Can “authoritarian developmentalism” be tested at the ballot box?

By Eyob Balcha Gebremariam

The May 24, 2015 Ethiopian election is an archetypical political process where authoritarian developmentalism went to the poll seeking procedural democratic legitimacy for its less inclusive economic growth and severely restricted civil and political rights of citizens. The final results of the elections will tell whether the state-to-family level structures of control, harassment and indoctrination will be strong enough to extend the 99.6 per cent domination of the ruling party over the national parliament.


The incumbent Ethiopian government claims that it is building a democratic developmental state. Most government and party documents and propaganda materials take both development and democracy as existential elements that are essential for the continuity and survival of Ethiopia as a country. Particularly after the May 2010 election which resulted in having only one parliamentary seat for the opposition, developmentalism (Limatawinet) assumed the most crucial role in government political discourses. Huge infrastructure construction projects including dams, roads, urban houses, educational and health facilities and railways have been carried out. The massive investment by the government in these projects and their impact on the current economic growth is the main source of legitimacy for the regime in power. For the first time in nearly three decades, the ideology of the ruling party has changed from the most controversial Revolutionary Democracy to Democratic Developmentalism. This was proved when EPRDF argued in favour of “developmental democracy ideology” against two opposition parties that represented Social Democracy and Liberal Democracy, in one of the pre-election debates.

Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, according to the most recent National Human Development Report by the UNDP registered a growth rate averaging 10.9 percent in the decade to 2012/13 with an acclaimed “pro-poor budgeting” (especially on education and health) progressively increased to 70 per cent of the federal government’s investment. The World Bank puts Ethiopia’s average growth rate since 2004 at 8.3 percent in its latest Poverty Analysis Report in 2014. The World Bank also describes Ethiopia’s growth as “strong” and “broad-based”. Both reports agree that high economic growth has contributed to the reduction of absolute poverty and the success of achieving five of the eight Millennium Development Goals in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, both the WB and UNDP are respectively critical of the rate of reduction in poverty depth and severity and the decline in absolute numbers of people below the poverty line. In spite of the progressive reduction in absolute poverty, the WB argues 87 per cent of Ethiopians live in deprivation according to the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). Likewise, the UNDP report emphasized, due to high population growth, there are about 25 million Ethiopians that are below the poverty line of USD$0.60/day. This puts all the rosy pictures of growth and success for more than a decade under a big question mark.

The other image that characterizes present-day Ethiopia is the severely restricted and curtailed civil and political rights of citizens. These include the imprisonment, harassment, and intimidation of journalists, bloggers and activists, the ever narrowing political sphere and gross violation of human and democratic rights. The closing down of private newspapers and magazines, the forced exile of more than 60 journalists, the imprisonment of zone9 bloggers and reports of abuse from multiple political parties are much substantiated scenarios.

The ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRDF) used its majority seats in the previous parliament to pass politico-legal laws such as the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation. The incumbent uses such kinds of legal instruments, its control over the judiciary and strong presence of security forces that overlap with the ruling party structures to silence alternative views and to squash any attempt of dissent.


The end of the civil war in 1991, the promulgation of the constitution in 1995 and the establishment of a number of institutions and practices including regular elections for five consecutive times are clearly seen as insufficient for democratic consolidation in Ethiopia. Almost all political parties vying for political power are immensely entrenched into zero-sum game political rivalries. The incumbent characterizes opposition parties as “anti-peace”, “anti-development” and “anti-democratic”. Nearly all of the opposition parties call for a regime change from dictatorship to democracy by removing the ruling party. There is hardly any trust among major political forces in the institutions of democracy, including the constitution and processes of democratization including the just-ended election. This proves the failed democratic transition in Ethiopia which is far from democratic consolidation. It is in this political context that the ruling party opted to pursue authoritarian developmentalism under the disguise of “democratic developmentalism”. In today’s Ethiopia, the government seeks to legitimize its rule by delivering on socio-economic aspects and justifying its actions against civil and political rights of citizens as a price paid for peace, stability and development.


