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Ethiopia and the Quest for East Asian Model of Development: A Historical Perspective

By Tesfaye Habisso

February 14, 2007


"Like a towering lighthouse guiding sailors towards the coast, 'development' stood as the idea which oriented emerging nations in journey through post-war history. No matter whether democracies or dictatorships, the countries of the South proclaimed development as their primary aspiration, after they had been freed from colonial domination. Four decades later, governments and citizens alike still have their eyes fixed on this light flashing just as far away as ever: every effort and every sacrifice is justified in reaching the goal, but the light keeps on receding into the dark." Wolfgang Sachs, The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge and Power, Zed Books, London, 1992, p.1].

While different sections of our population seem fixated on the discussion of different events of magnitude that have unfolded in Ethiopia in recent times, ranging from the deadly riots and the resulting death of 199 citizens in the aftermath of the May 2005 national elections and the smashing victory of the Ethiopian defense forces over the Jihadist/extremist elements of Somalia's UIC forces to the general rise in the prices of services and goods in the country, resulting in a fall in the value of Birr (that is, inflation) and the ongoing treason trials of the CUD Party leadership, supporters and journalists, etc., the more basic aspects of our polity and economy related to the real issue of development—the need to pursue a developmental state model, that was applied by the East Asian nations in the past, to rapidly transform the Ethiopian society from abject poverty and underdevelopment—are being debated, on and off, by some of our prolific and leading political and business elites in the print media today. 

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Eyesusworq Zafu, Getachew Mekuanint and ‘the anonymous’ authors (withholding names in such an open public debate, I think, is not something worth emulating by others for the sake of positively contributing to our incipient democratization process) are a few of them to be mentioned. The main revivalist of this ideology is, of course, none other than our Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, articulating his brilliant ideas in his doctoral thesis entitled, “African Development: Dead Ends, New Beginnings.” The central inquiry of this study explodes the complete failure of the neo-liberal economic paradigm to bring forth any meaningful and sustainable development in Africa after more than four decades of application since independence, and thus the need to strive towards a form of developmental state that can promote broad-based and equitable development in the context of legitimized, inclusive and participatory democracy to turnaround the dismal socio-economic situation in Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular, though it may be theoretically incorrect and quite untenable to put all African countries in one basket. 

The purpose of this article, for the time being, is not to present any critique on the thesis of our Prime Minister or on the merits or demerits of a ‘developmental state’, or whether or not the latter could serve as an alternative to the neo-liberal paradigm of development ( an alternative is not a prescription but a package of possibilities to be struggled upon in order to implement it and achieve desired results) but to highlight on the age-old deep interest of the Ethiopian ruling elites for the East Asian model of development, which has never been adopted and implemented in this country beyond mere ‘flirtations’ with the idea and thus has, so far, remained nothing but a pipe-dream, so to speak. Thus, I shall only present the historical perspective of this ideology in Ethiopia that traces its origin in the 1920s and 1930s, to serve as a refresher of our past ‘flirtation’ with the same idea that is now being revived by our current political leaders and gradually gaining currency in the political arena as well as in the academic discourse in Ethiopia today. I shall also briefly discuss some aspects of the ideology of a democratic developmental state and what we Ethiopians expect from such as a state in our country.

The quest for the East Asian Model of Development, which over the years was dubbed ‘developmental state model’, is not a new phenomenon in Ethiopia. It goes back to the imperial era of Haile Sellasie and his political elites of the 1920s and 1930s. This is what the historical records elucidate: From the second half of the 19th century, mainly through European missionary activities, a few of young Ethiopians began receiving the rudiments of a modern education. Europe impressed these youths, even if many had never been there. Several, however, did have contacts with the colonial territories bordering on Ethiopia, and most studied foreign languages and other new subjects in mission schools or the new state schools. In the early twentieth century, these foreign-educated Ethiopians generally sought positions at court, and many of them refused to share the complacency of their countrymen after Ethiopia’s military victory over Italy at Adwa in 1896.Called “Progressive Intellectuals”, “Young Ethiopians”, and “Japanese's”, their influence peaked in the 1920s and early 1930s. Each name emphasized something different about them. The first label simply expressed Ethiopia’s need to reform. The other two implied Ethiopia’s need to find an appropriate model for reform. European and American observers generally used the term, “Young Ethiopians”, which evoked parallels with reforming groups such as the Young Turks and Young Egyptians. The third term highlighted the impact of Japan’s Meiji transformation on Ethiopia’s intellectuals. Japan’s dramatic metamorphosis by the end of the nineteenth century from a feudal society—like Ethiopia’s—into an industrial power attracted them. For these young, educated Ethiopians, Japanization was a means to an end—to solve the problem of underdevelopment. Japan’s rapid modernization, after all, had guaranteed its peace, prosperity, and independence, while Ethiopia’s continued backwardness threatened its very survival.

