An announcement by the Health Ministry over a week ago caused a controversy. It was stated that there would be a 25pc discount on health services by private hospitals to Ethiopian diaspora visiting the country for the New Year.
It had been preceded by similar discounts lasting a month and a half by Ethiopian Airlines, tour operators and hotels. They are incentive packages rolled out after the recently formed National Tourism Board reached agreements with players in the respective industries to lure the diaspora into spending the holiday in Ethiopia.
The health services package was an element that did not bode well with sections of the public. While air transport and accommodations are luxury facilities that can be used to bait consumers, health services ought not to remain free to the machinations of supply and demand, or so the thinking went.
Indeed, there are services that a government should provide to ensure opportunities are not lopsided in favour of the financially privileged. But it should also be understood that the private sector cannot be blamed for taking the effort to attract individuals that would otherwise catch the first flight back home for a service which few will compromise on quality.
The initiative by the board to reach such a consensus with the health industry shows the level of eagerness Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) administration has to secure the support of the diaspora, recognised as Ethiopians or non-nationals of Ethiopian origin who have lived for a year or more outside the country.
The incentive packages came after the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States, a country that hosts close to a quarter of a million Ethiopian-born immigrants as of 2015, according to the Pew Research Centre, where he called for economic and political engagements by the diaspora in Ethiopia. A Diaspora Trust Fund and an advisory council to consult on this matter have also been formed.
At a time when the nation is in a severe macroeconomic crisis, the initiative ticks most of the boxes of short-term economic benefits.
Foreign currency depletion, debt accumulation and poor output have cast a shadow over increasing expenditure for infrastructure to improve economic performance. Inflationary pressure and lower export revenue in the last fiscal year have sapped justifications for the utilisation of monetary policies to usher in competitiveness.
The EPRDFites have exhausted many of the tricks up their sleeves. At such a crossroads, the diaspora community provides an effective and safe source of revenue.
It is effective because remittances have consistently outperformed export revenue, having reached well past four billion dollars, while goods exports have generated below three billion dollars for the past three years. Persuading the diaspora to transfer foreign currency also requires less effort on the part of the government than overseas consumers looking for competitive prices and quality products.
It is safe because financial constraints of the sort that Ethiopia suffers from often lead governments to bargain with outside players. Policy sovereignty gets the short end of the stick at such a juncture.
The government’s commitment to engage the diaspora has externalities beyond helping the nation find a way out from its current economic predicament. The effort should be reoriented to establish a long-term relationship that contributes to the political and economic health of the nation.
This could be the transfer of know-how, skills and networking that will be indispensable to building autonomous institutions, enacting efficient policies and addressing socio-cultural tensions across the country. That the diaspora community has played a significant part in putting the nation on a path toward reform is undeniable. Political activism overseas has not been faultless, but it has brought to the forefront socio-political issues that the incumbents have long delayed.
The economic aspect of creating a private sector that can be competitive on the international scene cannot be disregarded either.
While the government’s eagerness to reap such benefits are commendable, it should be noteworthy that there are parallels in history when the relationship between the incumbents in Addis Abeba and the diaspora had warmed, only to sour up again.
Two of the most important revolutions in the 20th century in Ethiopia – the fall of feudalism in 1974 and the ousting of the Derguein 1991 – were greeted with enthusiasm by large segments of the diaspora. There was similar eagerness to contribute to the political and economic well being of the nation. But relations deteriorated in both cases, and movements in the diaspora returned to backing political revolutions instead of evolutions.
The current dynamism should not be overturned. The past half-century has shown that the primary requirement for this is instituting a political system inclusive of divergent views. In an age of globalisation and unprecedented technological advancement, political activism will be imported if it is not given space domestically.
Addressing long-held complaints by the diaspora would also help build a lasting relationship. High on the list is dual citizenship. Few are willing to trade European or American passports for an Ethiopian one. Instead, they prefer to maintain that privilege while also being freed from the inconvenience of living as non-nationals.
What compliments this would be opportunities for investment in Ethiopia, such as ownership of shares in financial institutions. Patriotism can only go so far to stimulate the diaspora to bring much-needed capital into the country. Profits can take them the rest of the way.
Another is improving bureaucracy at the diaspora desk, the Diaspora Affairs Directorate-General at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has become a source of complaint.
Here, hiring diaspora in advisory positions can help. It can be disorientating to be bombarded with various levels of inefficiency and inadequacy after years of living in a developed country. The position needs to be staffed by capable individuals that can help manoeuvre difficult situations.
Holding forums between the diaspora and Ethiopian embassies in host countries will also be of value in strengthening communication as well as to invigorate the participation of the community in the affairs of the nation.
Prime Minister Abiy is walking in the right direction. Actively engaging the Ethiopian diaspora community will pay political and economic dividends. But whipping up patriotic fervour and temporary incentives are not adequate enough strategies that will usher in a lasting relationship as past experiences can testify.
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