'We're on the Right Track': Ethiopia Is Being Hailed for Its Inclusive Development Model and for Its Fast Economic Growth. Its Forthright Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, Speaks to African Business about Lessons Drawn from the East Asian Model, and the Impact of the Global Economic Crisis

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Q Ethiopia has a unique historical, cultural, and federal lineage in Africa. With this in mind, what has characterised your own development philosophy in Africa?

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Our approach has been based upon the concept of democratic development. Essentially, the concept hangs on the prudent combination of market forces and state intervention, where the state plays a leading role not only in providing infrastructure and basic services, but also in providing the right conducive environment for the development of productive and manufacturing capacities. For sure, the experience of a number of East Asian countries supports the validity of our approach.

Q Do you believe the growth of democracy and development in Ethiopia should run in tandem, or do you think these two facets should be sequential, and separate?

I think both are processes, and like all processes they don't mature unless you start early. I see no inherent conflict between the two, indeed, one can reinforce the other, such as, a democratic system enabling the population to play a more active role in terms of releasing their productive energies, and in terms of ensuring social equity.

Likewise, you have to have equitable development in order to have sustained development. And while it is possible to have equitable economic growth under non-democratic systems, as seen in some East Asian countries, we believe that development can only be firmly entrenched and sustainable if the people are empowered to have a say on the matter. So I see no conflict between the two, and consider them as processes that mature over time: in fact, the faster the better.

Q Let us discuss the land issue and the policies on agriculture and land. How are you going to meet the objective of boosting agricultural productivity while ensuring locals are still able to secure the benefits accrued by large-scale foreign agricultural investors?

One of the unique things in Ethiopia is that prior to 1975, we had perhaps the only properly feudal land ownership system on the continent. The system was replaced by a very radical land reform programme involving the nationalisation of all rural land and its distribution to small-scale farmers. We decided to build upon this system.

It is an essential part of our constitution that land is state property. That means that in the highland areas where most of the people live and work, where there is a shortage of land, farmers have the right to use the land indefinitely and can pass it on to their children; but they cannot sell it because they don't own it. That has extremely limited the concept of landlessness in Ethiopia. Only the young people who were not allocated land in the original distribution round might fall into that category.

We have large tracts of land in the lowland areas that are unutilised and very sparsely populated. Our agricultural development is based upon three key pillars; the overarching idea is that agriculture should lead economic development in Ethiopia, and this will subsequently lead to industrialisation. Initially this policy was not universally popular amongst our development partners. But I think it is now the agreed and accepted method of lifting the rural masses out of poverty.

We have discovered the key to this strategy is small-scale farmers, and improved productivity in the small-scale farming sectors. In the highland areas where we have a shortage of land, we also promote intensive commercial farming, meaning the flower and horticulture industry, which is more land - intensive than small-scale farming. In fact, you can have more than 20 people employed on a hectare of land. This constitutes the second pillar of our development programme.

The third pillar is large-scale commercial farming, which involves providing a long-term lease, between, say, 30-40 years to commercial farmers, both domestic and foreign.

However, the centre of our agricultural development is not large-scale commercial farming, it is small-scale farming. …