Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ethiopia’s inflation falls to 23.7%. So what?

Many people would think that Ethiopia and economy are not exactly two words that complement each other. There are many people who still think that we are a nation of beggars with dusty bowls. What was started by Jonathan Dimbleby in 1973, and sealed with ‘We are the world’ concert in the 80’s, forever burnt the images of the poor drought-hit people as the description of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. While it is undeniable millions of lives were saved, and that Ethiopia and Ethiopians will always be thankful, these images made Ethiopia the definition of drought, hunger and famine. More than two decades later people still think that we are dying of hunger.

As of 2009 the Ethiopian economy has been growing at a rate that would make any nation proud. For the past five years the economy has grown by an amazing 10+%. Although the world economic crisis has hit the world, it will continue to grow better than most of many of the world’s countries. This doesn’t mean there weren’t and still aren’t any problems along the way. The inflation rate alone was a staggering 64% in mid-2008 and is reported to have fallen to 23.7% in April of 2009.

So what exactly does it mean to us Ethiopians? Let’s start by defining inflation itself. Inflation is “the rise of price of goods and services in an economy measured over a period of time (usually annually).” In Ethiopia it would mean it was, mainly, the measurement of the amount we pay to buy a quintal of teff today, compared to the amount on the same day last year. While economists cannot agree on what exactly causes inflation, the two main types of inflations by cause are:

· Demand-Pull Inflation: this is caused when the supply can meet the demand. It can be put as “too much money chasing too few goods.”

· Cost-Push Inflation: this is caused when the manufacturer has to increase the price of the goods or services produced because the costs have gone up.

It can be safely assumed that the first one was the type of inflation that hit Ethiopia. The increase of the price of petroleum, the economic crisis that followed - which weakened Ethiopia’s export business, and in turn starving the government of badly needed foreign currencies added up to create a shortage in goods and services. This happened because the Ethiopian economy is mainly agrarian and the majority of goods are imported.

Although inflation is not always a bad thing, since a little inflation is expected when an economy grows, it needs to be reined in before going out of control. This can be done by either limiting the amount of money circulating in the country or giving breaks (e.g. reduced tax) to the producers to reduce their costs.

Now that we have cleared all that up, let’s go to the 23.7% that is being talked about here in Ethiopia. What does it really mean to us? People are asking where the inflation has been curbed, let alone beaten back, since the prices of common commodities like teff are still at the highest they were last year. (In the case of teff – 1,000 birr/quintal.)

Let us consider the following facts:

· First off Ethiopians are forgetting that their some of their compatriots, especially the ones in the trading business, are notorious for hiking prices … and staying there no matter how low their cost goes. In a word they are greedy! A few months ago rumours that there was a shortage in salt launched the prices to around 300% in one day! It was said at the time that the rumours were spread by traders who dealt in salt. Now, these same traders will have to be assuaged, either willingly or by force, to reasonably reduce their prices. People can help out by refusing to buy stuff at the inflated prices.

· Next we should remember that the price standing still is another indicator of a controlled inflation. If the price is neither rising nor falling it implies that inflation is in control. While this may be good for a relatively brief moment of time, it is a dangerous indicator of the stagnation of the economy which will obviously lead to an economic collapse. (Think of the economy during the Dergue era.)

· Next (although had no hand in this, and was rather lucky) the fact that the price of petroleum has hit rock-bottom has impacted the prices of other imported goods, despite the fact that the government has a shortage of foreign currency and has suspended the issuing of Letters of Credit (LC) for almost all importers. What gets through is at a lower price than should be had the petroleum prices remained at those dizzying heights.

· Finally we should remember that the results cannot be seen immediately; at least not within one month – the news was told in April. We will need a minimum of two months for the difference to be felt and the impact to spread. This it because the confidence in the money one is holding actually raises its value. For example, if Mr. “A” were told that the commodity “B”, having a current price of 10 birr, would be sold for 20 birr in two days time he would feel that the 10 birr he has in his pocket were devalued by half. The opposite holds true too. Confidence will grow once it is known that it is no longer necessary to buy the commodities at the inflated prices.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

So what does it feel like being an Ethiopian?

