Harar for Days

I’m part of a small group of farenjo 1 women, here to take a break from crowded streets and daily rainfalls.

From Addis Ababa, we chartered a van east for eleven hours to Harar, a pastel labyrinth of smooth cobbled streets and narrow corridors tightly packed within a wall. About 80 private mosques dot this city of roughly 120,000 people. Chat stems and mango peels litter pedestrian alleyways where not even the three-wheeled bajaj are small enough to pass. Just outside one of the five main city gates, a bustling spice market offers bulk sacks of everything from myrrh to unroasted coffee beans and salt excavated from one of the deepest depressions on Earth in the afar region of Ethiopia. The market is reminiscent of Harar’s previous status as an important regional trading center. Today, the city remains an export hub for chat, a local stimulant plant that is chewed for effect. Everyday, loads of the plant are delivered to Djibouti by truck, where it is distributed to Somaliland and points further.

More than 1,000 years ago, the locals say that the Harari people fed porridge to some hungry hyenas that had uncharacteristically attacked their livestock. Today, hyenas enter the city at night through special, short passages built into the walls to scavenge for food. It is a truly localized and sustainable waste management system that is unlikely to find duplication. For 100 Ethiopian birr, it is possible to drive a short distance beyond the city wall at night and find a man, kneeling on the ground in a clearing with a basketful of sweet-smelling meat and a flashlight. If you sit next to him, he will hand you a short stick draped in meat that a female hyena will saunter over and snatch. This made for a memorable Saturday night in Harar recently. Once a year, the habesha 2 still feed porridge to the hyenas in place of meat. If they leave some of the porridge behind, legend holds it will be a good year.

1. Farenjo is a term often employed by the locals in reference to foreigners, which seems to range in usage from genuinely good will and endearment to mild-street harassment. In Addis, the o is replaced with ee.

2. Habesha means local person in Amharic, and as far as I can tell, Oromifa speakers use the term as well… we sometimes use it in retort to the oft heard “farenjo!”


Fragility Discourse and Development Policy

Last week, I was privileged to attend a UNDP workshop on implementing the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. The New Deal provides a framework for international donors to coordinate aid based on five strategic goals related to peacebuilding and statebuilding. A group of states known as the g7+, which self-describes as fragile, developed the New Deal framework in partnership with OECD members in 2011. Since then, more than 40 countries and organizations have endorsed the New Deal. The fragility discourse, its politicization and implications for development policy were a recurring topic of discussion over the two days.

Long before anyone based a development policy on the presence of state fragility, the concept originated in Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg’s 1986 exploration of sovereignty, wherein the authors noted that despite facing a wide range of governance and capacity issues, newly post-colonial states remained juridically intact. The authors attributed this durable sovereignty to the strength of international normative influences in the post-colonial period. Whereas European states had previously formed out of external pressures and internal consolidation, the international community conferred and recognized sovereignty in the post-colonial era.

International policies such as the 1992 Agenda for Peace Report and the Responsibility to Protect adopted at the World Summit in 2005 have grappled with notions of security and international sovereignty. Following 9/11, the United States and Europe officially identified “fragile” post-colonial African states as threatening to their own security. Perhaps driven by the prioritization of Western states, development actors have since the early 2000s established metrics to measure the presence of fragility throughout the world. The Fund for Peace jointly with Foreign Policy Magazine publishes a Fragile States Index, previously called the Failed States Index. The World Bank jointly publishes a Harmonized List of Fragile Situations with inputs from the African Development Bank and Asian Development Bank. OECD-DAC publishes an annual States of Fragility Report. All of these indices seek to quantify the empirical conditions of states, which indicate a likelihood of ineffective development, and/or potential regression to conflict.

Such categorization has proved to be a politically contentious exercise. Members of the G77, and countries categorized as Least Developed (LDCs) may worry that so-called fragile states would qualify for additional donor resources at their expense. Certain states identified as fragile by external actors have demonstrated a preference not to be referred to as such for political reasons. Today, on one hand, the g7+ defines its membership based on the fragile status of its member states, and defines fragility as a temporary condition out of which it is the goal of a country to transition. At the same time, multi-lateral organizations are beginning to recognize the limitations of categorizing countries based on diverse criteria, and shift toward policies that address fragility on a contextualized basis, without limiting their scope to specific countries.

The discourse of fragility has informed policy decisions from numerous perspectives, from addressing the national security interests of strong states to the development needs of so-called fragile states themselves. Today, issues of development and security have become so closely linked in international policy discussions that as one expert put it, “the categories are collapsing.” Indicators developed in a New Deal working group with g7+ member states are now informing the creation of the 16th Sustainable Development Goal on peace and security, bringing development and security to an open forum rather than linking it conditionally to the agenda of a major power. As the post-2015 development agenda unfolds, fragility discourse will continue to shape and be shaped by demands from the global south. The international community is obliged to engage.


