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NewsWill appeal to development partners’ pockets bear fruit?

Will appeal to development partners’ pockets bear fruit?

Officials warn of looming ‘fragility trap’

On the sunny morning of Thursday, March 14, 2024, a dozen ministers, the presidents of regional states, nearly all ambassadors in Addis Ababa, and the chiefs of no less than 34 development organizations flocked to Lalibela Hall at the Sheraton Addis.

The gathering marked the first time that the Ethiopian government and the international community sat down at the same table for talks since the northern conflict. In fact, it was the first such High-Level Development Forum to take place in four years.

The Forum centered around rekindling support from development partners, which have been reluctant to engage over discontent with protracted conflicts, instability and human rights violations in Ethiopia.

Throughout the meeting, Ethiopian officials displayed a concerted effort to hit home and spoke using familiar phrases in matching tones in a bid to win over development partners. Similarly, diplomats and development partners tried to put on an air of sympathy but consistently stopped short of making concrete promises, instead urging the government to meet preconditions for support.

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Finance Minister Ahmed Shide broke the ice during the Forum, speaking on the challenges facing the government’s efforts towards realizing macroeconomic stability and consolidating peace. He highlighted gaps and stressed the need for crucial intervention from development partners.

“We must stabilize the macroeconomy so that our gains aren’t reversed. We are exerting every effort. Strong partnership is crucial,” said Ahmed.

He invoked the Prime Minister’s Medemer (synergy) philosophy in his call for heightened cooperation between the government and development partners.

Other cabinet members, including Fitsum Assefa (PhD) and Eyob Tekalign (PhD), also referred to hardships arising from COVID-19, desert locust invasions, domestic conflict, climate change, and global supply chain disruptions taking their toll on Ethiopia. The officials referred to some of the problems as gaps that require intervention from development partners.

“We must be able to respond to the recurring disasters. Climate change is here to stay,” said Fitsum, minister of Planning and Development.

She and her peers wasted no time in listing the daunting and costly tasks facing the country, including vast humanitarian needs, post-crisis reconstruction, development finance deficits, combatant rehabilitation, and structural reform needs. Fitsum would like to see development partners extend a hand to address these problems.

However, there were some glaring contradictions in the pleas for help as officials tried to balance their call for assistance with a list of achievements and purported successes.

For instance, Fitsum capitalized on a “resilient” economy while calling for humanitarian aid assistance and recovery and development financing.

Eyob, a state minister for Finance and a leading figure of the administration’s economic reform agenda, claimed that Ethiopia’s GDP had doubled to USD 164 billion in the last five years (coinciding with the Prosperity Party’s tenure). He followed the claim up with a laundry list of pressing economic issues, including external debt sustainability, high inflation, falling external finance, growing budget deficit, widening balance of payment deficit, significant trade imbalance, shocking decline in remittance, and a 50 percent fall in grant and aid disbursement.

“Despite the encouraging story of progress during the early reform years after 2018, we are currently facing fundamental macroeconomic challenges. All the challenges need immediate solutions. We have a high chance of success but we must reprioritize. We must shift our resource-raising mechanisms,” said Eyob. “Ensuring macro stability is at the heart of our reforms. The forex regime needs reform to avoid significant leakage.”

It would have been easy to mistake the Forum for a high-level Prosperity Party meeting, as many of the party’s top officials used the occasion to take stock of the layers of crises that have erupted under the supervision of their administration, while shifting blame away from the government.

Ahmed attempted to justify the crises.

“All we [the government] have done in the past five years is try to ensure the rule of law, build sustainable peace, and deepen economic reforms,” said the Finance Minister. “We are fragile but we have great hope and potential. The ruling party managed to bring all Ethiopians together. After the 2018 reform, the government allowed all exiled political forces to come home. At this point, anybody with political interests could form a political party and participate in peaceful politics. The government is committed to this.”

Ahmed declined to tell The Reporter how much funding the government is expecting from development partners.

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“Support has declined in the past few years, relatively except the World Bank and African Development Bank. But, it’s increasing now,” he said.

The Forum was business as usual, and the tone of the talks fell short of meeting the gravity of the issues facing the country until Justice Minister Gedion Timotiwos (PhD) stepped up to the podium.

He presented a report that got down to the root causes of the problems, and captivated the audience with an emphasis on a “fragility trap” threatening the country.

Among the factors Gedion mentioned were the emergence of extremist groups, polarization, recurring cycles of conflict, conflict response at the expense of development progress, elite-led zero-sum populism, untamed dash of narratives, erosion of social cohesion, ethnically and politically motivated violations, weak rule of law, prevalence of corruption, structural dependence on aid, unemployment of youth, and climate change-induced disasters.

