City of Contradictions
Travelling to countries in the Third World pushes one to realize the differences as well as the similarities that these countries share. From the observations I have made, the culture of entrepreneurship is amongst the ostensible commonalities. Throughout different parts of Addis Ababa, one is constantly exposed to numerous small kiosks and shops clustered along a main or side street, which offer everything from produce, snacks, food items, meals, to electronics, appliances, apparel, and entertainment. There are also contemporary shopping locations like complexes and malls that contain various stores such as café’s, restaurants, and hair salons. In addition to that, there are wide-ranging informal businesses, scattered across the city, that consist of shoe shiners as well as street vendors that sell food, clothing etc. The neighborhood that I am currently residing in, Haya Hulet (22) is a perfect manifestation of this phenomenon. The area is constantly buzzing with energy, transactions, and activity; it’s filled with interactions from the early hours in the morning well into the late hours of the night.
On the other hand and ironically so, a culture of begging is also a common feature that is evident in many of these countries, including Ethiopia. It is particularly visible in the capital cities as well as other large metropolitans, to the extent that people feign indifference or normalize such behavior. In Addis Ababa, particularly in certain areas like Bole, beggars are a common sight. In certain instances, it appears that they are just as plentiful as the street vendors that can be found on every corner. Such people, particularly children and the elderly, line up along the front entrance of the church or occupy central sidewalk space requesting monetary assistance, mainly from foreigners.
Also, observing livestock, like sheep, cows and donkeys, crossing street ways along with cars, some of which are the latest models, speaks to the contradictions or extremities that can be found in the developing world. It strikes me as peculiar, despite the fact that I have been exposed to this scene several times. Particularly in the case of Addis Ababa, what comes to mind is the disparity between the traditional lifestyle that still engulfs majority of the nation as well as the prevailing reality of rapid urbanization.
Moreover, observing such paradoxical behavior in the diverse social settings of urban centers across the Third World highlights the intriguing nature of emerging cities.
Is Industrialization what Ethiopia Needs?
Today’s talk at the University of Addis Ababa focused on the importance of industrialization to Ethiopia’s path to development. Industrial economist, Professor John Sutton, emphasized how important it was for to Ethiopia, at this particular stage of development, to embark on the industrialization process and sustain its levels of growth. What I found to be interesting is that Prof. Sutton, who was responsible for administering the talk, did not discredit how important the existing agricultural sector is to Ethiopia’s progress, like many industrialists might argue. Instead, he underscored that both the prevalence and investment in the agriculture sector as well as the mature industries are pivotal to the country’s growth. Considering however that Ethiopia’s economy is currently largely agrarian and reliant on agriculture, it rings true that Ethiopia needs to simultaneously shift its focus to developing its industries. From my perspective, this is especially essential to ameliorating the trade structures that currently drive Ethiopia’s standing within the international market. As of now, Ethiopia mainly exports raw materials and imports the finished product. In order to reduce their expenditure on imports, which are clearly higher up on the value chain, and facilitate the increase of revenue, it is imperative that the government nourishes the more sophisticated industries.
An interesting point that was conveyed during the discussion raised concern regarding the fate of peasants and agricultural laborers forced to exist in the shadow of industrialization. It spoke to an issue where industrialization pushes people out from their traditional livelihoods (mainly farming); and because of a limited skill set they find themselves without alternative income opportunities. While this is clearly a legitimate question, the response elicited from Prof. Sutton demonstrated that this concern tends to be misplaced or frequently misconstrued. He remarked that the loss of livelihood experienced by farmers and the rural poor is tied to agro-businesses and not the expansion of manufacturing. In doing so, he illustrated that in actuality, the proliferation of industries requires modest plots of land, and therefore does not threaten the vitality of the agricultural sector.
Hence, although I am an ardent supporter of the view that espouses that agriculture is a major source of potential that needs to be tapped into, in order to increase the development of Third World economies, I acknowledge that it cannot be the sole determinant of change. In this regard, other sectors such as manufacturing and services must also be central to Ethiopia’s development plan. For it is especially when a country boasts a diversified economy that the future of development tends to be more promising.
