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Ethiopia ahead of the curve: the green legacy of Meles Zenawi

It is surely better now to concentrate on Meles’ positive achievements rather than dwell on negatives from the past. His legacy will be decided by what happens next. But the “develop now and clean up later” approach enjoyed by the west for a while is no longer an option - for anyone.

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader since 1991, was buried in Addis Ababa on Sept 2 in the cathedral where the emperor Menelik II was laid to rest in 1916. The sudden death, age 57, of Africa’s most influential statesman is one of the most significant events in modern African history, and it comes at a critical time for Ethiopia, for Africa and the world.

Tributes have been pouring in from around the globe. He has been called a visionary, national saviour, hero, philosopher-king, one of Africa’s finest sons. Under Mr Meles’ leadership, Ethiopia has been transformed from a virtual failed state in 1991 to become one of the world’s fastest growing economies on the verge of a historic renaissance. He has maintained high levels of peace in a notoriously warlike part of the world. He has given millions of Ethiopians the opportunity to improve their lives and has restored Ethiopia’s pride and position in the world. For some, his greatest achievement is building the foundations of a ‘green’ economy in Ethiopia that can be balanced, coordinated and sustainable. After 21 years of Mr Meles how can this vital but vulnerable “Water Tower of Africa” can be measured, managed and maintained?

There are others who are celebrating Mr Meles’ death, relieved that he has finally gone. To them he was an evil despot, a power hungry dictator, a ruthless, racist bully with little regard for democracy and human rights, leading a band of thugs who brought misery, suffering and death. They will remember him as the one who imprisoned, tortured and silenced them, who threw them off their ancestral lands to make way for mega-scale ‘brown’ development projects – enormous dams, farms and sugar enterprises – that will wreck the environment, wreck the economy and return the country to civil war or worse. For them Meles was a genocidal tyrant who divided Ethiopia, mismanaged the finances and sacrificed vast and precious ecosystems in order to control his enemies and stay in power. Under Meles’ leadership, Ethiopia’s “Cradles of Mankind” have become their graves.

The truth is somewhere in between. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man. Anyone who has only rudimentary knowledge and experience of Ethiopia can begin to understand the battleline running through Mr Meles as he wrestled for 21 years to reconcile Ethiopia’s enormous and complex contradictions, while generating balanced, economic growth in one of the most imbalanced and impoverished regions on the planet. As his successors prepare the transition in these urgent and uncertain times, for the sake of Ethiopia, its neighbours and the world at large, it is surely better now to concentrate on how his positive achievements can steer the future, rather than dwell on negatives from the past. The Meles legacy will be decided by what happens next.

Conservation-based development

Even Mr Meles’ greatest enemies cannot deny he had a vision for sustainable development and was a pioneer in Africa’s green thinking where the need for such thinking is most urgent. This first came to light at the Lem (Green) Meeting in Addis Ababa in June 1992. The post-colonial development model in Ethiopia had failed dramatically and the country was in ruins. In his address at the meeting, one year after assuming responsibility for what is one of the most challenging countries on earth, Mr Meles encapsulated the thinking of the day by calling for “conservation-based, people-led, people-centred development” requiring a “multi-disciplinary and broad-spectrum approach for there is no piece-meal solution to the problem at hand.” This speech was the first step on the road to a green economy in Ethiopia.

Over the following 20 years, despite, or perhaps because of, the perennial ravages of drought, war and outside shocks, Mr Meles continued exploring sustainable development in Ethiopia and today there are countless green success stories throughout the country with vast green growth potential. Perhaps his greatest green legacy from his time in office will be the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy, the first of its kind in the world, announced in Oct 2011 just before the UN climate talks in Durban. This was Ethiopia ahead of the curve.

The May 2012 World Economic Forum on Africa held in Addis Ababa was “Ethiopia’s moment”. It reconfirmed Ethiopia’s historic influence and was the springboard for Mr Meles’ green vision to take off.  His brainchild, the 2011-2015 Growth and Transformation Plan, was designed to make the dream come true. The UN’s Rio+ 20 Summit in Brazil in June was a unique opportunity for Mr Meles as “the voice of Africa” to speak out. Unfortunately, perhaps due to his illness, the voice was not heard, the opportunity was lost and Africa was “sidelined” again.

Without Mr Meles’ energy, influence and vision, Ethiopia’s new government, led by Deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, faces a historic challenge: to maintain peace and national unity through rapid and sustained economic growth in a world of mounting economic uncertainty. It is here that Mr Meles’ green legacy can be put to greatest effect. By keeping his green vision alive and his green voice strong, Ethiopia is in a unique position to lead Africa and the world in the evolving global green economy, the main theme at Rio+20.

Mr Hailemariam has already said that the government would continue its policies and vowed that all Mr Meles' "initiatives would keep going forward." While this may be reassuring and have a short-term stabilising effect on the current situation, some of the strategies behind Mr Meles’ policies risk having the opposite effect. The hidden costs and unintended consequences of any high carbon, resource intensive, environmentally degrading and socially divisive “brown” development strategies of the GTP could quickly outweigh the benefits.

