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18 September 2019

Ethiopia: When the wind blows

Ethiopia is caught in the eye of a storm.  It is managing a number of transitions, all at the same time.  And it is doing so against the ticking of a number of clocks.

Time is against a guarantee of stable and peaceful change in Ethiopia.  Perhaps the loudest tick is that of the drumbeat of demographic change. The population is growing (at just below 3% a year), becoming younger (around 65% of the population is under 25) and is urbanising (at rate of about 5% per year).  The demands placed on government by this pressure are immense – and would be a challenge for even the most capable and effective administration.  

In the nearer term, many of the tensions and pressures which are live in Ethiopia now will be amplified unhelpfully by the forthcoming 2020 national elections.  They – or more accurately the run up to them; and the subsequent reaction to whatever result is announced – are potentially both a crucible and a crunch point for competing ambitions. 

Beneath these processes lie a set of cultural shifts which affect the environment in which any change takes place.  Manging these multiple dimensions of change in such a way as to harness their positive potential and mitigate their negative potential will be a key concern for government, donors and people alike over the next year or so.

A key change is in political culture.  For years – many, many years – government, however provided, has operated under a number of unquestioned assumptions: that it is uniquely entitled to rule; that it knows all the relevant answers to questions that count; and that it has the capability to do what needs to be done.  People and governors alike have barely tested government’s right to do what it pleases - because that is what does, and how it does it.  This has usually been possible from within a political framework characterised by three dimensions: a “with me or against me” culture; the rigid discipline of those who are “with” government; and the seeming irrelevance of those who are “against” it.

But now, in the teeth of demographic change which affects both the shape of the population and the division of power within the ruling party, shifting alliances which pitch doctrine against opportunism and the fast approaching elections, all three of these dimensions are flexing.  The rigid discipline of the EPRDF structures is not so much breaking down as now allowing outsiders to glimpse the real internal tensions more easily.  So, what had previously seemed from the outside monolithic (and therefore strong, steady and reliable) now looks more fragmented (and therefore harder to predict and partner).  It is, then, less clear who is “with” government inside the ruling coalition. 

At the same time, the relevance of those who are “against” government is becoming clearer.  Having welcomed back to Ethiopia various elements of the opposition (on a welcome “hug your enemies closer” basis), the Prime Minister has opened a Pandora’s box of at least partly credible concerns, often disguising defiantly ethno-linguistic self-interest.  And the various opposition groups are catnip to the rapidly growing younger population, offering a heady mixture of grievance and (likely unfulfilled) hope. 

So if the stage is set for a fiery clash between national level political actors, what can be done to mitigate the effect of the forthcoming elections?

In truth, there is little to do about the political culture.  It is too entrenched to be changed in the near term; and – as most Ethiopians seem likely to agree – politicians will do what politicians will do. The question then, is what is the election’s relevance to ordinary people; and what can be done to help them navigate the tensions and changes?

The best immunisation against the viral infection of national politics would be investing in helping ordinary people and those tasked with delivering services and accountability to them on the ground, to develop stronger, mutually reinforcing relationships which focus on identifying and solving the problems and challenges which they share.  In truth, this amounts to helping ordinary life continue despite politicians; and making more resilient the ties which bind citizens to the state at a local level.  In this respect, the approach would be one of going with a very Ethiopian grain: keeping your head down whilst the big beasts fight; and building and employing local level alliances for mutual benefit.

Over time, such an approach would help ordinary people to interrogate the promises that outsiders make; and to measure them against their own analysis of local need.  It would also help them to recognise that they are not irrelevant; and that they wield – at least in the context of an election – the power to make or break politicians through the considered lending of their support. 

Such an approach is not a solution to the proximate challenges thrown up by the 2020 elections. But it is an investment in a gradual strengthening of Ethiopian society to help it ride out tension and challenges in the long term.  It is this approach that is likely to build the foundations for future sustainable partnership with Ethiopia, not short term and extractive (or transactional) engagement.

21 May 2019

How do you spell “schadenfreude”?

