Ethiopia is a fascinating, country-sized petri dish that reveals what happens to a society and its people as a nation moves from backwardness to modernity. When I first visited Addis Ababa in 2000, I sipped beers in corrugated iron-roofed shacks as seasonal rains turned surrounding dirt tracks into quagmires. Now the city has a giant Chinese-built asphalt ring road and a flashy railway sleekly running to the Horn of Africa coast. Swanky high-rise hotels are appearing above shops selling cupcakes.
Compared to the fiasco of international assistance in neighbouring Somalia, Ethiopia is held up as a heartening example of a national government and overseas partners succeeding in reducing poverty and mortality rates. Hence Ethiopia is a development darling for many. But – and I’m sorry to be a party-pooper – elements of this transformation leave me dejected and concerned for the future of a place and people that previously always entranced me.
“The mere fact of emerging from economic backwardness, though positive in itself, does not resolve the complex issues of human advancement,” wrote Benedict XVI in his 2009 social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. His words have been borne out by ongoing protests in Ethiopia. The government is facing unrest even though it has the most impressive economic record in Ethiopia’s history. The reasons for the protests are complex and varied. They include land grabs, a lack of political representation, and violations of human rights and civil liberties. But for many Ethiopians I have spoken to it boils down to them not being able to lead a fulfilling life.
“The government says that freedom is food, but that isn’t freedom. Food without freedom is pointless,” says Henok, a student nurse in Gondar, a city that has been a hotbed of discontent. “And we are not bothered about new infrastructure. We care about the system that affects our lives, and what our children will have.”
Benedict XVI wrote of the “damage that superdevelopment causes to authentic development when it is accompanied by moral underdevelopment”. To my eyes, many urban Ethiopians, certainly in Addis Ababa, seem in thrall to the “worship of material luxury and wealth” that philosopher William James observed in Western societies in the early 20th century.
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