared. Such an approach can save us from errors at the prioritization level.
However, subjectivism can still be traced in the planning and execution. The theme here is the recent decision to digitalize the payment of fuel oil. In my opinion, this decision is not only unrealistic but also constitutes a violation of civil rights because it violates the consumers’ rights. I know of no country among those advanced in the use of the internet that has adopted a compulsory mode of digital payment for fuel oil. No country around us, even among those with a much better standard of internet use, has opted for a compulsory digital payment for fuel oil.
Digitalizing transactions requires not only a high level of internet service but also the public’s readiness to go digital, or “digital literacy.”
Consumers must have the inalienable right to pay in whatever way they want, i.e., in cash, credit card, or digital. The US, which claims to be the champion of consumers’ rights, writes on all its dollar bills: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private”. Be it in the US, which is seen in this country as an example of “democracy and fair trade”, or in any other country with an advanced economy, consumers’ right to pay in any way they want is guaranteed.
Even in these countries with a high level of internet literacy and a much more efficient administration, consumers are not obliged to pay for fuel in any one way. My argument is that it is the consumers’ right to pay in any way they want. This should constitute the consumer’s right, and that is why it is a civil rights issue. The reality of cash payments is a matter of freedom for the consumer. Nobody should have the right to violate that.
The naked reality is that the whole question of prioritizing issues in the economy has been turned upside down. In this impoverished country whose people live in biblical poverty, what should come first are programs that can pull people out of poverty, not parks, resorts, etc. What should be essential to ending poverty is, for example, supporting the rural population—peasants and pastoralists alike—to diversify its livelihood system. That should constitute the first step towards ending rural poverty. Whatever meager resources this country has, they must be devoted to ending poverty by directly addressing the poor. By the same token, introducing digital payments for fuel is a matter for the future. Even then, it should be on a voluntary basis. It cannot be made obligatory.
Amazingly, the authorities made digital payment for fuel oil obligatory without sufficient preparation. Paperwork and the digital mode of payment might be ready. But practical problems were overlooked. Because digital payment is obligatory, motorists who needed to have fuel at all costs spent hours in fuel lines. That created havoc at gas stations, with incredibly long lines of cars waiting. Some spent more than two hours. Had digital payments been on a voluntary basis, there would have been no havoc.
Lastly, we need to criticize the Ombudsman, which is supposed to protect the interests and rights of consumers. Unfortunately, it has not lifted a finger to protect motorists when they were subjected to digital payment for fuel oil.
Mesfin Habtu can be reached at [email protected].
Contributed by Mesfin Habtu