I am staying in an hotel in the capital city of an African country I have known rather well in the past. It is a nice hotel – nicer than the kind of place I normally stay in.  And the kind of “nice” I could get used to with very little difficulty.

But my current lodgings come with an unexpected addition: tourists.  The well-healed on what I assume they consider to be adventurous holidays, but with not too much discomfort.  The kind of tourist who manages to match brand new outdoor clothing with a range of walking aids suggestive of gently disintegrating joints.

What they also seem to have in abundance are ill-informed opinions about the country in which we all find ourselves; and an extraordinary lack of self-awareness.  Two vignettes:

“I need a drink.  I don’t think I can stand it anymore”

The group arrived – amid a great deal of noise and chaos – on Saturday.  I don’t know where they had been, or what they had done.  But something had clearly struck a chord with one of them.  “I need a drink”, she said out loud and apparently to no-one in particular.  “I need a drink.  I don’t think I can stand it anymore.”  She went on to tell the busy reception area of the hotel that she had seen poverty of a type which she could hardly have imagined existed.  Such depravity!  Such need! Such appalling living conditions!  How was a sensitive soul to cope under these conditions?  The only solution, apparently, was to resort to the bar and have a beer.  

“They should be more grateful.”

Later, I found myself unable to avoid over-hearing a discussion within the group. (Presumably, the bar had helped at least some of them regain perspective on what they had seen.)  I should say that I was not actively eavesdropping.  But the discussion was being taken forward on a fully inclusive, all-informed basis at a distance from me not sufficient to permit me to ignore it.

“They should be more grateful.”  said a member of the group.  “We taxpayers give millions of dollars every year to this country.  And do you know what I saw today?  Opposite our Embassy?”

The tone of the question did not invite an answer.  And anyway, it was clear that one would soon be provided.  The indignant man was anxious to fill in the details:

“Can you believe it? There are businesses set up opposite our Embassy which claim to be able to facilitate visas!  I have a good mind to complain.  Who do these people think they are?  We payto keep them here.  They have no need for visas.”

Once again, I wondered if there was an English word for “schadenfreude”…

Ethiopia: Same as it ever was?

Ethiopia is changing. Not always in the right direction; and not always smoothly.  But it is changing.  The population is growing; getting younger; is increasingly urbanised; but is stubbornly unequal in the distribution of wealth and access to services.  And internal political tensions and politics pose an increasing threat to a government more used to exercising unquestioning control. 

Whether because it is right or because it realises that it has no choice, the new government (well, the same government but with new faces and attitudes following what amounts to a form of peaceful coup within the ruling party in 2018) has set about unpicking its iron grip.  Tight controls on civil society, the media and security are being relaxed; and people are experimenting with what these new-but-old freedoms can do for them, their communities and their country.

And there is a lot to unlearn.  Although the law governing civil society has been comprehensively liberalised – almost at the stroke of a pen – the entrenched attitudes of the people in the system which applies it will take longer to change.  The kind of cultural change necessary is near generational in nature.  Yet proximate pressures and threats mount, driving the need for speed ahead of the likely comfort levels of many Ethiopians.

After years of being lauded for its pro-poor (if not always democratic) intentions, the post-Mengistu government found itself facing what amounted to an existential threat at the 2005 elections.  Having, in the run up to those elections, experimented with liberalisation of a sort, it found that it had performed electorally less well than it had hoped.  The liberalisation designed to cement its rule and credibility turned on a government not used to sharing control, debating policy and being accountable for both its successes and failures. Civil society had used its growing freedom to express the frustrations of ordinary people through the ballot box, resulting in the worst performance by the governing party since it had taken power in 1991.

Shocked by events, government reverted to type; and sought to reimpose control.  It blamed – probably partly rightly – civil society and the media for the situation and set about limiting the new found freedoms. In the case of civil society, it did this by hijacking a piece of legislation originally designed to formalise the rights, entitlements and responsibilities of civil society in an enabling manner; turning it into a straitjacket which would constrain civil society organisations most severely.  