We drove south from Addis Ababa for about 6 hours, boiling down a no-lane highway that doubles as a thoroughfare for cart-pulling donkeys, hitchhikers, street vendors, herded goats and moseying cattle. There was comedy in cavalier pedestrian street crossings, and in slamming on the brakes to dip around the local bajaj. We arrived, and spent two days in Hawassa. The first night we slept in a hostel with rooms that opened onto an outdoor terrace. Lowland mosquitoes hung around the decorative false banana in the courtyard, a plant that is denigrated as village food for its lack of nutrients and arduous preparation including a six-month burial to ferment the pulp.

The following day I tried wearing a collared shirt buttoned all the way up to keep off the mosquitos, but the weather was too hot. After breakfast, we made visits with a translator from the Hawassa office to homes of Wide Horizons for Children’s small grant recipients. We visited a grandmother’s home near a Hawassa University campus. She owns three rooms adjacent to her house, which she rents out by the month as her primary source of income in addition to the modest monthly stipend she receives as a Wide Horizons participant. Her seven grandchildren depend solely on her for support. Six of them dropped out of school more than two years ago and perform menial day labor, most likely under extremely exploitative conditions with the hope everyday of obtaining enough food to subsist. One of them, the sponsored child, is a promising student who hopes one day to study civil engineering at university.

In Ethiopia, the state does not adequately provide for the basic needs of its most vulnerable citizens. NGOs such as Wide Horizons for Children fill in this gap, performing delivery of basic services and developing creative mechanisms to see individual citizens integrated into broader society in a meaningful way. The problem is that in a place where the state lacks accountability to its people, organizations are restricted not by state-like obligations to a general citizenry, but by budget cycles, and program design, and other technicalities. Wide Horizons for Children selects recipients of its monthly 350 birr stipend from a government-curated list according to need. The program helps extended families to raise dependent children whose parents in many cases have succumbed to HIV.

If the participating family eventually becomes relatively self-sufficient, they may become eligible to receive a small business grant and graduate from the stipend program. In the grandmother’s case, her total monthly rental income of $600 birr is expected to double after renovations are completed with a business grant. This sum will remain woefully inadequate to reintegrate the six child workers into school, but it will ensure a sustainable income that is higher than the current monthly stipend. The reality of this type of organizational intervention is that it is effectively arbitrary in nature. The program facilitates the long-term education of one child, but the benefits extended to his family members are found on an incomparably smaller scale. Over the long term, perhaps the educated child will grow into a self-sufficient adult able to contribute to the welfare of his siblings.

The evening of the second day, we chartered a boat on Lake Hawassa, and encountered two hippos, despite being told that with the day’s mild breeze, they would surely be gone somewhere. Later, we visited a park and fed peanuts to monkeys. We passed the night in a hotel with mosquito nets that were too small to stretch over our bed mattresses, and in the morning, we drove toward rural Gowadamo village, parked the van and trekked up a red soil path into the coffee hills of Sidaamu, where we were shortly in the company of about thirty local children and neighbors. The occasion was momentous, as our group was led by the adoptive father of the only two girls adopted from the village. On our tour, we noticed a deep hole where the family would ferment the nutrient-poor false banana at harvesting time. Wide Horizons no longer facilitates international adoptions, but still encourages participating families to maintain a bond with the communities of their adopted children. Unfortunately, the adopted girls’ mother, whose life in a remote village is at times precarious, is not eligible for sponsorship by the adoptive family of her children due to an organizational policy. One reason that international adoption has sharply declined is growing stigmatism from the appearance or existence of impropriety.

On our way back to Hawassa, we visited a hospital built with funds from Wide Horizons donors. The corridors were dimly lit, and the toilet unfortunately no different from the most basic accommodations found in other parts of town. Posted signs read “clean care is safer care”. Nine doctors bustled around attending to sick patients. Today, the Ethiopian government is responsible for operational costs and other functions of running the hospital, which it does not appear to prioritize, in my quick estimation. But, the hospital is there, and today, babies are born in the hospital that would have otherwise been born under less-desirable circumstances. The pharmacy is stocked with medications against the most common and sometimes severe ailments that affect the local population. Back in the parking lot, the doctors in their white coats leaned over the second floor rail waving good-bye as we piled into our van, worn out and bound for dinner. The false banana came bundled in plant-leaves, boiled and mashed into a seasoned pulp with cooked cabbage and small hunks of meat. It was OK.