The Horn of Africa, the most fragile region in Africa, is offering the incumbent unparalleled strategic advantage regionally, continentally as well as globally. Being a relatively stable country with a strong government and with a population of nearly 90 million people, Ethiopia is the one and the only country that is capable of leading the region’s peace and security agenda as well as the region’s external relations. Often known as “donors’ darling”, the current regime is skilful enough to negotiate both with the East (mainly China) and the West (US, EU and UK) by playing a regional police and peace-keeper role or as a gateway to resourceful Africa. The regime plays the “China card” quite often and strategically to manoeuvre through the terrain of international aid. While both the US and EU expressed their implicit message about the credibility of the election in their eyes by not sending any election observer mission to Ethiopia, they cannot afford to remain indifferent about the outcomes of the election. The EPRDF led regime is a reliable and key player in the region in the fight against terrorism particularly in curbing al-Shabaab in Somalia.

While preliminary election results are coming out suggesting another utterly shameful and unjustifiable landslide to the ruling party, it is imperative to examine the existing political situation in Ethiopia at least from three perspectives. First, the authoritarian regime disguised in “democratic developmentalism” is using its super power to silence alternative views, criminalize dissent and terrorize citizens using draconian laws, intelligence and security institutions and multiple structures of control. Its positive economic growth report is always presented as a cover-page to hide its true face. Second, the geopolitical context is wisely exploited by the regime to silence any external critique both from within Africa and outside. For instance, the recent incident where Wendy Sherman (US undersecretary for political affairs) gave diametrically opposite opinions about the EPRDF led regime in a fortnight shows how perplexed the Obama administration is.

Thirdly, the Ethiopian regime is crafting a new way of covering up its unjust and dictatorial nature in the veil of economic growth. It is a new precedence for other regimes where citizens’ views and concerns are always rejected. It is another headache for Africans where authoritarian regimes change constitutions, rig elections or persecute opposition leaders just to quench their lust to power. The Ethiopian case is a combination of all; achieving less inclusive economic growth, rigging elections, violating constitutionally guaranteed rights, controlling society and running a de-facto police state.

* Eyob Balcha Gebremariam, a PhD researcher at Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester,, blogs at Email:

This blog was orignially published on Pambazuka News

Understanding the politics of inequality

By Sam HickeySophie King and Sarah Hunt

History has much to tell us about the politics of inequality, but the moral of the story depends upon the lens through which we choose to interpret its lessons. The recent DLP conference on this theme raised many of the questions that ESID is attempting to address, as well as demanding some considered defence of the ‘political settlements plus’ framework that constitutes our analytical lens for understanding the politics of inclusion.

Through which theoretical lens should we be seeking to understand the politics of inequality?

There was little disagreement among contributors at the DLP conference that the politics of inequality should be understood through a social justice lens. Frances Stewart’s opening address showed that social justice thinking offered the most coherent philosophical framework for thinking about the politics of inequality, not least as it enables us to place our concerns over inequality in the broader context of what kind of ‘good society’ we value. Thinking in terms of social justice demands that we consider the political arrangements required to secure good societies, and also that we confront the trade-offs that this involves, most notably between the sometimes competing priorities of challenging inequality whilst protecting freedom.

A key sticking point raised by ESID research director Sam Hickey was how to reconcile this normative philosophical framework with the much more ‘realist’ perspective of political settlements analysis that a number of conference participants were engaging with in their work. There is an obvious case for thinking about the politics of inequality from a political settlements perspective, a key tenet of which is that socio-economic inequalities will harden as a result of the elite capture of institutions that systematically occurs within clientelistic settlements and ‘closed access’ orders. This institutionalisation of elite privilege, which theorists like North, Wallis and Weingast hold to be key to maintaining stability, can be very difficult to challenge, and this has encouraged some to advocate for a more modest, less transformative approach to development that involves ‘going with the grain’ of existing power relations. This creates a tension, not only at a philosophical and theoretical level, but also in terms of development policy and practice: how to square a desire to support progressive causes with this more cautious and potentially inequality-promoting approach?

