One problem, two solutions

By Yilma Bekele (17 April 2009) We are all aware that the global economy is in not in good shape. Both rich industrialised countries and dirt-poor subsistence economies are in a free fall. No one knows where the bottom is. Governments that are democratic, autocratic, military dictatorship or royal kingdoms are all trying different medicines to heal the ailing economy. Let us look at two doctors that have written prescriptions to heal the ailing economy.

The two doctors are President Barack Obama of the US on one side and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia on the other. Their countries have been suffering from recession for quite a while now.

The unemployment figure in the US is about 7% on average, inflation is about 4%, and the budget deficit is in the trillions while in Ethiopia the unemployment is about 60%, inflation 65%, and no budget so to speak of since the country relies on welfare.

President Obama, who has been in office for less than three months, started out by saying: “To understand how we get there, we first need to understand how we got here.” Thus he gathered elected officials, experts in various fields and ordinary citizens trying to identify the root cause of the problem and recommend different options to fix it.

He had his treasury secretary work with the banks to ease the credit crunch, defense department devise a way to cut the bloated budget and recommend a safe and honorable exit from Iraq, congress pass a stimulus package to put people back to work on government projects, his secretary of state go to major capitals to hold hands and soothe nerves while he himself went to all parts of the country to get support for his plan of attack and rally the people so that they have confidence in his leadership.

It is a multifaceted approach to one of the biggest problems encountered by his nation. There was no silver bullet here. The main focus was to try different medicines but with the emphasis being the involvement of the people in the treatment. Without the cooperation and goodwill of the patient, the medicine will not work. All his speeches and actions made it clear that the citizen was part of the solution. Even when most felt depressed and helpless the president was acting like a national cheerleader, exalting the American people to rise up and devise new ways and new methods to slay the double dragon of recession and unemployment.

He did not try to shift the blame on others. The previous administration was not made a scapegoat, nor bankers and industry heads targeted to deflect the issue. The president said all are responsible and there was no need to point fingers. The banks were seen by many as the primary culprits in this fiasco and some shouted “off with their heads!” Sacking a few and prosecuting some would have been a populist move. Mr. Obama did none and said ‘we believe that preemptive government takeovers are likely to end up costing taxpayers even more in the end, and because it is more likely to undermine than to create confidence. Governments should practice the same principle as doctors: first do no harm.’

The US economy is showing signs of life. It is not out of the woods yet, but many believe the patient is recovering. The people are impressed by the rational approach of the commander in chief. His ‘no hysteria’ calm disposition and cheery attitude is seen as the best medicine. His supporters are proud and the skeptics are slowly being drawn to believe that the doctor is knowledgeable and may be he deserves some respect.

How is our other doctor doing? The patient is in dire straits. Unlike the US, Ethiopia’s economic situation is a little bit simpler. Due to the primitive state of industrialization, the economy is not integrated to the wider world. Farming, which accounts for all economic activity, is subsistence level and export of raw unprocessed coffee is the mainstay. So the question is how did the doctor approach the problem?

First please note that ‘this’ doctor has been treating the patient for the last eighteen years. The patient has been denied the right to consult other experts and get a second opinion. The patient has been on a life-support systemwith intensive care nurses (security forces) on stand by 24/7. The patient is dying.

The PM’s initial reaction was complete denial of the problem. He told his parliament “In general, we don’t expect drastic effects on our economy, our financial structure is not as liberalized as those of affected countries and the economy is not intertwined to Western economies to face a crisis” This was August of 2008.

When asked by Time magazine regarding the problem of famine, Meles said: ” It’s a mixed bag. When you have an emergency, there is the urge to do whatever it takes to see people get assistance.” [But that can mean] the name of the game is [to] include a bit of hyperbole, and that can convey the message that the situation is hopeless when in fact it is not, and that might do some lasting damage, given the fact that all investors take their information and make their assessments on the basis of the 24-hour news cycle. Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long; it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch – emergencies, but no famines.

When it came to foreign currency shortage he decided to solve the problem by confiscating the citizens’ property. In March of 2008 by order of the Prime Minister, Federal police confiscated over 2 million US dollars and thirteen million Birr from traders. They were declared illegal and forfeited their right.

A year later he went after coffee exporters and traders. His government confiscated 17,000 tons of coffee and suspended the licenses of over80 traders. He also said six will be prosecuted.

Do you see a pattern here? It is never about looking at the cause. It is all about finding someone to blame for a failed policy. Meles still blames the Derg regime for current problems. You would think after seventeen years Mengistu is history. Actually his government goes as far back as Menelik to shift responsibility. Does it make sense when today those 14 years or under are 46% of the population?

Mr. Obama looked at the cause and he is in the process of writing a new playbook. He is not about looking back. He is focused on the future. He said ‘There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “…the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house…it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.” How true.

Unfortunate for us our leaders are not interested in constructing on solid foundation. They get drunk with their own lies and propaganda. Because they thought it and said it they think it has happened. Thus there is no chance that the medicine they are prescribing to cure the illness will work. It is more likely to put the patient in a coma. One problem two solutions, which doctor would you trust with your life?

In this week of Easter we should remember our dear sister Judge Birtukan Mediksa. We should admire her courage. Deeply be impressed by her determination to sacrifice for our cause. She is a learned person with a law degree. She was a municipal judge. By any standard she is an achiever. But most important our sister is a person of principle. She is a rare individual at this juncture in our ancient history. We have encountered so many fake usurpers that we get disoriented when we meet people like judge Birtukan. She is in solitary confinement like a common criminal. She has been in confinement for 108 days. We hear that she is in good spirits and is very much inspired by the effort her country folks are putting to gain her release. We will not rest till she is free. We love you Birtukan. Happy Easter.

The writer Yilma Bekele can be reached at

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Posted by on April 18, 2009. Filed under VIEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.