The result was inevitable. Civil society struggled to have its voice heard; and government – which, it turns out, had actually relied on civil society organisations to reach the poorest in society – proved unable to tackle the many and diverse service delivery challenges before it.

Over time, civil society organisations found ways to cope, sometimes with carefully coordinated and delivered external support; sometimes by turning to the communities from which it had grown, shedding the time wasters and supporting those which added real value. And sometimes, carefully and with great skill, both.  This meant that when the ruling party prepared to shift direction in 2018, there were people and organisations able to respond to government’s call for a new partnership and a new beginning.  

But there is a storm cloud on the horizon.  Elections in Ethiopia are scheduled for 2020.  The conditions which prevailed in the run-up to the 2005 elections echo the conditions now, in 2019.  And there is little time available for government (or perhaps, the faction of the ruling party now leading the government) to prove to its supporters and constituents that this new approach can both deliver services on a grand scale and secure electoral success.   The new civil society legislation permits advocacy by and on behalf of ordinary people. It is a short step to the (generally welcome) emergence of a more politically savvy and active cadre of civil society organisations.  This is certain to affect the electoral landscape in 2020; and the big question, therefore, is not can the government deliver enough before the elections; but how will it behave when it is punished again at the ballot box for failing to do so?

8 April 2019

Blinded by the light: Maps, values and the importance of skilful navigation

I used to live and work in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.  
The nature of a state…
Ethiopia is a strong state, reasonably sure of its identity and sovereignty.  Even so, for an outsider it poses a number of challenges.  Language, culture, physical geography, history, food, etc.  But it has all the things that one might look for in a country – a flag; an anthem; history; an airport; roads; shops; government policies; hospitals; etc.
…and a non-state
On one occasion, I had to drive to Hargeisa – the capital city of the self-declared Republic of Somaliland.  It too has all the things one might look for in a state; and it has its own – different – set of challenges for an outsider.  But it doesn’t have sovereignty in the same way that Ethiopia does.  Perhaps as a reaction to the chaos of Somalia, Somaliland - a former British Protectorate – has charted its own course.  It looks and smells like a state but is recognised as such by only a very few countries – despite the fact that it is arguably a more successful “state” than Somalia itself.
What maps tell us…
On the way to Hargeisa, we had a map to hand.  The map showed us useful things like roads, rivers and physical features.  Following the journey on the map passed the time, but also helped us to know that we were heading in the right direction and making reasonable progress towards our goal.  We passed through Ethiopia’s fertile but fragile highlands, the greens and blues of the countryside echoed the colours on the map.  As we dropped down into lower altitudes, the colour of our surroundings – and those on the map - turned more orange and yellow.  The confident red of the road on the map turned to a thinner, white line which seemed to match the deterioration of the tarmac beneath our tyres.  A good, fast road turned to potholes; and eventually to a gravel track.  
Visible to us across the map was our destination, Hargeisa.  The cartographers promised us a city at the end of another red line indicating the main road between it and Djibouti.  All we needed to do was to intersect that red line, turn right and head on into town.
…and what they don’t
As we left the Ethiopian town of Jijiga, heading towards the border, the map stopped being so helpful.  There was nothing reassuring about the empty space on the map, but through the windscreen we could see a number of tracks heading in roughly the right direction; and along which it was clear that vehicles passed regularly.  Along the way – following these tracks surrounded by the amazing scenery of the Somali Steppe – we assumed that we would cross another confident line that we could see on the map – the border between Ethiopia and Somaliland.  We imagined that the border crossing itself would be obvious.  Probably some buildings; maybe a flag or two; perhaps some traders, police officers and the like.  And we imagined that the road would take us there.
After a while – more time than felt right given the terrain and the speed we were going – we started to notice a build-up of settlements.  Something felt wrong.  Then in the distance we saw lorries tracking across the horizon. Finally, we arrived at the edge of a tarmac road.