Some at the conference suggested that political settlements analysis did not necessarily contradict a social justice perspective, and could be used to identify openings for supporting progressive change. For example, some participants were using political settlements analysis as a means by which to navigate the complexities of vertical, horizontal or spatial inequalities within developing countries and the politics of redistribution. ESID’s conceptual approach attempts to move political settlements analysis forward for these purposes through research into the politics of social provisioning, social protection and spatial inequality, or the ways in which successive political settlements shape the redistribution of extractive industry rents. Rather than moral philosophy or a purely pragmatic ‘working with the grain’ approach; the ESID framework draws oncritical political theory and critical feminism to integrate considerations of transnational actors, resources and ideational flow, and agency, especially from non-state actors within the structural and institutional accounts that have taken centre-stage in recent debates.

What strategies and solutions should we be working towards?

Much discussion of what this means for policy and practice resonated closely with emerging findings from ESID research into the politics of women’s inclusion and influence – particularly in relation to contentious policy issues such as domestic violence. Throughout the day the power of global norms to become diffused and shape political realities emerged as a critical lever for more inclusive development. Sarah Hunt’s work onpolitical settlements in Central America makes clear, however, that diffusion is neither automatic nor guaranteed: rather it will depend on contingent political dynamics. Significantly, global norms shape not only elite decisions and interactions, but also the societies they must engage with.

The importance of marginalised groups forming coalitions and movements and then being ready to exploit moments of crisis or ‘critical junctures’ was another prominent theme throughout the conference and has come through across each of ESID’s country cases: Bangladesh, Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda. So too has the need for political analysis (and those seeking to use it for progressive ends) to engage with the informal incentive structures and interests underlying formal institutional arrangements.

During her illuminating opening presentation, Frances Stewart suggested that changing the politics of inequality and distribution will require getting people to think about ‘the other’ in a different way. This has been critical within the gender equality movements that ESID researchers have been tracing – framing men as protectors rather than perpetrators, and domestic violence as a constraint on household economic development rather than a question of ethical judgement have been key to attitudinal change.

However, efforts to ‘go with the grain’ can be a risky strategy for those seeking to promote social justice. ESID research led by Sohela Nazneen reveals that women’s movements promoting legislation against domestic violence tend to frame their policy messages within acceptable discourses around ‘family values’ and protective versions of masculinity, rather than women’s rights, in order to avoid antagonising powerful opponents and even gain their support. Although this does help secure policy change, it can also lead to more critical concerns being omitted (e.g. around marital rape and female control over assets), and legislation so compromised that it lacks the coherence required for enforcement.

The challenge of how to reconcile the concepts and strategies required to understand and navigate political settlements, on the one hand, with the wider notion and pursuit of social justice, on the other, remains open. Efforts to reconcile the two, we argue, can usefully start from recognising that both political settlements theory and more radical theories of social justice take power relations to be their central focus. It is in adopting a relational perspective, rather than one driven by a concern with institutions or resources per se, that the intractable problems of inequality and the politics required to challenge them comes more clearly into view.

Dispatch from Lima: Seven Trends We Spotted at UN Climate Talks

By Lauren Gifford and Jonas Bruun

Two veterans of UN climate talks cut through the jargon and tell us what’s new and trending at this year’s summit in Lima, Peru.

UN Climate Change Conference COP20 Inauguration

(Photo: cancilleriadeperu / Flickr)

The 20th annual UN Climate Change Conference (Conference of the Parties, or COP) took place in Lima, Peru in December 2014. It’s a dress rehearsal for talks that should conclude a new international climate agreement in 2015. But with several strands of negotiations between governments, as well as hundreds of events being held in parallel, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. So we’ve compiled a quick guide to some of the key trends shaping this year’s talks.

1. Zero emissions (but beware the small print)

Addressing climate change means rapidly weaning ourselves off the greenhouse gases that cause it. So what could be more welcome than a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050?

A “net zero” movement is now pushing for carbon neutrality within one generation. But there’s a catch: “net zero” means you can still emit a lot, as long as emissions are somehow sucked out of the atmosphere elsewhere. That provision is already being used to support expensive and unproven measures to capture and store carbon from fossil fuel power plants and industry, as well as controversial, climate-manipulating geo-engineering.

