For over half a century, the Ethiopian diaspora community have, from time to time, come together to help the motherland by all means possible. The first occasion I recall was during the drought in the 1970s.
As a student at a University in California, I recall some fellow Ethiopians who joined with other American students to raise funds and create awareness of the drought on campus and in the surrounding community. They wrote letters to members of both houses of the United States Congress to push the government to take part in the worldwide effort to alleviate the problem.
Once again, the famine of the 1980s created great suffering and death. The world responded with a collective effort to bring aid to the afflicted. The famous “We are the World” song was written by Michael Jackson and sang by dozens of renowned artists that came together to record the single album. It was sold worldwide to raise money to help the starving people of Ethiopia and other African countries.
There were many other efforts undertaken to raise money to end hunger. Worth mentioning is a campaign by U2 bandleader Bono. The Ethiopian diaspora made significant contributions to these efforts by buying records and making cash contributions. The Ethiopian Diaspora had no well-known mechanism that could be used, trusted and managed by Ethiopians at that time.
Today, the significant contribution by the diaspora is remittances. In the 2016/17 fiscal year, four billion dollars was remitted to Ethiopia. That is significant and should be lauded and appreciated.
Many members of the diaspora community have invested their life’s savings in various projects in Ethiopia. These investments have had mixed results. Some quickly found out that it is not a cakewalk to invest in Ethiopia.
The bureaucracy is horrendous. Personnel responsible for attracting new investment act as gatekeepers and not as professional solicitors of new businesses. They are not ready to help realize objectives for the benefit of the investor and the nation.
Over the last decade, there have been some gradual changes but they are limited to only a handful of offices and organisations. It largely depends on the heads of those agencies or organisations. It is essential that the managers, directors and administrators become result-oriented and be able to make decisions on issues and problems that investors have in short order and effectively
Enter the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and the fast pace of reforms we are witnessing in Ethiopia. In three months, he has had a significant impact on the political, administrative and governance of the country.
He has succeeded in signing a peace agreement with Eritrea and has brought optimism to many Ethiopians. Through his motto of love, forgiveness and unity, he has won the hearts and minds of the people and has opened the doors for better governance, equitable development, peace and unity.
This is not all. Since his election as the chairman of the EPRDF and his swearing in as prime minister, Abiy has stressed his stand against ethno-nationalism and has emphasised ‘Ethiopianism’. He has also secured the release of Ethiopians jailed for illegal entry and petty crimes in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Sudan and Kenya.
The unprecedented outpouring of affection afforded him by many Ethiopians is a testament to the strong support that the Prime Minister has garnered in a short time. This was evident at a rally in Addis Abeba in June. Expressions of support on T-shirts, placards, fliers and newspaper ads revealed the aspiration for a better and peaceful tomorrow based on a democratic Ethiopia.
At this critical time, the diaspora needs to be part of the change and resurgence.
The goal the diaspora over the course of the last few decades was to take advantage of educational opportunities in host countries, work to support itself and to deal with life in a highly modernized society.
But it was also to see Ethiopia’s rapid development to a modern state where there is equality among people and where poverty, hunger and malnutrition are eradicated. They also wanted to see economic growth spurred by free education and healthcare. They also wanted to see a modern agricultural system where livestock and crop diseases are contained.
Although we should not repeat the misguided governance of the past five decades or so, there have been considerable reforms in Ethiopa.
Access to education, electricity, clean water and health services have grown at unprecedented rates, including in rural areas, to meet the ever-growing demands of Ethiopia’s population. Industrialisation, though hit with obstacles over the last few years, has also risen, creating job opportunities for youth and attracting significant investment from overseas.
Tourism, which offers many attractions like cultural and historical sites that attract visitors, is gradually increasing as well. The sector will continue to grow as long as the rest of the world sees a stable and peaceful Ethiopia
But there are also significant concerns that need to be addressed. This includes the unequal distribution of wealth and a small middle-class base. A fifth of the population lives under the poverty line and youth unemployment is high. This is detrimental to the peace and stability of the country.
Ethnic-based violence is also on the rise. A sense of national identity has been illusive within society, creating divisions and radicalism, and constraining the movement of people across administrative demarcations.
Democratic institutions are not considered autonomous in the eyes of the public, and the hegemonic aspirations of the incumbent party have only intensified over the years. Pluralism, despite the official rhetoric, is non-existent on the ground, starving the nation of alternative views on governance and economic policies.
The media landscape is not vibrant and neither is government transparency. Corruption and nepotism are rife within the public sector, and institutions are unable to recruit and retain employees who posses the proper qualifications and expertise.
The diaspora could and should then contribute to fill these economic and political gaps through transfers of know-how and by providing financial support. But there are a couple of items that should be addressed to make these contributions easier.
Many in the diaspora would like to hold dual citizenship, which will allow them to be engaged more actively here. This would grant them the same rights and privileges as other Ethiopian citizens and at the same time enable them to retain their citizenship in host countries.
Another is relief from dual taxation for non-nationals of Ethiopian origin. This is taxation by the Ethiopian government for income generated from overseas-based companies operating in Ethiopia. The firms are doubly taxed in the foreign country for their activities here. There are provisions that would eliminate this, dual taxation avoidance agreement between states.
This dual taxation avoidance agreement can only be implemented through direct communication between two governments. There is precedence for this in Ethiopia, where the country has signed the agreement with 10 countries for expats working in locally-based firms.
What Abiy has been able to accomplish in the last three months is nothing short of a miracle. He has the confidence and strength of will to bring about rapid economic development in the country, to reach ambitious goals and to realise democracy.
The diaspora community should be an active player in this effort.
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