The Challenges of Urbanization in Ethiopia
Urbanization is one of the leading challenges confronting the African continent. This is undoubtedly apparent in the Ethiopian context. Although close to 85% of the population still resides in rural areas, Addis Ababa, a city of 8 million, is constantly growing and expanding, especially since population growth is still on the rise. With an already high unemployment rate and limited infrastructure, it is inevitable that the city’s capacity will reach its limits. While I do recognize and acknowledge that the city is experiencing rapid development evidenced by the numerous construction sites and infrastructure projects underway, a substantial increase in the city’s population will potentially exceed the availability of resources.
Two issues that are inextricably intertwined with this phenomenon are population growth and urban planning. Seeing that an increase in population places a burden on countries that are still developing, many people find themselves migrating to cities in search of jobs and income opportunities. After speaking to some locals about rural-urban migration, I was told that land is limited in certain areas of the country, particularly the north. Therefore, when land is divided between family members, according to age, many of the young men are left without land to sustain themselves. In turn, they find themselves relocating to cities to secure employment. While this is not the only cause for migration to cities, increasing demographics in rural areas is ostensibly a major impetus that is driving the urbanization process in Addis Ababa.
Urban planning is a major indicator of the sound development of a city. It demonstrates that the government is being proactive and is committed to creating viable and sustainable urban centers; that are able to meet the needs of the population and avert potential obstacles. From what can be seen in Addis Ababa and what the facts on the ground disclose, a great deal of urban infrastructure and development stems from the private sector. Businessmen from within the country as well as Ethiopians living abroad are investing in various ventures and projects. Putting the construction of the light rail aside, a great deal of government involvement in planning Addis Ababa remains to be seen.
Furthermore, a city that is exhibiting signs of healthy urbanization is one that facilitates job creation and provides employment opportunities for its growing populace. As previously mentioned, high unemployment and the prevalence of the informal sector are principal issues that have manifested in Addis Ababa. Again, it is necessary to reiterate that urban policy is key; the government must direct it’s efforts to tackling what are clearly significant issues that hinder the development and progress of it’s cities.
Development in Ethiopia: Can the road to success be inclusive?
In the lecture presented by alula, there were many important themes and topics discussed regarding the Ethiopian economy. What was particularly interesting to me was the government’s policy of agricultural led- development, considering the fact that many of the government’s practices contradict this trajectory. This is particularly apparent in the case of dam building. The Gibe dam currently under construction in the South has enabled land grabs and the diversion of resources like water, thereby impinging on the sustainable livelihoods led by various rural communities. Consequently, many people are displaced and are forced to seek alternative sources of employment, which generally leads many of the rural poor to urban centers like Addis Ababa. Since many of these people tend to have a limited skill set, which usually involves tilling the land, herding, and hunting and gathering, they are unable to secure employment in their new settings. Such factors not only contribute to high levels of unemployment in cities but also to undermining agricultural development. As such, the current government agenda serves as a double-edged sword that does not promote holistic economic advancement in either context.
Another point that Alula mentioned that is worth commenting on is the lack of gender inclusive policy and gender equality in the government’s vision for development. With the significant increase in GDP in mind, it is imperative that growth guides policy in a way that is inclusive of women, especially since women to be among the most economically and socially vulnerable groups. Furthermore, development that is not mindful of women-who essentially constitute half of the population- is limited progress that is not yet worthy of praise. Moving forward, the Ethiopian government should place emphasis and gear its efforts toward such under served segments of the population.
The lack of foreign investment was also another issue that was raised during the presentation. As one of the most underdeveloped countries in the region, Ethiopia has long struggled with attracting foreign investors and companies. However, in recent times, particularly as the country is experiencing rapid growth, various firms from a range of countries are seeking investment in Ethiopia. Being that Ethiopia is a resource rich country that does not come as a surprise. While I understand the importance of FDI to the advancement of developing countries, I believe that FDI should not come at the expense of Ethiopian’s well-being and livelihood. In making that clear, I do not agree with the Ethiopian government’s model of blood, sweat and tears as the path to development. On the contrary, I feel that in this day and age developing countries can learn from the mistakes of their counterparts, and avoid working against the very goal that they have set to accomplish.