Striving for zero emissions is a step in the right direction, but we’ll need more than a catch phrase to motivate investments in renewables, grassroots empowerment, and straight-up significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Setting your own target

“Intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) is the latest acronym in the alphabet soup of jargon that is routinely generated by UN climate talks.

INDCs are a way for countries to declare what concrete actions they’ll be taking to address climate change, in the hope that these ingredients can be baked into a new international climate agreement. The guidelines on what INDCs can be are intentionally flexible and ambiguous, allowing states to declare anything from economy-wide emissions targets to long-term national climate action plans.

Predictably, negotiators are now struggling to articulate INDCs in a way that is fair, equitable, and transparent. A number of developing countries are concerned that INDCs are becoming a ruse for developed countries to ignore tricky questions about their fair share of climate action, based on their current and historic responsibility for causing the problem in the first place.

There’s also a concern that INDCs will just focus on “mitigation” (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) even though, for many countries, adaptation (coping with the climate change that’s already locked in), finance and technology transfers are vital to any new international climate deal.

3. Everyone’s talking about justice

Until recently, if someone said “climate justice” they’d more likely than not be referring to the fact that climate change was mostly caused by a handful of industrialized countries and big corporations, who should pollute less rather than pushing “solutions” with negative impacts on Indigenous Peoples, people of color and the world’s poor. But this year we’re seeing “justice-washing” throughout the COP.

Even Lord Nicholas Stern, a leading capitalist climate economist, has been speaking the language of climate justice. While we are happy to hear that fat cats now have to open their eyes and ears to “local ownership” and “gender sensitivity,” these words shouldn’t be tossed around the point of meaninglessness.

4. Time to clean up climate finance

“Climate finance” is money from developed countries that is meant to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas emissions (via mitigation) and deal with climate impacts that are already happening or unavoidable (adaptation). To this end, developed countries have promised to mobilize $100 billion dollars a year by 2020.

The reality of the climate finance delivered to date is not all rosy. For example, Japan provided $1 billion in loans to build coal-fired power plants in Indonesia, then counted it as their contribution to a “fast start” climate finance package that ran from 2012-2012. There are plenty more examples of dirty deals masquerading as climate finance, but we can’t afford sparse climate finance wasted on polluting projects.

It’s time for the COP to clearly define what can count as climate finance, including following the demand of civil society groups to adopt an exclusion listthat prevents a new, $10 billion Green Climate Fund from funding fossil fuel projects.

5. Big oil everywhere

Last year’s UN climate change conference was awash with corporate sponsorship, which we warned could become “the new normal.” Twelve months on, big oil firms are everywhere. Shell and Chevron even co-hosted an event where the aforementioned Lord Stern spoke against divesting from fossil fuels (particularly oil and gas). Meanwhile, these same companies are lobbying hard to water down any potential climate deal.

What happened to climate change being “the biggest market failure the world has ever seen?” as Stern once wrote? We guess the oil companies never got the memo.

6. Forest conservation gets a makeover

The initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) has been a hot topic at the climate talks for several years, but the means of financing forest protection remain unclear.

The initial REDD+ idea, pedaled by the World Bank, was to build a market for forest carbon offsets: big corporations could compensate for their own pollution by paying to preserve tropical forests. But REDD+ has increasingly negative connotations, as many of the initial schemes have been associated with displacing and disempowering indigenous and peasant communities and undermining their land rights.

In light of all the bad press, many forest projects are dropping the REDD+ branding and are simply being labeled “conservation projects” or “administrative agreements.” It remains to be seen whether or not these are any better at helping local people to preserve forests without compromising their livelihoods.

7. Gender, and arguing about its relevance

Developing “gender sensitive” policy is an increasingly important part of emerging climate finance schemes. But some governments object, including those of Sudan and Algeria. They want references to gender removed from the policies being negotiated in Lima. The European Union and Mexico, amongst others, insist that gender is a priority. The impasse continues.