While passionately denouncing archaic feudalism, it was not bourgeois capitalism they sought as the alternative mode of production. Ethiopia’s backward commercial bourgeoisie could not accumulate the necessary capital, and the imperialist colonizers would not allow it to develop to such size and weight that it could eventually win the home market for itself. Given the threat from Western, capitalist imperialism, Ethiopia did not have the luxury of time for “natural” capitalist development. Rather, the capitalism the Japanizers envisaged would be developed with the resources available only through state power and “revolution from above”. The state had to undertake capital accumulation while giving the commercial bourgeoisie its active support to create conditions favorable for its development. With its poorly developed division of labor, only recently had Ethiopia had emerged from a protracted period of feudal anarchy with the feudal barons still entrenched in the provinces. Japanization in Ethiopia therefore implied more drastic and more vigorous measures than had been needed in Japan itself.

Further, Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905—a victory of “peoples of color” over “White” oppression—dramatized that European techniques and institutions could be learned and turned against European colonizers. Italy’s successful invasion of Libya in 1911 and 1912, in contrast, showed the failure of the Ottoman Empire to meet the new challenge. Ironically, Europeans often reinforced the idea of a Japanese model for Ethiopia. In 1907, for example, a French plenipotentiary minister in Addis Ababa wrote about an interview he had had with Empress Taytu [wife of Emperor Menelik II] regarding Ethiopia’s progress. To her question, “What can we do?”, he replied:

“See the Japanese. I know them. In hardly fifteen years, from the beginning of their evolution did they not become, in a short time, as strong as their teachers? It is necessary to go to the front in progress and not to escape it's end some young people to Europe, as well in England, or to France, perhaps to Germany or to Italy, and they will come back here to tell their countrymen What they have seen and learned." To the exaggerated horrors of many Western powers, in the 1920s, a series of Japanese visitors sought to expand trade between Japan and Ethiopia. Japanese representatives attended Haile Sellassie’s coronation in 1930, and soon afterward signed a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with Ethiopia. The next year, the Ethiopians promulgated a constitution closely modeled on Japan’s Meiji Constitution of 1889. Capping this rapprochement, Foreign Minister Heruy Wolde Sellassie, one of Ethiopia’s influential “Japanizers”, visited Japan in late 1931. Heruy sought commercial and political ties as well as military aid." Ethiopia's Non-Western Model for Westernization: Foreign Minister Heruy’s Mission to Japan, 1931, by J Calvitt Clarke III, Jacksonville University] . Of the Japanizers, he most elaborately compared Ethiopia and Japan. Both had been ruled by long and uninterrupted founding dynasties: Hirohito was the 124th monarch of the Jimu dynasty while Haile Sellassie I was the 126th emperor of the Solomonic dynasty. He compared Emperor Menelik to the Meiji. In the entire world, only Ethiopia and Japan had preserved that long the title of “emperor” to designate the chief of state. Both countries had experienced roving capitals in their histories. He compared the Tokugawa Shogunate to The Zemene Messafint: the only difference was that while the over-lordship of the Yejju lords had been confined to Begemdir, the Tokugawa exercised authority over all of Japan. The manners of the two peoples were similar. Heruy went on to conclude that, despite these similarities, the two countries had long lived in mutual ignorance of one another—much as do the two eyes of one person. Just as a mirror helps one eye to see the other, so too his visit to Japan had brought mutual awareness between the two countries.

Given these similarities, if Japan had succeeded in modernizing itself in so short a time, Ethiopia could do as much. As did the emperor whom he served, he understood that Japan’s rapid evolution had been due to European technicians who had acted as Japan’s educators. Both Heruy and Emperor Haile Sellassie sought the Japanese developmental model. Speaking with the French charge d’affaires in Ethiopia, Heruy praised Japan’s transformation and asserted, “You will see even more extraordinary things here than in Japan”. That was the rhetoric of one of Emperor Haile Sellassie’s topmost officials.

Subsequently, the emperor ordered the Russian-educated intellectual and “Japanizer”, Bejirond Tekle Hawariat Tekle Mariam to draft the constitution. Tekle Hawariat examined copies of the English, German, Italian, and Japanese constitutions for their usefulness to Ethiopia; he also read works on Japanese history, politics, and economy. His guiding principles were to maintain the monarchy as the basis of Ethiopia’s unity and to protect the public from arbitrary rule. He and his advisers, Heruy and Ras Kassa Darge, wrote a draft, which the emperor modified. Then the leading nobility and rulers of each region approved it. In his capacity as finance minister, he introduced the constitution to Ethiopia’s parliament.

