by Getachew Mequanent

Politic has to do with two issues. The first issue is state power, which means that a group of people organize around a political party to acquire state power and used it to allocate resources in society or influence and direct societal changes. Progressive states allocate resources equitably simultaneously with directing changes in society. In contrast, states that are captured by interest groups serve only the interest of those groups on power.  An example of a state captured by interest groups is found in the Ethiopian neighbour Kenya where politicians recently rejected a bill that required them to pay taxes on their annual salaries of US $100,000 (see full story). Another example is the feudal era in Ethiopia when the reactionary monarch, mehal safaris and urban thugs looted the public treasurer to finance their own lifestyles and educate their offsprings. And they were replaced by brutal and corrupt group of elites that terrorized Ethiopians for 17 years.

The second issue in the business of politics is competition for resources in society, or what I simply identify here as the politics of poverty and basic needs, which means that different groups in society see both poverty (a state of deprivation) and basic needs (capability to have shelter, cloth, food, etc) in different ways and that each group must compete to protect its interest. There are high expectations on governments, especially in a situation where governments are elected through competitive elections. If that government does not address people’s needs, it will be defeated during an election.  However, it often happens that once a government changes, the incoming government has no capacity to address poverty and basic needs. The result is what Larry Diamond calls a “democracy recession” or disenchantment with democracy (people disillusioned with elections and democracy).

Politics in developing countries like Ethiopia is more about the distribution of the costs of economic growth in society. To explain, economic growth has costs in the form of money spent, opportunities foregone or hardships experienced by people as a result of the effects of policies. For example, the government must allocate more money to programs in rural areas to support agricultural growth, which means less money (reduced benefits) for historically privileged urban groups; or remove fuel subsidy to transfer more money for food subsidy programs, which means that drivers (middle class people) will have to pay more for gas; or provide market information for peasants, so that they can get more from their produce, which means that non-farm producers will have to pay high prices for food staples;  or take away import subsidies to put more money for infrastructure building programs; and so on. Second, when the economy grows, the cost of living also increases. We are not talking about increases in the prices of food and basic services. We are talking about new lifestyle trends that increase household expenditures, such as expenses for telephones, clothes, TV, fridges, sofas, beds, cars, DVD players, recreation, entertainment and so on.

Should the government introduce legislation to fix the prices of teff and wheat to ease the cost of living in urban areas (at the expense of the peasantry); or take away money from the education and infrastructure budget to subsidize fuel; or reduce financing for rural development programs to subsidize prices for mobile phones, TVs, and so on? Or, should the government raise public and private sector wages across the board, thereby causing hyperinflation? There are no right or wrong policy choices. Decisions are made on the basis of strategic options that consider a variety of issue.

Precisely why my former planning professor once argued that we should talk about “publics” (plural) instead of  “public” (singular), because the pubic domain is full of competing and conflicting interests (issues are too diverse).  Let me give a few examples to illustrate this:  

