The Developmental State in Ethiopia: Congenital Anomalies or Inertia?


The developmental state theory has been prescribed as an efficient remedy for countries struggling against underdevelopment. As far as Ethiopia is concerned the appeal of the theory goes beyond economic growth to include peace and security. Because of the dominant role that the states in the region, particularly Ethiopia, have in allocating resources in general conditions of scarcity, they become the focus of dissent and insecurity. The developmental state agenda was meant to help address the political economy of conflict. Some have indeed begun to view the developmental state as a major new force that has entered the Ethiopian political scene. The assertion notwithstanding a comparison to other successful case studies and the way the Ethiopian ‘developmental state’ mutates raises several questions. Beyond the rhetorical focus the discourse seems philosophically out of joint, lacking the critical requirements but emotionally firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations. This presentation attempts to avoid the more or less standard account and provide a critical overview of the ‘developmental state’ through the prism of the defining character of Asian developmental states, the nature of the Ethiopia State and the origin and development of the EPRDF. It calls for a methodological radicalism and argues in favor of a drastic stylistic departure, a fundamental rethinking and a conversation the country needs to have to establish the developmental state in a productive and redemptive way.

This is a talk I gave at Mekelle on July 30 2016 on Ethiopia after Meles,Mekelle University.

Background to the presentation

- Years of analysis on the political economy of conflicts in the Horn

- Conversations on the developmental state over the years

- Research interest on the African state

- Excerpts from a presentation on the prospects of a developmental state in Africa at the British parliament and Kings College London, July 2013.

- Mainly a political analysis and a practitioners view.


Ethiopia has posted remarkably good growth rates in recent years and has embarked upon ambitious investments in infrastructure and public services. The country’s infrastructure projects are impressive. Corruption is low and aid is well spent. The country has made notable progress over a relatively short period in numerous fields of economic and social development.

The History and Sensibilities of the EPRDF

This is concerned with the history of the TPLF as a peasant based movement in one of the most impoverished regions of the country. Such a force would be remotely positioned to pursue liberal economic theories. The TPLF was historically dominated by revolutionary ethos which increasingly gave way to pragmatism. But there were limits as to how far the EPRDF could move away from its Marxist-Leninist origins.

Upon coming to power TPLF leaders did not hide their views, but neither did they ever fully start the ‘democratic developmental state’ discourse. However flirtations with a peasant based dominant party democracy in Ethiopia were very much on the scene. Key sectors were kept in state’s hands, especially the banking, insurance, communication and electricity sectors. In other cases, public companies were “privatized”, but with some restrictions. Their ideological leanings aside they failed to embark on a grand ideological project until 10 years later.

There were several reasons for this state of affairs:

The New World Order: the post-1989 world order did not encourage leftist organizations to go official. The first decade after the end of the Cold War is characterized by the dominance of the Liberal Project and Liberal Peace Theory (i.e. the pieces of liberal peace). There was widespread opposition to an independent line. Gradually there emerged a shift on the need for a capable state to lead development.

More knowledge emerging on East Asian countries that succeeded by subverting neo-liberal dogma.

The 2005 elections: the urgency to deliver in both economic and political terms.

The immediate quest for legitimacy and constituency had also played a crucial role.

The cumulative effect being the theory resurfaced ten years later in 2001, under the standard of revolutionary democracy but reconciling with capitalism, recycling its old revolutionary script now enriched with political challenges at home and highly publicized successes abroad, almost Chines/Asian overtones.

Key Issues

- It is fair to argue that Ethiopia’s overriding national challenge was to end poverty, and in turn this needed a comprehensive, theoretically rigorous practice of development. Ethiopia has clearly identified poverty as its number one national security threat. Other countries implicitly acknowledge a similar concern but only Ethiopia has developed a coherent policy framework for addressing the issue

- Monopoly over all rents and allocating state rents in a productive manner: natural resource rent, aid rent, policy rent etc.

- Politicizing the state to ultimately depoliticize it: The economy to be more than a competition to control state rents. Economic development and the establishment of a genuine market economy removes the incentive of state control as a privileged access to wealth.

- A secure neighborhood: Success in this growth-based strategy demands access to external resources, at least in the short term, and a stable neighborhood. The strategy of building a stable neighborhood was more or less successful except the brunt of an unnecessary direct military intervention in Somalia and a failed policy on Eritrea that continues to haunt regional peace and Ethiopia’s national security.


One can draw some lessons in the broader perspective of political economy and the African state. These include,

- The need for a theory of change and growth plan for Africa; an authentically African philosophy of the goals and strategies of development.

- The need for a strong state

- The need for an independent economic(and foreign) policy

- The need for an ideology

- The theme of a structural and gradualist (peasant-based) approach to democracy

- The need for a hegemonic party & developmental state; dominant party democracy to achieve continuity.

- The need for generation of new ideas in Africa.

- The need for a national security policy.

- The need to interface the State and Development; bridging the gap b/n state and society by fully redirecting the energy of the state to development.

- Championing African issues and African ownership at both regional and global levels

- Labeling rent seeking as a major enemy and branding developmental state as a cure; namely the hegemony of developmental state discourse

Clearly, in light of most underdeveloped countries being held back by states that have grown into rent-seeking systems, the supportive role of the developmental state to market economy constitutes a major shift and this has been the main argument in the Ethiopian developmental state discourse in recent years.


-The nature of the EPRDF: Unifying multiple constituencies; torn between the politicization of ethnicity and the presumed hegemony of a developmental state and between political control and development.

- Lack of genuine fellowship and commitment for a developmental state among the leadership particularly rank and file of the ruling party.

- Failure to build strong institutions

- Unable to meet some key instruments of a developmental state, such as a well-educated, independent, efficient and nationalist bureaucracy. The dependence on a (historical) strong state alone is therefore a major shortcoming.

- The problems of the Ethiopian State: Competing, antagonistic narratives of statehood; the challenge of creating an inclusive society. This is the most important defaulting of the Ethiopian developmental state discourse. The political requirements for the developmental state are lacking. Bridging the competing narratives were neither sought nor attempted.

Without nationalism and elite education for national unity, and a collective memory underpinning it the developmental state cannot achieve the mobilizing power it needs to lead the country into the road of rapid development. A developmental state cannot flourish in the prevalence of widespread sense of marginalization and exclusion. The developmental state cannot be a reality so long as the state is used as an instrument of exclusion. An agreement on the nature and fundamentals of the Ethiopian state becomes ever more pivotal.

The real problem is therefore not a failure to articulate it in economic terms but the challenges of implementing it properly; the real challenge is however political. A developmental state could be authoritarian, but in Africa’s ethnically diverse societies, particularly Ethiopia (where the state is contested) democratic legitimacy in the form of inclusive and representative political processes is critical.

Besides, the developmental state agenda might be relevant and attractive to Ethiopia but the way it has been introduced to the party leadership and the public is problematic. Often, the process is far important than the outcome. In order to become the governing ideology and achieve hegemony the developmental state discourse should have been thoroughly discussed and internalized through internal debate both inside and outside of the party. Many in the party simply bought to the idea out of self-interest and there is no strong ownership of the agenda in both political and academic terms.

- Recent breakdown of the monopoly over rents. Meles’s ability to dismantle the rent-seeking state has been greatly weakened. This is partly due to the fact that the nature of power after Meles is still in Transition, not yet Consolidation

-The developmental state discourse in Ethiopia fails to adopt reform and prevent elite contest for state power.

The Ethiopian case is a fuzzy developmentalism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions. The political threats to the working of the developmental state are yet to be tackled.