Jonas Bruun and Lauren Gifford were part of the Institute for Policy Studies’ delegation at the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru.  Bruun is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development Policy and Management, and Gifford is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This blog was originally published by the Institute for Policy Studies

The Importance And Value of Aid

by David Hulme

It looks, thankfully, like DFID has survived the brunt of austerity savings made since the financial crash of 2008. While backroom costs have been cut, the government has stuck to its commitment to earmark 0.7% of Gross National Income for Official Development Assistance. Though critics instinctively point to the development budget in suggesting where we need to cut public spending, the truth is there is a rare consensus among the main parties that our spending on overseas aid plays a valuable role.

And there is good reason to arrive at such a conclusion. Despite public misconceptions about the amount Britain spends on aid (over a quarter of Britons think it is one of the government’s main outlays), the DFID budget is 1.1% of public spending; we spend more every year on soft drinks. The return on this is substantial – the money goes a long way. As an illustration, by 2015, UK aid will secure schooling for 11 million children – more than we educate in the UK but at one-fortieth of the cost.

A rethink in our approach to the way we do aid means that another critical claim of development assistance – that it ends up in the wrong hands – is unsubstantiated.   The UK can be proud of its role in promoting ‘smart aid’, which makes development efforts more transparent, more accountable, and more demanding than ever before. An independent body evaluates the effectiveness of development initiatives, ensuring consistent value for money. Funds are pulled at the first suspicion of corruption.

Perhaps more fundamentally, ‘smart aid’ has revolutionised the thinking behind the development process itself, as well as the procedures involved. Short-term alleviation may sometimes be appropriate in times of crisis, but it often fails to address the underlying causes of poverty. In contrast, aid is now helping lay the foundations for sustainable economic growth. Increased focus on infrastructure, healthcare and education provision, and agricultural reform works to catalyse economic potential, offering a long-term solution as opposed to a short-term patch-up. For too long we have seen developing countries subsumed by borrowing, with unbalanced economies leaving them prone to price fluctuations and dependent on debt relief. ‘Smart aid’ is playing an important role in changing this, and a continued commitment to the DFID budget will go a long way in addressing the root causes of poverty.

To assume our interests are entirely separate from the goals of the developing countries with whom we are working is also misguided. Our money is helping to combat the oppression of women worldwide. It is well documented that global poverty disproportionately affects women: DFID has focused especially on reducing often extreme gender imbalances. This has a profound effect, not just for the women themselves, but for the wider communities in which they live. If we are serious about working towards a world where men and women have equal chances, there are few other ways that could promote and advance the cause so effectively, and for such relatively small sums.

The aid budget is also spent tackling global warming – both its causes and its symptoms – in areas of the world that are currently most severely affected, and face deepening problems for generations to come. A carbon-intensive, ecologically destructive developing world will prove extremely problematic down the line – these are global issues that will impact on us all. Helping create sustainable economies fully utilising environmentally friendly technologies is surely the kind of world we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.

Britain has, in many ways, pioneered the 21st century development project. Our pledge to safeguard 0.7% GNP to foreign aid forms part of an international agreement that was signed in the UK in 2005, to global acclaim. Some countries have matched us, and others designate an even greater percentage to foreign assistance, but Britain’s role in pressing the moral case for it has been central in advancing the idea. And DFID’s work in the field stands out as an example against which others measure themselves. DFID is a world leader in enhancing knowledge around development. Funding for its research, which is carried out on an unparalleled scale, is untied: money follows talent to create knowledge that benefits humanity.

As we head into party conference season, then, it is a sign of DFID’s success that all three of the main parties will be making the case for continuing the great work that Britain has done in combating extreme global poverty. And it’s important, with the rise of inward-looking politics in parts of Britain, and in a broader context of austerity that looks set to stay for the foreseeable future, that we keep making this case. A fairer, more prosperous world will, ultimately, be for the good of everybody.


David Hulme is Professor of Development Studies at the University of Manchester and Executive Director of the Brooks World Poverty Institute.