Terrible news from Ethiopia, where demonstrations on Wednesday about alleged election rigging ended in violence and the death of several protesters. Andrew Heavens, a photo journalist, has been recording events in his outstanding blog, Meskel Square. I confess that I have been an admirer of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has made an extraordinary journey from hard left guerrilla leader to a moderate, free market democratic leader. But the nature of this violent clampdown on demonstrations cannot be condoned or ignored. Some people write about governments as if they fall neatly into easily identifiable categories. Some do: Robert Mugabe’s government is bad; Abdoulaye Wade’s government is good. But for most, the judgement is much more complex. In many developing countries, they face almost unimaginably difficult resource constraints with which they must try to deliver the basic government services, such as courts, tax administration, police services, air traffic control, an army, parliament, and a central bank, let alone services such as education and health. They often depend on complex political coalitions for their continuation in office, and have constantly to bear in mind the fragility of the democracy. Progress is often slow and patchy, and there are occasional backward steps even among countries that are moving forward. Of course, we in the rich world are not entirely immune from scandals and even violence. Bishop Desmond Tutu reminded us on Radio 4 yesterday that it was Europe that brought us two world wars in the last century, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia only a few years ago. He reminded us that we have seen grand scale corruption and theft in Enron and Parmalat, on a scale that dwarfs corruption in Africa. He didn’t say – though he could have – that almost all the corruption in developing countries depends on our bribes by people from rich countries. He was too polite to mention the violent suppression of demonstrations in our own democracies (think of Derry or Chicago in 1968). Nor is it only developing countries that imprison people without trial or legal representation because they believe that it is in their security interest to do so. None of which is intended to justify what has happened in Ethiopia. Over time, we must hope that we shall understand the events of last Wednesday more clearly, and that those responsible will be held to account. This is not the first time that the government has used excessive violence in suppressing demonstrations – 25 students were killed in Awassa in May 2002. Somehow this will sound weasily, but we should think carefully about how this affects our overall judgement of the Government. The recent elections were the most free and fair Ethiopia has ever seen, and the first to invite foreign observers; and the gradual liberalisation of Ethiopia’s economy has resulted in enormous gains for the poor. The responsible way in which the Government has taken steps to identify food shortages, and work to overcome them, has almost certainly prevented a repeat of the famines of the 1970s and 1980s. We will learn a little more over the coming days; and the way in which the Ethiopian Government deals with this brutality will send an important signal about its commitment to building a free and just society. But we will also learn a little about the ability of our own Governments to respond appropriately to this serious stumble on the road to freedom. See also


Owen Barder

Owen is CEO of Precision Agriculture for Development. He has worked in the office of the UK Prime Minister, the British Treasury, the Department for International Development; and at the Center for Global Development.


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