Nevertheless, voicing such criticism is not to say that Ethiopia has not made noteworthy accomplishments that have proven instrumental to Ethiopia’s growth. But it is necessary to remark on the shortcomings and recommend that Ethiopia capitalize on its achievements and perhaps devote more attention to significant issues that have so far taken a back seat in the path toward development.
As is the case of any individual who is visiting or new to a country, I made several observations in my first week of living in Ethiopia. Perhaps what I found most appealing was the warmth and easy-going nature of the locals in Addis Ababa. It was not difficult to strike up conversations with a wide array of people; I socialized with the shopkeepers, taxi drivers, residents of my neighborhood, and even random passerby’s. Aside from the fact that Ethiopians are very sociable, their ability to speak English has played a crucial role in facilitating communication.
Secondly, the hospitable nature of Ethiopians is something that I immediately took notice of. The first time I experienced it was when the landlady offered to prepare a traditional meal for my roommates and I. Although I declined to be polite, she insisted. Later on that day, she called everyone downstairs and had a huge spread that consisted of Injera, various kinds of Wot and the local wine, Tej. Even after serving us, she continuously offered us additional helpings and proceeded to place more food in front of us despite our insistence that we were full. My second encounter was at a café in our neighborhood. A man sitting next to me was having lunch and invited us to join him. I thanked him and declined but my roommate who was sitting with me at the table shared a couple of bites with him and that made him very happy. It has been my exposure to these aspects of the culture that has made my experience of living in a new country more comforting and allowed me to adapt to my new setting far quicker than I expected.
Third, it appears that the gender dynamics in Addis Ababa were not as conservative as I had expected or had been told to expect. When I refer to the gender dynamics, I am talking about the interactions between the different sexes. After just a few days of being here, I got accustomed to seeing young couples holding hands and being physically familiar. Also, after asking several individuals about the nature of relationships and marriage, they all gave me the same answer. I was told that majority of the youth in Addis Ababa specifically, will have a boyfriend or girlfriend that they have met either at school or at work, but their parents cannot know about their significant other. Only when they meet their parents and ask for their hand or marriage or make the intentions of marriage clear, will their families be made aware. In the meantime however, they will go out in public to restaurants, dance clubs, etc. and be known as a couple amongst their circle of friends.
An additional observation that I found quite interesting was the religious makeup of the city. Although I had known beforehand that Ethiopia has a sizable Muslim population, it was surprising to find that Muslims have such a visible presence in Addis Ababa, considering that the Christian religion dominates Ethiopian culture. On my first night in the capital, I awoke to the morning call for prayer emanating from a nearby mosque. Also, I have come across several Muslim owned shops and seen Muslims walking the streets of different parts of Addis Ababa and working at some of the organizations that we have been to. Furthermore, it appears that on the surface or at the social level, the relations between the two religious groups are harmonious. I took great comfort in witnessing that firsthand and being conscious of it.
I would say that overall my experience and observations here in Addis Ababa has been positive and refreshing for the most part. For one, the food and people are great, the culture is rich and the history is profound. Not to mention that I get mistook for a local frequently, which tends to work in my favor at times. However, I struggle with having to see beggars, especially street children and the disabled, so destitute, helpless and clearly unable to access assistance from the government. In addition to the scaffolding and construction at every turn in the city, this issue is perhaps the most challenging sight to get accustomed to seeing daily. Lastly, although many people speak English in this city as I have previously mentioned, the fact that I barely speak any Amharic makes me feel disadvantaged at time, unable to grasp the full experience of living here and discourages me from exploring my surroundings at times. But I hope that over the course of the two months of being here, my knowledge of the language will increase, which will then allow me to have a more fulfilling experience here in Addis Ababa.