musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Meles Zenawi - the Other Obituary

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's long-time Prime Minister, died last night... what a relief.

To repeat the most overused contemporary political phrase... let me be clear: I don't wish death upon anyone no matter how bad. Justice? Yes. Death? That's for higher powers than me to decide.

But I must say that, on behalf of Ethiopia and my Ethiopian friends, I'm glad Meles is no longer in power. (I also realize that, by just saying that phrase, my ability to return to Ethiopia in the Meles era, which I'm assuming it still continues even after his death, is in jeopardy.)

Harry Verhoeven, an Oxford PhD, points out the (admittedly) many good parts of Meles' history in his piece in AJE entitled "Zenawi: The titan who changed Africa". Although Verhoeven does point out a few 'questionable things' (my words, not his) about Meles in the article, it is largely a glowing obituary.

To be fair...

He rescued Ethiopia from the Derg, perhaps one of the most ruthless regimes history has ever known. He ushered his country (with the help of the international community) from being in all out famine to... well... only somewhat in famine. He sat at the top as Ethiopia experienced unprecedented (yet uneven) economic growth. He was a revolutionary hero with a pan-African vision revered by many in the global political sphere.


There's always a 'but' with Meles. Several actually, some of which are pointed out in Mark Tran's article in the Guardian. Growing as reclusive as he was unpopular (at least everywhere in Ethiopia except for Tigray, his homeland) in recent times, Meles had unfortunately turned power hunger and the never-ending search for political longevity into a repression of his people and a deft manipulation of the Western donors.

In my experience, Ethiopians were largely scared (and/or unable to due to the government's annoying telecommunications limitations) to voice any opposition to him or his cronies lest they end up disappearing in the middle of the night. Fear of the government was par for the course. Most foreign, and more importantly diaspora, companies wanting to invest didn't for fear of expropriation. Aid to Ethiopia (in the billions of US$ per year) continues to sustain the massive amounts of food insecure while NGOs (and any outsiders really) are tightly controlled to such a degree that limits sustainability, innovation and long-term effectiveness of donor dollars.

Much like contemporary Turkey and its delicate balancing act between Islam and democracy, it's hard to understand this fear without experiencing it first hand. Friends refusing to discuss the government at all in public. The inability to fight any type of bureaucratic injustice for fear of violence. The dreaded knock on your door that could come at any time (what did I say? what did I do?). The (admittedly) rapid economic growth that has occurred with little international or diaspora investment. The amazing unmet potential of a beautiful country full of bountiful resources and well-educated people (the food's pretty tasty too, but that's another story).

Meles might have started off on the right path, but like so many others (Saddam, Putin, Mugabe and Erdogan if he becomes Turkey's next President - to name but a few) he stayed in power too long and his people have suffered because of it.

The mark of a great leader is not just revolutionary success and big dreams. The mark of a great leader is knowing when the job is done... then stepping aside for others to carry the torch.

Unfortunately for Meles, it took his death for that torch to pass in Ethiopia.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Is there an academic/policy divide in development?

Alas, all good things - even 3 month round-the-world extravaganzas - must eventually come to an end. To steal probably the most commonly used Gen. Next answer to the 'how was the trip' question... it was awesome!

But more on that later, including lessons learned (any development professional worth his/her salt includes these) and tips for other aspiring global vagabonds.

For now, it's back to the grindstone. A pastel-colored, boat shoe- and trendy sunglasses-wearing grindstone (I am in Cambridge Mass after all), but a grindstone nonetheless.

There's an amazing amount of international development ideas floating around this place and I can't wait to jump right into the deep end.

The main question I have (and hope to learn more about in the aforementioned deep end) is whether those ideas and solutions are making their way outside of the academic community? Are policy makers in Washington, London, Geneva, New York and beyond accessing the information? Are they making changes/upgrades base on the evidence?

Several organizations (including, among others, MIT's J-PAL network and IPA) are out in front of this crusade but are the right incentives there for professors to dedicate time, effort and resources to bridging the (real or perceived) gap? Several fascinating books address global poverty (I'm finally reading Poor Economics by Duflo/Banerjee after having just read Why Nations Fail by Robinson and fellow Ameriturk Acemoglu - both highly recommended) and have elevated their authors to rock star status in the economics/development realm... but what are the distinct policy implications/ramifications? Is it all just talk if things don't change in a policy world full of NGOs with differing agendas, politicians with constituencies and nobody with a whole lot of spare time to read 100+ page research papers/books?

Put another way... in an academic world intensely focused on publishing valuable research that could improve the efficiency/effectiveness with which your and my money combats global poverty, are professors/researchers properly incentivized to appropriately share their knowledge in ways that are truly accessible to policy makers?

I hope so. But I also have my doubts. Maybe I can help?