Developmental State Needs Tweaking, Not Demolition

The developmental state model applied in Ethiopia has been flawed because the government has been unable to create political institutions that are inclusive. With some tweaking, the developmental state can still deliver on its economic promises, writes Teodros Kiros (PhD) (, professor of philosophy at Berklee College of Music and Non-Resident Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University. 

The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi‘s concept of the developmental state has been successful at putting Ethiopia on the trajectory of economic development.

It emphasises that development is the defining task of the government. It must guide all the necessary components of the economy, including the banks, education, infrastructure and parts of civil society. All the subordinate parts of the state must follow directives articulated by the state and then processed by the appropriate functionaries of the state,  in particular, the bureaucrats.

Since Ethiopia is fundamentally an agrarian society, attention must be given to the agricultural sector where the labour force is concentrated. The duty of the state is to create opportunities for those who were previously excluded from the development project. The most basic example of this is the creation of a development bank that collects funds from commercial banks to lend money to farmers in order to help them create greater value and bring their produce to international markets.

The socialist economy, though inadequately organised, seeks to develop an alternative form of modernity to capitalism. But socialist ideas have yet to develop institutions that are able to incentivise better production.

Ethiopia’s developmental state developed an original economic form that decouples the idea of development from entrenched political competitiveness. It created bureaucrats who were more interested in implementing the agenda of a party instead of the public.

It tried to realise economic growth buttressed on the back of exclusive political institutions and economic institutions that do not reward merit.

The developmental state failed as a result of its insistence to secure economic development at the expense of aborting the democratic necessity. The unflinching vision of developing Ethiopia came with shocking outcomes of democratic institutions that lack autonomy.

The fundamentals of the developmental state are impressive mechanisms of utilising the untouched resource of Ethiopia: human capital waiting to be engaged economically and be unburdened of poverty. The repressive political structure, however, is at loggerheads with the idea of modernity, the pillars of which are democratic freedom and tolerance.

There are two principles of justice that every nation, whatever its economic ambitions, should adopt.

The first is the recognition of food, health, shelter and clothing as inalienable rights. African resources must be used in such a way that they can, with proper scientific aids, be channeled to eventually eliminate urgent human conditions of poverty and hunger and address attendant consequences that lead to a reduction in motivation.

The other is a demand for the absolute necessity of political freedom, and the importance of its recognition for those who feel that they are not free.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) may have ideas different from that of Meles, but there are fundamental elements of his theories that ought to be heeded. In the end, despite the divergent ideologies that the two may have, securing the basic necessities for the poor and economic development are points that can be agreed upon.

Before that though, Abiy should pay attention to the importance of the second principle of justice that guarantees freedom and an equal political playing field for every citizen to counteract the current non-inclusive political structure.

This will mediate the existential imperative of basic necessities that should be simultaneously introduced. By making the system more transparent and democratic, the fundamental objective of the developmental state can be satisfactorily achieved.

Development requires a democratic structure. The right to speech, assembly and worship fuel the democratic structure and most potently help express freedom. The marketplace of ideas these would usher in are our only route to sustained technological and economic development.

The principle of the right to basic necessities justifies the idea of development and gives it a material anchor. It nonetheless must be buttressed by the second principle of basic freedoms for it to have significance. Indeed, modern socio-political thought ought to give prominent stature to fundamental freedoms as inherent features of democracy.

Ghelawdewos Araia (PhD) has rightly argued in Political Leadership & Political Economy in Contemporary Ethiopian Politics, “The US, Canada, the UK, and Australia belong to the LME [Liberal Market Economy] group, and Germany, Japan, Scandinavian nations, Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland belong to the CME [Command Market Economy] bloc. While the former group still promotes unfettered capitalism, the latter bloc of nations humanized capitalism.”

He adds that if “Ethiopia adopts the LME policy of economic development, slowly but surely it could reverse the gains of the DS [developmental state] and the many major projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) could be stalled or delayed indefinitely; if, on the other hand, Ethiopia pursues the CME strategy, it will have a chance to make reforms in the economy without completely obliterating the DS and without hindering the current pace of development.”

Indeed, as the development state has worked, it should not be abandoned but perfected by reforming the political institutions that have eschewed inclusivity. We ought to think hard about choosing an appropriate economic form that serves the people’s interests as opposed to blankly applying the policy prescriptions of the Washington Consensus.

By Teodros Kiros (PhD) (
Teodros is a professor of philosophy at Berklee College of Music and Non-Resident Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University. 

Published on Sep 01,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 957]



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