  • A family member of mine has two mobile phones and a telephone line, TV, new fridge, sofa, and so on, while she, her husband and two infant children live in a small, poorly maintained and dusty rental unit. Why not cut costs at least by giving up the two mobile phones (since they have a telephone line) and use the saving to rent a better place? This question can became a sort of a laughing matter, because mobile phones, TVs, fridges, modern sofa and beds, and so on, are now basic necessities in Ethiopia. What was then the issue? Costs have gone up and the government has not done anything about it.
  • A young tax driver in Addis Ababa complained to us all the way (to our destination) that he just fell short of raising the money needed to buy a share in the new automated taxis business (the new taxis are expected to resume service soon). He grieved about the extent of his “poverty” (which is his inability to raise enough investment funds).  He couldn’t save enough because the cost of living has gone up and the government has not done anything about it.
  • The average price on the menu in any restaurant or café at Bole road in Addis is 15 Birr for breakfast and 40 Birr for dinner. Yet, you will be surprised to know that these places are full everyday, so that (for example) a government worker goes out for a dinner with his friends to spend 100 Birr, or eats breakfast every morning to spend over 100 a week. By the middle of the month, this worker runs out of money and complains that he does not have enough to live with.  Costs of living have gone up and the government has not done anything about it.
  • In one rural town in North Wello Zone called Gishena, I saw a billboard sign which read,  “learn from the Woreda”.  When I saw the way agriculture had been organized in the countryside, it was clear to me that there might be something to learn from this Woreda. I approached a man who owned an auto-service business and asked him what had made that Woreda famous. He was more interested in talking about government neglect, such as lack of infrastructure, high taxes and ignoring urban issues. He gave me an example of the hotel on the next block that had paid 40,000 Birr in taxes in the previous year. Surely, the man later said that the agriculture sector was booming and farmers were getting richer. But his had made his point: high taxes and slow business.
  • EPRDF policies have embraced the peasantry. This, coupled with an increase in agricultural productivity, has created a perception that rural areas are better off than urban areas. What do rural people say? They agree that things have been improving. But, the gains are offset by the rising cost of agricultural inputs and basic consumption goods (cloths, shoes, salt, medicine, etc.). Afford a telephone or TV? Impossible. Many still take   loans to buy inputs. Even the government’s urban safety net program (food subsidy, for example) has not reached small rural towns.  If you think that peasants face only an urban bias, you may be wrong.  Economists have their own bias against rural society, in that, they believe that the rural economy is not yet integrated into the urban economy and they don’t see inflation and other economic factors having an impact on rural society.  So, the issue (from a rural perspective) is that costs are increasing and the government is not helping.

What we observe in the examples above is that one person’s poverty is another person’s basic need or one person’s basic need is another person’s privilege. For example, in rural areas, having a telephone, let alone two mobile phones plus a regular telephone, is a privilege; or, for a hotel guard that makes 400 Birr a month, dining in an expensive restaurant is a privilege and, for that matter, if anyone eats an expensive dinner and runs out of money by the middle of the month, that is his/her problem. The  “politics of poverty, basic needs and state power” then means that different social groups want to minimize the effects of the cost of economic growth by differing or without differing costs to other social groups. They do this by influencing government policy. Unless you have a strong egalitarian state – or what is referred to in development thought as developmental state – which ensures the equitable distribution of the cost and benefits of development, public policies will end up creating structural disadvantages for those who are located far away from the centres of power. Indeed, in 1981, Robert Bates wrote that politicians, bureaucrats, middle class, industrial workers and other urban social classes were standing together to exploit the peasantry using the state as an instrument of resource extraction (e.g., the state forcing peasants to sell their produce cheap). Actually Bates’ argument was not new except that he broke the intellectual taboo of that time by including industrial workers and other lower urban social classes (or generally the urban poor) with dominant economic and political classes as exploiters of the peasantry. Go to Ethiopia and you will meet a bureaucrat, shopkeeper, driver or a shoe shining boy who ridicules peasants for drinking beer, whereas urban people are struggling to have ends met.  Not all peasants spend their money on drinking. Nor is there a law that forbids peasants from drinking in the cities. The issue has to do with a deeply seated urban perception that peasants should be at the very bottom end of social strata in Ethiopian society.

The missing dimension in Ethiopian politics is that not many, or even nobody, think beyond the seizure of state power or what should be done after a political party seizes power.  Nor is there much emphasis on the development of knowledge and know-how required to govern a country. Rural development must be central to political discourse, since the majority of Ethiopians live in rural areas. Of course, no party should be obliged to have rural orientation in its thinking or ideology. But, then, the same party shouldn’t go to rural areas with its rhetoric of “unity”, “Ethiopia” or “history” to preach politics. The era of mahal safaris politics is over. Real needs are addressed when politics is based on reality and when politicians have a heart-felt commitment to serve the people.