During the 2007-2008 global food crisis Mr Meles announced his government’s decision to lease large tracts of land to foreign investors for the export of food to the investors’ lands. As this return to the state-led, 20th century development model was contrary to his pioneering, people-led, commercial smallholder farming strategy, Mr Meles was quick to explain the shift was intended to “supplement” sustainable development, not replace it. Citing unequal wealth distribution as one of the hidden costs of such developments, Mr Meles said that adopting large-scale farms as an alternative strategy to smallholder farming would be “patently stupid.”    

Along with mega dams and sugar plantations, large-scale land development for food export is the third in a trio of major brown development strategies included in the GTP that Mr Meles hoped would supplement his vision for a green Ethiopia. But rather than supplementing Ethiopia’s economic and cultural transformation these controversial, multi-billion dollar investments in twentieth century technologies risk tipping the balance away from the long-term, evolving green economy back towards the short-term, dominating brown. The hidden costs of these “piecemeal” strategies are well known, there are more of them and they are increasing as populations rise, the planet heats up and eco-systems break down. In Ethiopia these costs are rapid and severe and are already beginning to show.

The big question Ethiopians must ask is whether twentieth century technologies on the scales envisaged in the GTP can deliver Ethiopia a twenty-first century renaissance. On this subject Mr Meles was puzzling. At the November/December 2011 UN Climate Change talks in Durban he contradicted important elements of his GTP by saying “It doesn’t make sense at all when you are carrying out investment in the green field investment area to start with yesterday’s technology...We have to start with what is viable in the future.” In other speeches he tried to drive this point home by paraphrasing Albert Einstein: “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

One of the latest and most significant hidden cost of the brown development strategies of Ethiopia’s GTP is the opportunity cost of not fulfilling Mr Meles’ green vision. Attracting brown investors because environmental and social rules are slack could deter green investors who will be attracted to Ethiopia because the rules are strict.  The “develop now and clean up later” approach enjoyed by the west for a while is no longer an option - for anyone.

If Mr Meles was an outspoken leader in “rethinking” Africa, his legacy has created a narrow window of opportunity for rethinking some of Ethiopia’s GTP strategies. Mr Meles’ Climate Resilient Green Economy will need climate resilient technologies.  Africa’s Consensus Statement to the Rio+20 Summit, which was largely ignored by the rest of the world, is the single document which begins to explain what Africa can provide and what Africa needs to play a pivotal role in the ‘great rebalancing’ of the planet by expanding the global green economy. Item 24 of the statement, for instance, calls on the international community “to put an international investment strategy into place to facilitate the transition towards a green economy.” This call highlights a specific opportunity for Africa and especially Ethiopia. Instead of waiting for the international community, preoccupied as it is with multiple crises, to deliver a meaningful green investment strategy for Africa on time, Ethiopia is in a strong position to begin the process by proposing strategies and plans of its own.

Over the past 20 years Ethiopia has confirmed its legendary ability to organise large numbers of people in a productive capacity in remote and challenging conditions. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front has built a formidable organisational structure with established institutions that have the potential to dramatically transform the rich but vulnerable landscapes of the Horn of Africa. The tools, technologies, knowledge and skills required to fulfil the green dream in Ethiopia are sufficiently developed. The work has already started. The information needed to accelerate the process is literally at our fingertips. With its youthful population Ethiopia’s demographic advantage has never been greater. The possible peace dividend has reached historic highs.

Instead of encircling the plateau with a series of mega-scale brown projects, with their hidden costs and unintended consequences, Ethiopia and its partners have the ability and a historic opportunity to develop mega-scale green projects which include more modest, manageable and sustainable dams, farms and sugar enterprises which could also in the long-term be more profitable.  A series of integrated river basin development projects, one in each of the country’s 12 major river basins to begin with, would be a major rethink of Ethiopia and a significant step towards realising Mr Meles’ original “broad-spectrum” vision and fulfilling the aspirations of Agenda 21.

Two key tools in large-scale, green development are Integrated River Basin Management and Biosphere Reserves based on UNESCO’s core principles. In the past 20 years the thinking behind these has advanced enough in Ethiopia for green investment strategies to be designed and plans made. A revolutionary and democratic combination of top-down and bottom-up development backed by national and international institutions and organisations can give Ethiopia a Green Renaissance from which we can all benefit and learn. Fulfilling the late Prime Minister’s green vision will reclaim Ethiopia’s place in history and could lead us into a twenty-first century green economy. In the face of the inevitable ‘great contraction’ of the global brown economy, Ethiopia is well-positioned and well-qualified to inspire and drive the ‘great expansion’ of the green.

About the author

Michael Street's connections with Africa began 40 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s he worked in a number of African and Asian countries as a 'brown' development expert on various agro-industrial projects. He first visited Ethiopia in 1975. During the 1990s and early 2000s he has travelled extensively in Ethiopia and lectured widely on the country's history and ecology. Since 2001 he has been based in Sicily where he is establishing two small biosphere reserves as part of an initiative to understand and expand Sicily's green economy.