Development plans under the ruling Revolutionary Democrats have become progressively ambitious. Stretching development capacity to its limit seems to be the one defining factor that the ruling elite focuses on whenever they think of planning for the future. Thanks to this ambition, Ethiopia is increasingly associated with growth, improved service delivery and enhanced government commitment.
Over the past 13 years, for instance, Ethiopia’s economy has been growing at an average rate of 10.1pc. Basic services, such as education, primary healthcare, water supply and sanitation, rural infrastructure and housing, have seen historic progress. Indicators, from primary enrollment to life expectancy, have those of progressed like no other time in the history of the nation. Whereas primary enrollment has reached almost 100pc, the average life expectancy of Ethiopians has jumped to 62, from its prolonged stagnation at 51.
Much as the achievements have improved the well-being of citizens, however, they have emboldened the spirit of the ruling EPRDFites. As a result, they have continued to churn out plans that constitute mega projects. Typical to this scenario are a 6,000Mw hydropower dam, multiple sugar factories across the nation, fertilizer factories, cross-country roads, toll roads, irrigation schemes and industrial parks. Both the first and second Growth & Transformation Plans (GTP I & GTP II) are adequately occupied by projects with the ambition of paving the nation’s road to middle-income status within the next decade.
There, of course, had been times that the ambition of the ruling EPRDF was put to the hot pan of debate. One such case was the debate the government and development partners had over the first generation GTP. At the meeting held at the UNECA hall, off Menelik II Avenue, development partners fiercely argued that the plan was too ambitious to be realised. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a chief architect of GTP I and most of the policy documents of the ruling party, defended the plan saying that “it is made deliberately ambitious, but it is achievable.” In his counter argument, Meles noted that the past has taught the leadership that much more is possible if public and bureaucratic mobilization is done effectively.
Therein lies the underlining assumption in the plans of the ruling elite. They rightly know that they are leading an economy not so much endowed with natural resources. Essentially, land and labour are the prevalent factors of production. Capital remains the major determinant of economic growth. Hence, they believe that as much of it as possible has to be created by optimally using the prevalent resources. And the model they prefer to utilize for this purpose is creating a rent maximizing state with the objective of tapping the surplus from the economy and using it where its returns are higher.
But this process has been challenged by one incessant roadblock – poor implementation capacity. All those ambitious plans for infrastructure development, service provision and systemic reforms are coming on top of a development bureaucracy that lacks the vision, technical capacity and drive to realise them. Not only has implementation lag become a norm, but it is costing the economy hugely.
A recent report presented to Parliament by officials of the Sugar Corporation, a public enterprise, for instance, has shown that none of the 10 sugar factories planned under the first GTP has yet been realised. Expansion projects of some existing sugar factories are also lagging behind schedule. And this is costing the nation much in direct as well as indirect costs. Standing out among them is the ever-increasing cost of importing sugar.
This would not be so worrying if the case were limited to the sugar. But project lag and cost overrun happen in almost all sectors, be they economic or social sectors. Some critics even go to the extent of saying planning big is the new conundrum of the nation under the leadership of the Revolutionary Democrats.
Many critics see ambitious planning as the new instrument of political persuasion by the Revolutionary Democrats. So much as the ruling elite wish to be portrayed as purveyors of development, their argument goes, they plan big flagship projects that can help them control the public discourse. And they do this even when they rightly know that they are not going to accomplish their goals within the expectations.
Of course, this story is not altogether true. There have been times that big projects were completed within their defined times and budgets. One could mention the case of the Addis Abeba Light Rail Transit (LRT) system and the Addis-Adama Toll Road. Both projects have shown that effective project implementation is possible under all the circumstances that could be presented as excuses.
If one is to go by the theory of state formation and sustainable development, it is vivid that no long period of growth can occur without ambitious leadership. Developmental experiences of China, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore show that ambition is the key driving force to change the frame of development from that of a low base to a higher one. In all of these countries, a big economic jump is closely associated with aspiring leadership that has a political commitment to transcend the eminent snags on the journey to betterment.
In this sense, therefore, the pushiness of the ruling EPRDFite is much to be admired. It is, by far, the right equation to bring the economy out of its current base. At the end of the road lies economic betterment, enhanced social well-being and industrialization.
But the equation has one flaw and it is the fact that implementation capacity is not growing at the same rate as the ambitiousness of plans. In considering future development, the ruling elite seem to focus only on the targets. But the targets cannot be achieved without a process. Certainly, the key element within this process is developing social capital.
In his developmental argument, Meles underlined the importance of accumulation of social capital in bringing transformation. This is the very edge in which the ruling EPRDFites are failing. In both the bureaucracy and the wider public, the capacity to translate ambitious plans to developmental results is short of the expectation. In the parlance of the developmentalists, low implementation capacity remains a recurring problem within the development sphere.
It is clear that Ethiopia’s aspiration to enter into the club of middle-income countries cannot be realised without effective implementation of plans. The options for the leadership are either to limit the planning to existing implementation capacity or to bring implementation capacity on par with the planning targets. For all justifiable reasons, not to mention the importance of growth to poverty reduction, the second path is the best option for the nation.
But this path requires restructuring the bureaucracy, putting clear and accountable key performance indicators (KPI), linking performance with incentives and having systems for accounting failure. It should become clear to the ruling EPRDFites that planning, in itself, does not bring development. Planning has to be underpinned by functional, flexible, accountable and incentivized implementation.
The grander the plans, the more aggressive the build up of implementation capacity should be. That is the dilemma for the Revolutionary Democrats. Trading blame cannot be a solution. Neither will reporting excuses solve the problem.
It is only through crafting a comprehensive strategy to enhance the stock of implementation capacity in the economy that growth can be sustained. Failure to do so will have economic as well as political costs. Surely, not even the fiercest opponents of the ruling elite would like to see them fail in this regard for it is all pertinent to the future of the nation.
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