Ask any non-Ethiopian what they think about Ethiopia and the answer will be a really grim one. The images of the 80’s are still burnt into many people’s minds. Images of war, famine and drought are really very hard to forget. You can add a guilt trip to it if you are the sensitive sort. These images are in fact so deeply ingrained that even the current generation thinks of Ethiopia as a desert land where nothing grows. The media doesn’t exactly help either.

So what’s the truth? What does it feel like being a national of a country that is so misrepresented globally? Yes, we are misrepresented, bear with me:

Let us have a look at the economy. While it is true that Ethiopia is still a developing nation, it has been registering an average of 10% growth rate for the past six years. With the current economic crisis rocking the globe, Ethiopia is still expected to grow with a two-digit figure. This has created a people in Ethiopia, for the first time in at least two generations that have faith in the economy in Ethiopia. (Emperor Hailesellasie’s rule was mostly centered on feudalism and couldn’t bring a large impact on the overall growth of the people as land was owned by the very few elite. Mengistu Hailemariam’s Dergue reign was one of constant war, and this drained the economy more than ever. ) And this renewed faith in turn is fueling the economy as the young realize that they can get whatever they want by simply going out and working.

Entrepreneurship has taken over the minds of the young like new fad, and the streets of Addis are filled with those just setting out in their first ventures while the radio and TV programmes tell of those who own hundreds of thousands yet started out with a capital of a few borrowed hundred birrs.

Ethiopians are known for their fierce patriotism. But the need for better economic security has been taking away the crème de la crème of the badly needed intelligentsia. It was a very unnerving trivia to know that there are “more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than there are in Ethiopia”. Many Ethiopians have had to swallow their pride and give their passports up for the sake of the same security. Some have even not been able to be buried in their own soil. Until now, that is.

It might be the economic hardships that have hit the whole world, it might be mystic attraction that Ethiopia holds over all Ethiopians or it might be a chance vacation that showed the stark reality that shocked the minds that were brainwashed into horrible images of dark despair or it might all and more, but one fact remains true: Ethiopians are returning home. And they are reaping the rewards of their choices. One can actually see day by day changes in the way a returnee carries his body. Slowly as the laid back life takes over the harum-scarum of the west, as they relax among familiar surroundings, as the security of being a citizen in one’s own country starts to seep through his body stand more and more erect each day.

An amazing fact is that Ethiopians will sell all they own to get a visa to the developed world … only to become a best customers at an Ethiopian restaurant. If they could they would only drink St. George beer and have at least two meals with injera in it per day. They try to fill the emptiness that Ethiopia becomes to them with Ethiopian beer and food.

The world sees Ethiopia as hell on earth. The world also thinks that their country is the best in the whole world. Well, so do Ethiopians. The worst thing that can happen, and does, to an Ethiopian is to be alone for any amount of time. In Ethiopia the social structure stands as a safety net to catch and bounce back any member that has fallen on bad times. The main cause of Ethiopian suicides is not being able to get used to the unattached, sterile and uncaring lives that most Europeans and Americans live in. Although better off than other immigrants, since every family has at least one relative abroad, the few exceptions, that are out there alone, have a higher chance of becoming depressed and committing suicide. Beggars in Ethiopia are sometimes richer than the person offering the alms because it is an ingrained Ethiopian custom to help any one less fortunate than oneself. On holidays and feasts, the beggars make a killing by just sitting outside a church and laying out a handkerchief on the ground. They don’t even have to ask for it! People are actually happier in when they are in this poor country than when they are in the richest nations, a concept people in the developed world find hard to believe.

