People Need to be Heard

Student protests around Oromia dominated the headlines of mainstream and social media in Ethiopia over the past two weeks. The protests, largely involving students of higher education institutions and secondary schools, seem to oppose implementation of an integrated master plan between Addis Abeba and the surrounding special zones of Oromia, that has been on the drawing board for over four years now.

In response to their demands, protestors often met with the unrestrained powers of law enforcement. But the  demands go beyond the issue of the master plan; they include strict adherence to the Constitution, respect for identity, effective self-administration and regulatory clarity.

This is not the first time that there have been protests against the master plan. A year ago, the first round of protests took lives and damaged property. And that was perceived to be the end of it, as the Revolutionary Democrats expressed their will to give ear to the legitimate concerns of the protestors.

Give ear, they did. Regional and federal government officials went around the region to discuss the issue with the communities concerned. Top of the agenda was to bridge the gulf between the state and the community and restore mutual trust.

A second round of protests on the same issue, however, means that the convincing act of the EPRDFites was not as persuasive as it needed to be. It may also mean that the demands of the public have not yet been met. Either way, much remains to be said and done by the ruling elite.

Essentially, the instigation is coming from a development plan meant to harmonize the growth of the capital, Addis Abeba, with that of its surrounding localities. Even if Addis is a chartered city, with its own administrative structure, it also serves as the seat of Oromia’s government. But the two stakes are not guided by clearly defined laws of benefits. This, of course, is despite a constitutional promise that leaves the detail to further laws.

As the lone metropolis in the nation, Addis has been growing, in leaps and bounds. Its horizontal expansion, however, seems to be reaching its limits. The annual rate of horizontal expansion of Addis over the past 50 years has been three to six per cent, depending on the source referred, with the pressure drifting into the surrounding localities.

For the ruling EPRDFites, then, having a development blueprint that gives due recognition to the challenges of the capital and its surrounding will be important. And this can be done without affecting the administrative boundaries of either the capital or its surrounding zones. It is in recognition of the challenges on the ground – infrastructure deficit, unemployment, lack of urban planning, inefficient use of land, lack of basic services and environmental degradation – that the Revolutionary Democrats opted for an integrated master plan. What they seem to see at the end of the tunnel is effective economic integration under the bounds of administrative limits.

Their opponents, including a large community of students in higher education institutions, claim that the intended integration is going to come at the expense of farmers. For the students and their emotional sympathizers in the Diaspora, the plan is an organised mechanism of pushing the bounds of Addis onto the special zones and hence compromising the linguistic cultural identity of the surrounding areas. In the end, they claim, the plan will subject the indigenous community to dislocation, unemployment and destitution.

Much as the debate and protest over the integrated master plan have their unique dimensions, this issue has been largely facing the ruling developmentalists ever since they came to power in 1991, overthrowing what has been called the bloodiest dictatorship in Africa. Even when they stood in favour of the unpopular ownership of land by the state, their intention has always been challenged as one that harms the public. Thus, the choice has always been between an alternative that brings more material wealth and one that prioritises human development.

There is no peculiarity in the challenge the EPRDFites face. Development practitioners, not least policy makers, around the world, face this choice in their own way. So much as development  policymaking is not an exact science, each choice would have its own costs and benefits. What seems to be the key rule to success is to thoroughly identify the benefits and costs of the choices, and make the decision based on rational valuation.

Every development activity, be it a project, a programme or a long-term plan, involves such a valuation process. Oftentimes, politics plays a role not only in predefining the nature of choices to be considered, but also in determining the costs and benefits of alternatives. At policy level, however, a smart decision over a development activity entails looking each cost and benefit through the eyes of the public.

Theory aside, the case with EPRDFites has always been to play on the side of economic benefits. Indicators, such as growth, income, employment and capital formulation seem to make more sense to them than human development factors, such as quality of life. Even in the case of the integrated master plan, their evidence base comes from the aggregate numerical benefits the plan would bring.

Paradoxically, the ruling EPRDFites prefer to be identified for their commitment to development. It is as if their definition of development is different from the popular understanding of it as of “action meant to improve the livelihood of people”.

Whether in Oromia or any other region of the country, the stakes within development decision making relate to both improving the material wellbeing of people and enhancing the quality of their lives. Moreover, it also entails giving due attention to the cultural, spiritual, emotional and communal meaning people attach to changes to be brought through development. And there cannot be any place where this is more important than Ethiopia.

The diversity Ethiopia hosts, inherently entails giving policy attention to threads of differences. In such a scenario, development cannot afford to be insensitive to differentials. It, therefore, is better to err on the side of caution than take the risk of insensitivity.

With development plans, such as the integrated master plan, the ruling EPRDFites ought to place the people at the centre of development. It ought to become clear to them, at least after all the costs paid during the two rounds of protests, that being deaf to the concerns of the public makes development all the more costly. And so far as the ambition is to build democracy, there cannot be a choice – not only for the EPRDFites, but also for any other agency that holds power – other than sourcing power from the people. Democracy implies that the people are the ultimate deciders.

What the time demands from the ruling developmentalists, both in Oromia and other regions, is to do engagement in their developmental valuation in a manner that puts people at the centre. The focus should not be on aggregate economic benefits, but on what it all means to the people. Although they do so in unwarranted violent ways, some sections of the public are speaking out. It is better for the EPRDFites to listen and make sure their developmentalism “takes care of the stones, while crossing the river”, as the popular Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once said.

Sustained development, after all, can be ensured only if people are the means and ends of development decision making.

Published on Dec 14,2015 [ Vol 16 ,No 815]



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