Cultural Urbanisation

A recent discussion with a friend of mine, who is a business management coach by profession, has taken me by surprise. It is not that the discussion was unique in subject but it brought a rather new perspective to a popular issue.

Our discussion was about culture and how it affects economic development. My friend, aUnited Stateseducated, mid-30s guy, noted that the current state ofEthiopiais analogous to a guy who has awakened from a long overdue sleep to immediately start sprinting. So much as the sprinting comes after a very long sleep, he thinks, it has a speed that is far from justified. For him, all of the current negative economic externalities, from inflation to supply constraints, are inherent economic adjustments.

Culture stands as a pull factor in the matrix, he believes. What is being considered as culture in our fair nation, at least for him, is the practice of conservatively upholding everything old. Nothing but the indigenous alphabet is Ethiopian in the very sense of culture, he thinks.

His rather unique perspective about culture rightly fits into my personal perspective. And it all was visible during the Nations and Nationalities Day, celebrated last week.

Although the intent was to showcase the diverse cultural heritage of the nation, the threads of poverty were dominant in the celebration. It is even amazing to see poverty being accounted as culture. It is nothing but saddening that barrenness is touted as tradition.

Be that as it may, a discussion on cultural development is timely forEthiopia. A good indication of the importance of such a discussion is the recent evolution of the domestic music culture.

It has become a trend to produce songs by mixing a cultural melody with a modern beat. As if to show the inherent incompetence of the national music sphere, musicians are seen rushing to attach themselves to a given nationality. They, in a way, dive into the very core of Ethiopian politics through their very rush to adopt genre of cultural music, although they are often seen struggling to achieve political correctness.

But even their latest rush is marred by mediocrity. They approach culture in the same way as the obsolete dependency theory once tried to treat it.

The story of a guy who has fallen in love with a girl belonging to one of the tribal societies and trying to convey his love for her is typical in most contemporary songs. Showing the minimalist approach that our musicians opted to adopt, the guy would only use one phrase from the local language to convey his affection. He boringly repeats it many times and confusingly mixes it with Amharic.

This is exactly what dependency theory suggests. Proponents of the obsolete theory provide that cultural development is largely driven by external sources of modernity. And that relationship is one way that the urban core would have a dominant role over the rural periphery. Whatever the urban core dictates will eventually happen, even when it deprives the periphery of equal rights to benefits.

Alike what the Westerners do, the Ethiopian urbanite hatches poverty in the rural, largely tribal, society of the country by virtue of cultural interference. It advocates underdevelopment by confusing it with conservation of tradition. It abuses the benefits of ethnic federalism by highlighting backwardness.

It is only after looking at the matrix of the situation that my friend expressed his disappointment over the popular conception of culture. And that is exactly why I believe a discussion over cultural development is timely.

Sustaining underdevelopment should not be taken as cultural preservation. The latter can only be done through creating equal opportunities for all nations and letting them express themselves in a way they like. And it avoids interference.

There cannot be a just cultural development under domination. So it would not happen under the very threads dependency. A just cultural development can only happen under economic, social and cultural independence.

Then, changing the way culture is promoted in our fair nation stands at the base of the debate. Since it is being promoted in the wrong way, it is not growing at par with the economic sector. Even worse, many of the cultural threads are hindering economic development.

At stake for our fair nation, which is increasingly getting proud of its diversity, then, is the ability to transform culture from being a pull factor in economic development to making it a push factor. Certainly, the road ahead is very long.


By Getachew T. Alemu
Getachew T. Alemu is the Op-Ed Editor for Fortune. He can be contacted at

Published on Dec 16, 2012 [ Vol 13 ,No 659]



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