Global Diary

Ethiopia: Land of Edible Napkins

Ethiopia has an amazing ability to get things done, quite unusual in low-income countries.

Men gathered at the cobblestone road construction site in Ethiopia. (Photo by the author.)


  • There is only a single Internet service provider for nearly 100 million people in Ethiopia.
  • With Chinese funding, the Ethiopian government is investing quite massively in railroads.
  • When it puts its mind to it, the Ethiopian state has an amazing ability to get things done.

Ethiopia, located in northeast Africa, is currently the second-most populous nation on the continent. At the current rate, it could have more than 200 million people by 2050. Ethiopia is thus on track to become one of the world’s ten most populous nations. It is a country that needs to be much more on people’s radar.

I recently visited the Ethiopian capital for a conference. It is a place of contradiction, with both highly modern impulses and determination to remain stuck in time.

Invited to lunch at a small downtown outdoor restaurant, I face the only dish on offer: raw meat, which one slices “off the block” and dips into hot sauce.

Ethiopia 1

As with most Ethiopian dishes, it comes with injera – a kind of edible warm damp napkin which accompanies most dishes, ideal housing for homeless bacteria. Ignoring this onslaught of cholesterol, my hosts point out with pride that the injera are gluten-free.

A major challenge the country will continue to face is its centuries-long tradition of extreme centralism in governance.

Ryszard Kapuscinski describes in his haunting book, The Emperor, published in 1978, how the approval of Haile Selassie – “King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, His Most Puissant Majesty and Distinguished Highness the Emperor of Ethiopia” – was needed to buy sheets for a hotel. No wonder there is only a single Internet service provider in the country for nearly 100 million people.

Chinese technical assistance, seemingly omnipresent, extends to censoring the Internet. When carrying out a Google search of universities, I stumbled upon a news article “The disgraceful state of higher education in Ethiopia.” Within seconds of clicking, a message popped up: “The network is unavailable. Please try again later.”

A government mouthpiece

The Ethiopian Herald, slipped under hotel room doors and also available online, relentlessly sings the government’s praises day after day. “As is the case in the US, France, Canada or other developed countries, the government has to deal with a heavy hand with journalists who, under the cover of journalism, threaten the security of the people.”

It labels the Washington Post a “neoliberal” or “liberal” octopus. Highly rigged national elections — which resulted in a clean sweep of every parliamentary seat by the ruling EPRDF party — are reported in a fairly straightforward manner: “Election process going well without major complaints.”

One government program, praised in the Ethiopian Herald, mobilizes thousands (who are paid by the piece) to chip rock into cobblestones.

As the daily reported:

“Because of this [program], the living standard of thousands of community members have been improved. Before that most of our towns and/cities local road were more sophisticated and not attractive, so the local community were forced to lead disturbed life. In general, it plays an important role on social [sic] and even the community as a whole. Due to this it is believed that it brought a big change on social values.

Enterprising initiatives

However, for all the bad of its authoritarian centralism, when it puts its mind to it, the Ethiopian state has an amazing ability to get things done. That is quite unusual in low-income countries.

Ethiopian Airlines is a well-run state enterprise, seemingly profitable, and has provided excellent service to date – astonishingly even during the chaotic thirteen years of the militantly pro-Soviet Derg.

With Chinese funding, the Ethiopian government is investing quite massively in railroads — reviving the link to Djibouti — building highways, electric power generation, transmission, irrigation and so on.

Still among the world’s poorest countries, Ethiopia’s economy has been growing rapidly.

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About Guy Pfeffermann

Guy Pfeffermann is the Founder and CEO of the Global Business School Network. He was formerly the chief economist of the IFC. Follow him @GPfeffermann

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