With only a couple of exceptions, when comparing the 1889 Japanese constitution and the 1931 Ethiopian constitution, even the chapter divisions were identical, and in both cases, the guarantees of civil liberties were constrained by nullifiers such as , “within the limits provided for by the law” or “except in cases provided for in the law.” The two constitutions were similar not only in content, but also somewhat in origins. Both were “granted” from above; both were intended as a foundation for strong monarchical government rather than for popular representation—that is, sovereignty represented in the emperor; both consciously borrowed from outside sources; and both were preceded by a period of deliberation to choose the type of constitution best suited to the two countries’ needs.

Whatever the case, the Ethiopian ruling elites’ desire to adopt and implement the Japanese developmental model was not realized, as it was overtaken by events of alarming proportions: Ethiopia was invaded by Italy in 1935, and the Second World War followed soon. Nevertheless, many Ethiopian intellectuals of the day were passionately obsessed about the Japanese developmental model; Kebede Michael, one of the most prolific writers of Emperor Haile Sellassie’s era, even wrote a book entitled, “How Did Japan Modernize?” ( in Amharic, “Japan Endemin Seletenech?”). Now, after almost seven decades, the incumbent party/ government has brought up the same ideology of the East Asian developmental model to be pursued afresh in this country in order to rapidly extricate Ethiopia from the doldrums of human development and to turnaround the distressing socio-economic situation of its peoples in a short period of time. As Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the ruling party’s top officials have echoed again and again, Ethiopia’s number one enemy is poverty and that there will never be any complacency on the part of the incumbent government and its officials as well as the civil service and the people at large up until this scourge of humanity is eradicated from Ethiopia; that Ethiopia’s destiny lies in a democratic route to development, and that democracy is not only essential for Ethiopia but the sole guarantee for the survival of this multi-national, multi-religious and multi-cultural nation/ state together, in one piece. Further, the ruling party seeks and fiercely struggles to root out corruption and the predatory pockets, faces and tendencies/inclinations of the present state/bureaucracy and construct instead a strong, developmental state, better capable of promoting economic and social development, with the idea of a more democratic and transparent polity which is responsive to society, legitimate, and under the rule of law.

Be this as it may, there are many observers who raise their fears and suspicions arguing that the ruling party’s agenda of a strong, developmental state is simply to become an authoritarian and interventionist regime, to remain at the helm of political power for ever and not to pursue a developmental agenda. I think these fears and suspicions are unfounded for a number of credible reasons. One, as the reality on the ground glaringly proves, the ruling party has achieved tremendous successes in a huge number of political, economic and social areas benefiting all the peoples and regions of Ethiopia, better than all the past successive regimes combined or put together. It cannot be accused of not delivering what the Ethiopian people need most—basic services and goods, a modicum of safety and security, affordable housing, health, education, employment, infrastructure, etc. As Getachew Mekuanint rightly mentioned in his recent article, The Developmental State in Meles Zenawi's African Development: Dead Ends, and New Beginnings-A Commentary,

"..The performance of the Ethiopian state has tremendously improved under the EPRDF leadership, as evidenced by how public money and international development assistance are being used for investments in health, education, infrastructure, rural development, safety nets, etc. In just 15 years (even without considering all the times wasted to construct a federal state and fight a war with Eritrea) EPRDF has done what Haile Sellassie's feudal regime would not have done in 100 years or
Mengistu Haile Mariam's Workers Party in 60 or 70years..."[www.Ethiopiafirst.com] Let us give the credit where it is due, for God’s sake, and, of course, criticize the incumbent party and government where it really deserves, for example, in its failures to fully uphold and safeguard political and human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law and to secure a national consensus among all political parties/groups on several national issues until now. On the other hand, if the ruling party is to remain in power, subject to the will of the people, in perpetuity, of course, through fair, free and credible/ regular elections held according to the national electoral law of the land, what is anybody going to do about that? If the ruling party/ government indeed achieves stellar economic growth, rising and improved living standards, ensures functioning democracy, and upholds and safeguards human rights and a robust rule of law, what other party under the prevailing circumstances will be capable of dislodging it from power even in a democratic election that may be certified as free, fair and credible? Let us be reasonable and pragmatic. 