The beauty of the people especially the petite women needs a whole new blog to itself. But it is enough to mention that this beauty itself creates an immense pride in Ethiopians. A pride so immense, in fact, that it appears as contempt and racism to non-Ethiopians. It is a kind of beauty that people of all races seem to agree on. Although there are more than 80 nation and nationalities within the border, all appear to have formed into this beauty that comes from within. The women in the South West although darker have the most beautiful women one will ever see; nothing need be said about the Oromo women because they have been known to win most beauty pageants. The women in the east have this Arabic/Asiatic look that steals the soul. The women in the north, both east and west are gracefully carved. And the most beautiful thing is no matter where these women come from anyone, including foreigners, can tell they are Ethiopians. And we get to be called racists?

Any running event is watched with 70+ million breaths held and hearts beating fast. When a singing icon died recently, the whole nation grieved. Much more can be said about the warmth that exists between Ethiopians. They may scream, fight and snap at each other on the most trivial thing, but when it comes to ‘Ethiopianness’ or Ethiopia any outsider faces one united front with a heavy fist, as history has shown again and again.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Are Ethiopians really racists?

Type in ‘Ethiopia’ and ‘racism’ in your favourite search engine and the results will show Ethiopians as perpetrators rather than victims of the crime. This accusation is very popular around the world and especially amongst our fellow Africans.

The remark most often heard is that we deny we are ‘blacks’ or hate being called ‘Africans’. Then there is the one that goes about how we ‘look down’ at other Africans and African-Americans. Also some mention how Ethiopian girls or women refuse to date non-Ethiopian men.

Now, if one were to put these accusations to any Ethiopian, the answer would be a big denial or that they didn’t know what one was talking about. Because that’s just it, it’s not true. Let’s see why

It all starts at home, from birth. Ethiopians are a very traditional people. Children are still smacked if they make mistakes, parents are respected; and in some parts they are worshipped. It is unthinkable to go against the wish of a parent, especially the father. This tight family structure shapes individuals who draw a line between family and the rest of society. It holds us back at times because we grow up with the thought that our wants or needs come secondary to those of our parents. When this life structure is taken out of the home, the parents are replaced by other parents or the elders of the society around or far from us. It is called ‘yilugnta,’ Amharic for self-consciousness. It can be said that an Ethiopian would rather die than be caught doing something that the society frowns on. This creates an introvert and when the time comes to fly the nest that person has a rather cool, reserved, sometimes shy outlook towards other people and life in general.

This makes Ethiopians are a very gentle, reserved and polite people. Most of the things that appear to be normal in other cultures are ‘n’ewr’ or shameful to us. Talking loudly, starting conversations with strangers (unless it’s the opposite sex which of course is a totally different matter – [and even then a woman would never take the first step]); simple things like eating or spitting in public are considered vulgar and rude.

Anyone can imagine the culture shock an Ethiopian must face when thrown right in the middle of one of these cultures. This shock in turn makes an Ethiopian want to seek and find the norms he or she was used to. That is why many major cities, especially in the United States, have large communities of Ethiopians. They are mostly for support and the members of the communities draw strength, courage and to some extent find an anchor where they feel like home. This image, just the thought of it, could make an outsider think that it’s an exclusive, or in other words “racist”, when the outsiders feel the invisible yet impassable barrier.

The images of African Americans that most Ethiopians have are those of gangstas and/or rappers from video clips and movies. While the youth here copy the low-slung jeans, straight brimmed caps and cool dance steps in the clubs around Addis, they feel uncomfortable with actually being in a gang and identifying with African Americans and their ideologies of sex and violence when they actually come to America. This is the opposite of what was mentioned above. An Ethiopian would feel ill at ease in the African American community because of the images he or she has of them as gangstas.