From a high enough vantage point, the city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia probably resembles a freshly disturbed anthill, and in such an environment it makes sense that the question of whether development or democracy should come first can feel valid. Staunch supporters of the late Meles Zenawi make the case for development, and in espousing the merits of benevolent autocracy, experts such as Dambisa Moyo are sympathetic to this view. Clearly I’ve not spent enough time here to fully grasp the situation, but this question strikes me as false. One implication of current development in Ethiopia, recently repeated to me by a government-affiliated policy analyst, is that the government “picks winners and losers”. Land and human capital remain Ethiopia’s two most abundant resources, yet private land ownership is forbidden. The state retains its ability to pursue large-scale resettlement campaigns at the cost of basic human rights. Furthermore, by controlling land the government denies private entrepreneurs the ability to collateralize what would otherwise be their key assets.

International companies, and China in particular has embraced the “enabling environment” for direct investment, building massive infrastructure projects such as the formidable Ring Road highway that partially circles Addis Ababa’s city limits, as well as the attractive-looking rail lines whose opening day, a driver told me in jest, is “secret to us”. As these disruptive projects commence and stall, Ethiopian citizens remain limited in their own economic opportunities by arcane bureaucratic procedures. One woman I interviewed pushed for more than seven months to obtain a simple vending license, a process that began in the local kabilah office, and was processed through the next level woreda administration before finally terminating at the sub-city level. She explained that citizens are allowed exactly one type of business license per individual, which in the case of the interviewee meant her husband needed to obtain a complementary license in his name to run their adjacent café. Like many small-scale entrepreneurs in Addis Ababa, this family saves a mandated portion of income each month as part of a government program to become eligible for a storefront in a not-yet-constructed commercial center. When the lease on their current space comes up in three years, nothing will be guaranteed.

Yesterday, the headline on Ethiopia’s Business Weekly read, “Ethiopia lost $3.55 billion to illicit outflow,” or 1,355 percent of foreign direct investment, between 2008 and 2012, according to a report from Global Financial Integrity. Earlier today our truck entered a lane on Ring Road heading the wrong direction, a mistake that at least ten other vehicles in close proximity likewise scrambled to resolve in the absence of arrows and street signs. The highway effectively divides tight communities with multiple lanes and a jersey barrier, but lacks pedestrian bridges. In theory, the idea that development should be accelerated and tolerated for the sake of efficiency may sound appealing when considering the magnitude of issues such as poverty and sanitation that it proposes to address. But, in practice it is not clear that such policies produce sustainable and efficient outcomes for the population. The question of whether or not development should be pursued at the expense of democracy is not real when people are denied the benefits of both.


There can be no democracy without development. Technocratic solutions neglect the rights of the poor. Institutionalization must precede liberalization. Capacity building should be a cornerstone of development policy. Ethiopia is a developmental state. Ethiopia is an illiberal democracy. The way to say coffee is “buna”.

The two years worth of development jargon that shaped my impressions of Ethiopia back in New York should mean something here in this dusty, rubble-lined track of Bole. But this is my first time in a developing country, and epiphanies have been coming in tiny, banal observations since my arrival at 4:00 a.m. sometime last week. Back in New York I’d dismissed as hyperbole discussions of power outages and lack of running water, but by now my willful ignorance has been checked. Of course the scaffolding that surrounds the city’s many concrete skeletons is made out of sticks. There are no clues as to who is building what for whom and under what circumstances, but everyday as many structures teem with nondescript laborers as stand empty and apparently forgotten. Yesterday, as I watched a woman at the money counter stuff a brick-sized stack of birr into her purse it struck me that of course there are so many Western Unions tucked into this corner of the city; this is where Ethiopia’s massive remittance intake comes from.

Development-speak and theories of the state relate to these tangible circumstances, but there is something in the act of taking care not to roll your ankle stepping from a pile of broken concrete onto the marble steps of a mall that makes development real. No building that I’ve set foot in has been immune from electrical shortages, and the dust here is too strong for my contact lenses. Meanwhile, I live in an awkward palace. Our bedroom terraces overlook corrugated rooftops decorated with satellites. When we knock on the gate, a guard answers the door, and when we leave, he looks both ways as he lets us out. The street outside feels safe.

We visited a women’s self-help group recently in a somewhat rural area outside of Addis Abeba. The women prepared bread, popcorn, and buna over the fire underneath a mango tree, and described how coming together has instilled an enriching sense of community in their lives. Listening to the details of how pooling their meager financial resources into investments has impacted so many facets of their lives, I was struck again – the words capacity building can actually mean something profound. Now, I look forward to the rest of summer, and to seeing how many more obvious and already known facts will take on new color and meaning. Sitting on dusty café balconies with buna and macchiato is familiar. Tej is the best tasting homemade fermented drink I’ve ever tried. I’ve already eaten enough injera to become discerning. The dark injera is best, and quality injera is a little on the spongey side.

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