Today, I do not see any credible, coherent and cohesive political party that can shoulder the reins of power as effectively as the ruling party and articulating sound and pro-poor social and economic policies designed toward the reduction and elimination of poverty, inequality and unemployment, improving the quality of life for the country's citizens and guaranteeing social justice within a growing economy and a transforming society. Many opposition parties exist today in name only; weak and fractured, by design or by accident. The EPRDF party is to remain in power for a long time to come. Unpalatable or not for some, this is a stark reality in Ethiopia today. This is also what we see in Botswana where the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has remained in power since independence from Britain in 1966, without any interruptions, though free and fair multi-party elections were held in the country throughout the years. Why? Because it was able to deliver sufficient 'bread and butter plus stable democracy' for its people. The same is true for Japan where the ruling party stayed in power for over three decades consecutively. The issue therefore is not about remaining in power for long but how and in what manner the party succeeds to remain in power: through manipulating elections and outright fraud, or because of its excellent service delivery record and the people’s will?
Second, the collapse of both the central planning model of the bureaucratic Soviet type as well as the retreat of the now discredited neo-liberal perspective at the end of the 20th century has marked a decisive return of confidence in state-led development. 

The 21st century is witnessing a resurgence of confidence in a new type of activist state: democratic and developmental in character and content. The new developmental state draws important lessons from the undesirable dependency fostered by the European welfare states, the undemocratic practices of the East Asian developmental states, and the failures of bureaucratic Soviet-style centralized planning. The centrality of the state in nation-building and socio-economic development is being reaffirmed, while at the same time asserting participatory democracy and a culture of human rights as key features of the new developmental state. Such a state is not the enemy of the people. It requires the institutional capacity to plan, coordinate, monitor and implement good, people-driven policy and service delivery effectively, as well as the capacity and ability to drive the agenda for economic and social transformation in partnership with different sectors/sections of society. This is what we want to witness in the unfolding developmental state that the EPRDF wants to construct.

Third, such a democratic developmental state is not the enemy of the market, nor should the market forces be an enemy of a strong, effective state: the state harnesses positive elements of the market towards achieving the critical task of ensuring economic growth and development and meeting people’s social needs, providing the requisite environment for political stability and safety and security for citizens, intervening in the market to correct/rectify market failures.. In such a state, governance is not an exclusive domain of those elected or appointed into state institutions but is a theatre of collective decision-making and public action of the state and social forces. Such a state approaches the challenges of democratization and development of society as intertwined objective in the true spirit of a people-centered and people-driven development. These are some of the things that will characterize our new developmental state in the making in Ethiopia, I hope.

Fourth, as Professor Amartya Sen has emphasized in his recent work, “Development as Freedom”, there is no convincing evidence that authoritarian governance and the suppression of political and civil rights and freedoms are really beneficial to economic development. Systematic empirical studies give no real support to the claim that there is a general conflict between political rights and economic performance. Although there is broad consensus on a list of “helpful policies” that includes openness to competition, a high level of literacy and schooling, successful land reforms, and other social opportunities that widen participation in the process of economic expansion, there is no reason to assume that any of these policies is inconsistent with greater democracy. A harsher political system is often counterproductive in bringing out the full potential of the labor force, the working people. This is a cruel reminder to the ruling party/government that some of its undemocratic practices of the past have no place in our new and evolving democratic developmental state to be realized soon.

The issue of adopting and implementing the East Asian developmental model in Ethiopia today may be not only a possible alternative developmental paradigm that will offer us a much needed uplift in the direction of fast economic and social development but will also provide us a golden opportunity of fulfilling the age-old dream of our forebears. Finally, poverty is indeed a serious threat to our very survival as a nation. The struggle for development must be accelerated by all social forces in the country, transcending political, ethnic, religious and other divides that constrain our joint struggle for a better tomorrow. For us, development means improvement in our country's economic and social conditions. More specifically, it refers to improvements in ways of managing an area's natural and human resources in order to create wealth and improve people's lives. 

The subject in the process of social development must be people, for the essence of development must be to improve people's standards of living, a change for the better. And a change for the better first of all implies the consent of the subjects, people. And what constitutes a better standard of living must be defined by the people themselves. Although there is no formula for economic growth and no single type or model of state as well as no single path to development that fits every country, there are invaluable lessons to be gleaned from the East Asian experience that will assist us to adapt the policy tools and institutional means used to fit our local conditions, and invent new measures if necessary in our struggle to achieve robust and sustainable socio-economic development in Ethiopia. In this regard, the government could play different roles as a developmental state, welfare state, regulatory state and minimal state interchangeably or a combination of these, from one point of time to another, in a flexible manner. A developmental state cannot be an elixir for our ills, neither a blueprint for development drawn/copied from a constitutional template. The path towards development is quite complex, complicated and bumpy. There is no gain without pain. And it is only a democratic route to development that can guarantee our safety and security and safeguard our dignity as worthy citizens of this great and fabulous country.

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