The Justice Minister recommended potential solutions, including a national consensus, revitalizing social capital, ensuring unity within diversity, national dialogue, DDR, full implementation of the Pretoria agreement, transitional justice with accountability for both criminal and non-criminal reparations, resolving outstanding conflicts, widening democratic political space, and instituting reforms to avoid recurrences of the problems.

“Reintegrating ex-combatants requires huge resources. Various partners are lending support but we all know more support is needed,” said Gedion.

Responses from diplomats and the heads of development agencies unanimously urged the government to walk the talk.

“To avoid the conflicts, instability and fragility trap, the government must converse earnestly, rebuild social trust, establish inclusive governance, inclusive nationalism, and ensure transitional justice and national dialogue,” underlined Samuel Doe (PhD), resident representative for UNDP. “Ethiopia has a significant geopolitical role. So partnership with Ethiopia is a must for development partners.”

Ousmane Dione, World Bank country director for Ethiopia and its neighbors, said he recognizes the scope of the challenges but expressed concerns over the inclusion of vulnerable segments of society.

“The most vulnerable remain excluded from development. We must protect the poor and the rural. The state has limited resources but it must ensure quality public service,” said Dione.

The ambassadors of the US, UK, EU, Germany, and others emphasized the need for prioritizing peace, political dialogue, and national consensus.

They did, however, fall short of specifying how the governments they represent intend to get onboard the government’s reform initiatives, including the second Homegrown Economic Reform Agenda (HGER 2.0), a three-year program launched six months ago.

“Conflict is the biggest issue. Full implementation of the Pretoria agreement, inclusive national dialogue, ending conflicts in Oromia and Amhara through negotiation, transitional justice, are all crucial. Development partners have a mutual interest in supporting Ethiopia but we need transparent dialogue with the government. We also need a national action plan for peace and security,” said the Canadian ambassador.

“The partnership should be a mutual partnership. It is not only what development partners can do for Ethiopia. It also should be about what Ethiopia can do for development partners,” said Stephan Auer, German ambassador.

Berhanu Nega (Prof.), minister of Education and head of the opposition EZEMA party, turned heads when he expressed dissatisfaction with the tone of the Forum.

“I’ve listened to what was said by both the government and the development partners. We are speaking like everything is normal. We have missed something big. We are talking like nothing happened between five years ago and now. We are not in a normal time. The country and our people are facing an existential crisis. Crisis is in all directions. The government has to own these problems, not anybody else. Our commitment to peace and economic reform must be driven by the ultimate need to yield to our people. We are talking as if normal-time solutions can work now. I am not saying we should be reckless, but we should be realistic,” said the Minister.

Most of the development partners present raised peace, inclusivity of political space, and transparency of government, including in budget areas, as preconditions for a step up in assistance.

Ramiz Alakbarov (PhD), UN resident and humanitarian coordinator, told The Reporter that development partners have little choice but to back Ethiopia.

“We are here to support Ethiopia in ensuring a peace dividend for the communities which are ravaged by the conflicts. Ethiopia is important from the regional and global perspectives. Ethiopia is a cornerstone of stability in Africa, the Horn and globally. That is why the support from development partners must be unconditional,” he said.

“The fact that still there are pockets of conflicts in various parts of Ethiopia is very unfortunate. We do recognize the ongoing efforts by the government. We want to support those efforts whenever we can by providing a peace dividend,” said Alakbarov. “As UN representative, I say support to Ethiopia must be unconditional. Some development partners are bringing conditionality but it may not be helpful sometimes. Support in social sectors, health, humanitarian, agriculture and food systems must be unconditional. But for enormous support, the conditionality of ensuring transparency and accountability from the government’s side is a must. Financing support, aid delivery and other key support needs government transparency.”

However, Alakbarov underlines that the UN and other development partners must work to resolve the conflicts in the country through negotiations and dialogue, before embarking on other forms of support.

“The one and only thing we are prioritizing is peace building,” he told The Reporter.

The UN representative also disclosed preparations are underway to mobilize humanitarian assistance resources for Ethiopia in the coming months in coordination with development partners and governments.

He did, however, say that other conflicts around the globe and internal issues among wealthy nations are hindering resource allocation to Ethiopia.

Alakbarov urges the Ethiopian government to not rely solely on development partners, but also on innovative public-private partnerships in both productive sectors and in reconstruction and humanitarian response.

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