The Bread Issue

The World Economic Forum, in its Global Competitiveness Index, ranks countries by their government’s efficiency in spending. The result is not what many would expect. It is not the United States, the United Kingdom or a Scandinavian nation that makes it to the top of the ranking. It is the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

One would think that to ensure the government uses its budget efficiently, multiparty democracy is necessary. There needs to be robust checks and balances to hold wasteful or corrupt officials accountable. There need to be multiple parties in government and a competitive political playing field for officials to feel that their only key to public office is a content constituency.

If higher officials do not source their right to govern from the governed, then why would they feel beholden to the citizenry? Why go through the trouble of formulating appropriate policies and conducting the affairs of the state responsibly?

Perhaps it has to do with the leaders’ foresightedness, which officials in Africa, including Ethiopia, have lacked. Even in countries that conduct free and fair elections, corruption is rampant, the bureaucracy is inefficient, and there is little appetite to look beyond a few years when implementing new policies.

The problem is not so much the lack of democracy but the inability to understand that even if one is an authoritarian, certain responsibilities cannot be avoided. Unless these are observed, violent uprisings will be recurring episodes.

It was the late Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping that said, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; as long as it catches mice, it’s a good cat.”

And, it seems, the theory holds true. If a government can guarantee safety and a higher standard of living, the populace is largely content.

Ideologies are like dessert to the public at large. It is undeniable that democracy is essential, as are liberal values. Unfortunately, there is no definitive theory that democracy indeed secures economic growth.

Some may argue that the UAE is an unusually resource-rich country that should not be used as a case study, but so are South Sudan or Venezuela. What is different is that the emirs have been adept at maximising the economic benefits to their citizens. In turn, the containment of the public guarantees for them political stability.

It is unavoidable that multilateral institutions and Western Nations would complain that political rights are not being respected. Nonetheless, unless a government is committing something especially egregious, such as developing nuclear weapons, they would not abstain from trading with such nations or maintaining close relationships. Geopolitics guarantees this.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and his administration cannot be blamed for failing to give as much attention to the economic ills of the nation as the political malaise. Under normal circumstances, front page news in the past two weeks would have been the nation’s low export performance in yet another fiscal year. But lootings, conflict and the killing of innocent civilians are crowding out airtime and space in newspapers.

It is unavoidable that is how the administration feels about it too. Abiy himself had said, not long after assuming office, that his priority is ensuring stability. But it is incumbent upon his administration to realise that there are fundamental factors that cannot wait.

The cost of living is merely rising, and job opportunities are, despite the many that graduate each year from colleges, hard to come by. And basic infrastructure seems to be getting worse by the day. There are recurrent water shortages, power cuts and poor internet services. Collectively, these are sapping the energy of businesses, not to mention the slew of public institutions, such as health centres, that depend on them.

What all of this contributes to will be a public that, even if it gets the political rights it has for so long fought for, will not be content. It is of great necessity for governments to understand the importance of three meals a day over freedom on the internet.

We all deserve both, and we may feel in our brief moments of bravado that we prefer political freedoms over economic safety. But when desperation nears, it is more likely that there are few things we are willing to trade for the latter option. The government ought to pay attention to this critical factor.


By Christian Tesfaye (
Christian is Fortune’sOp-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Aug 25,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 956]



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