Finally, African Americans, for the most part, do not know which part of Africa, let alone the exact country they came from. While it can be safely assumed that their ancestors came from the West, Central and South Western parts of Africa, no exact country can be named or known. When asked their roots their answer would be that they are “African”. But any recent migrant from Africa would say he is from Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa or Morocco first and then if needed add that he was from Africa second. But since Ethiopians have this intense passionate love for our country, 100% of the time they will say they are from “Ethiopia.” Only an Ethiopian knows the love he or she has for Ethiopia. Our not saying “Africa” unless asked where Ethiopia is, since we assume that everyone knows Ethiopia is in Africa, can sometimes be taken as denial by omission. This is compounds the problem, but if any Ethiopian is asked he or she could not deny the fact that we are Africans. After all, Pan-Africanism came to life in Ethiopia.

One point that can be added is the ‘reverse-racism’ that whites experience when they come to Ethiopia. Ethiopia has the proud history of not being colonized. Before that Ethiopia existed for thousands of years with barely any contact with the outside world. These two, among many other reasons, added together have made Ethiopians indifferent to foreigners of any colour. There is no white-reverence in Ethiopia, and when foreigners especially whites come here, it shocks them that they are treated almost like any other Ethiopian. The shock is double if they have been to other African countries.

So, are Ethiopians really racist? … No! We are just a misunderstood, cultural and traditional people.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Do we really need the U.N.?

The first thought that comes to my mind whenever the genocide in Rwanda is mentioned is that of the UN doing nothing. A peacekeeping force not keeping the peace is something I can understand, but not accept, in these times of bureaucracy and corruption, but to think of a human being looking the other way when his brothers and sisters are hacked with machetes is beyond words. Soldiers with their hearts and souls so corrupted and serving in a mediation role are just not something I can swallow.

That wasn’t the only time the U.N. did nothing when it was needed. There are conflicts that could have been avoided, but weren’t because the UN Security Council’s mandate didn’t allow a specific task to be done, although any man in the field could see and decide what needed to be done. But then again, one has to be there to do that; the U.N. had withdrawn after 10 peacekeepers were killed in the case of Rwanda. Hightailing it out at the first signs of casualty is not a very good policy, especially when soldiers, though they may be peacekeepers, in war-zones are involved. There’s something wrong with the picture of a soldiers stopping work because of casualty.

Failures in peacekeeping also happened in Bosnia and Somalia. In Bosnia, while the Serbs killed and raped Muslims and Croats the U.N. was assigned to report on ‘artillery fired’ and counting the dead. Some of the troops even hung out in sex establishments where the women were captured Muslims or Croats. As if that was not enough there were cases where the UN troops actually helped the Serbs.
Almost all missions have been rife with scandals. The most heard about are the sex scandals. Cases were where the troops were accused of raping minors, asking for sexual favors in return for food and other basic necessities to direct raping of women. Cases were from Haiti, to Cote D’Ivoire and Liberia to name just a few.

The other scandal is the rampant corruption that goes on in every corner of the U.N. The staffs are paid six figure salaries while the people they are hired to help are left out cold and heat of some desolate refugee camp. The U.N. personnel zip around in the latest model four-wheel drive only to end up chasing women in the nightclubs that are very much in the center of the capital while a mother holds a dying child in camp so remote if can’t be accessed for lack of transportation. As if that were not enough the personnel traded openly in arms and ammunition, gold and ivory while serving in D.R. Congo.

The U.N. defines peacekeeping as” a way to help countries torn by conflict create conditions for sustainable peace.” As opposed to Peace building:” a term used with the international development community to describe the processes and activities involved in resolving violent conflict and establishing a sustainable peace.” and Peacemaking: “a form of conflict resolution which focuses on establishing equal power relationships that will be robust enough to forestall future conflict, and establishing some means of agreeing on ethical decisions within a community that has previously had conflict.”

When the Ethiopian Government asked for troops to help stabilize Somalia, the UN answered with a “no” stating that there was no “peace to keep” in Somalia. Maybe so, but what are the other phrases “Peace Building” and “Peace Making” used for? Should the question have been rephrased? Does it mean that in the future too there will be no help from the U.N. if the troops can’t party all night long? Will the Orwellian rules not be changed with the changing times and type of conflict? Or does one have to be well versed in the U.N. wordplay?

Do we really need the U.N.?