We had completely missed the border crossing point; and, as a result, we had managed both to leave Ethiopia illegally and enter Somaliland illegally. (Relative concepts, by the way, given the free movement of goods and people between the two countries on an entirely informal and daily basis.  Although the rules for local people seemed quite relaxed, we had a sensed that our diplomatic registration and foreign faces probably required a more concrete compliance with border formalities.)  So, having taken some local advice, we turned around and headed back towards Jijiga but on a slightly different rough track.  We found the border post, drove around it back into Ethiopia – informally again - and then set about re-crossing the border this time properly. Many people must have seen us coming (and indeed going, earlier) and no-one seemed to bat an eyelid at our return and subsequent departure – this time with properly stamped passports.
Accidental mission failure
The point here is that our norms – captured in a fairly formal sense on the map but informed also by our cultural expectations projected onto the landscape of the Horn of Africa – had led us to engage in a manner which did not reflect the reality on the ground before us; and in so doing we had risked both formal censure for breaking a set of rules, and the possible failure of our mission which was to get to Hargeisa in time for a meeting with representatives of the administration there.  These norms, of course, had included a sense that boundaries are always obvious and marked; and that we would know them when we saw them. (But we didn’t.)
This, of course, is an example of accidental mission failure denoted in tangible and physical things – maps; borders (or not); border crossings (or not); and stamped passports.  But mission failure can equally derive from a misreading of local cultural and political norms – mistaking “our” norms for values shared by all those who have an effect on the issue, environment or geography which we seek to change.  
Fatal logic
This failure to recognise how things actually work on the ground can often be amplified by an assumption that what is going on is illogical – or, even worse, “bad”.  And there is no doubt that bad things – very bad things - go on all the time.  But they are rarely illogical.  Whywhat happens often has an almost fatal logic to it.  People who we often consider to be bad are actually responding to the incentives which surround them with icy, cold logic.  The challenge then is to attempt to understand this logic and to work with it – “go with the grain” is the term often used – and to attempt to influence it to mutual advantage.  (Because the bad guys are not going to change their behaviour if they don’t see an advantage to them in doing so.)
Working with the people who are the problem
But this is hard.  It often involves dealing with people whose values we do not share; and whose incentives are alien to us.  In order to advance our own objectives in such a context, we have to work with the people who are the problem - and this means working to understand them and why they do what they do before seeking to influence their behaviour.  We know that to deal with the problems of marginalised young people, we need to work with the people and systems that marginalise them. We know that to promote gender equity we need to work with both the people who are excluded and the people who are the gate keepers.  Similarly, to achieve our objectives against a backdrop of conflict and insecurity, we need to work with people who we may regard as being invested in the problem and who do not – apparently in any way – share our world view.  This requires us – the users of maps and promoters of values – to learn the art of skilful navigation.
Skilful navigation
The art (it is an art, not a science) of skilful navigation is all about people.  Learning to read them; learning to understand them and the incentives that play on them; learning how to talk to them and engage them.  It involves being able to set aside our own norms and to consider those of others rationally and coolly.  It doesn’t involve projecting our norms and values onto others.  But it does involve being clear about our own norms and values.  Just because we seek to understand others who are not like us doesn’t mean that we need to be like them – just that we need to be able to read them and what makes them tick.
Skilful navigation also involves recognising that every attempt we make to engage offers us something to learn.  Sometimes because it has gone well, but more often – and better from a learning perspective – because it has not.  
And skilful navigation involves learning how to listen to others.  Often our local partners know more about how change happens in their context than we do.  They live, eat and breathe the local context.  Their success – sometimes their personal survival – depends on it.  So if they are successful navigators of what we might consider to be an obscure or difficult to understand context, why would we not learn from them about how to influence the other actors in their landscape? 
In summary, then…
Working within a complex conflict, insecurity or political context is not about making judgements about good or bad.  It is about accepting that what is happening (or, indeed, what is not happening) is a function of logic.  Therefore, seeking to understand the logic – which is most likely to be found in the incentives surrounding an issue – is the obvious way to go.  This involves recognising that sometimes our own presence – and values - can skew the context unhelpfully, so we need to learn how to work through and with others; and how to influence their behaviour. The goal is not a victory – good over bad – but a better accommodation of all the variables for a mutually beneficial future.