Monday, January 15
This Grand Potemkin Village
“Once upon a time, there was a man called Potemkin who was minister to the empress of the land. Hoping to earn her favor, he launched a military campaign and conquered new lands to add to her vast kingdom. Though the land itself was of little economic value, he told her of its greatness and was, in turn, rewarded.
One day the queen decided that, like any good monarch, it was her duty to visit her newly acquired territories and discover their potential. This posed a serious problem for Potemkin who had greatly exaggerated their worth. So he thought and he thought. “It is not possible to tell the queen that I have deceived her, “ he mused, “she will certainly be most angry with me.” So he thought and he thought some more. “Aha!” he exclaimed after some time. “I will disguise the poverty of the land and make it appear as if there is some development here!”
But the task of concealing the desolation of the vast and rural countryside was not a simple one, and her aides worked tirelessly day and night to ensure that all was hidden from view of the passing royal procession. Since they did not have enough time to satisfactorily increase the quality of life for the oppressed subjects of the kingdom, elaborate ‘false fronts’ were instead constructed to conceal the utter lack of regional development. Villagers from across the land were conscripted to help conceal the lack of infrastructure and ramshackle-poverty that would most certainly offend the queen, and no expense was spared--beautiful one-dimensional representations of the towns-that-should-have-been soon stretched for miles.
By the time the queen set off on her journey, the nation had been transformed, or at least it appeared so to the passing royal carriage. Though her aides were terrified that the villagers might forget to smile and wave at the temperamental monarch or, worse, that a mighty wind would come and knock over their massive wooden facade, everything went according to plan. The queen returned back to her palace under the assumption that all was fair throughout the land, and the aides lived happily ever after, (or at least they were allowed to live!), all thanks to the clever plan of a man called Potemkin. The end.”
Okay,…so maybe that wasn’t quite how it went down in 18th-century Russia. (he was, interestingly, her former lover and historians today more or less agree that the claims of ‘sham villages’ were probably greatly exaggerated), but whether fact or fiction, the legend has nonetheless since been internationally circulated and the practice of development for the sole purpose of deception has been adopted and implemented in all corners of the Earth.
I was reminded of this tale while recently touring the city with an aid worker new to the city. “My, my,” she exclaimed, “there certainly seems to be a lot of development going on in this city. At least this government is doing something right!”
Though we all know better, it is actually entirely understandable that she would arrive at this conclusion after spending only a few days in Addis:
The main road from the airport, for example, is littered with half-constructed buildings of all shapes and sizes which suggest ‘urban transformation and development’ in no uncertain terms to the weary traveller. Upon immediately entering the city (provided you stick to the main road, of course) such development even borders on indecent, as precarious wooden scaffolding rising in deliberate distraction from all directions; should you decide to visit “Old Airport” (home of the international embassies) , “Piasa” (city center) or “Bole” (especially near the shiny new World Bank building), you may even feel downright intimidated in the shadows of the towering business complexes and “nearly-completed” high rise (low-cost!) apartment buildings built obscenely close to the road, shamelessly flaunting their concrete wares for all to see. The fact that so many buildings are being so hurriedly erected literally on the side of of the road (without even room for a sidewalk in some places) seems more than a little suspicious (and easily suggests that, perhaps, there is much to hide) but given the dismal state of the national economy and blatantly declining of social conditions, such in-your-face development thankfully provides a much needed ‘escape clause’ for overwhelmed tourists, comfortable aid workers and placated politicians.
So, who is responsible for this wonderfully reasuring proliferation of concrete?
Well, they can definitely be attributed to foreign “assistance”, though not necessarily in the charitable fashion we prefer to assume. Some buildings are undoubtedly the labors of determined NGOs that have untangled themselves from the red-tape of the national civil service long enough to partially construct some buildings, and a precious few actually do belong to non-partisan private investors, I am told. However, a far greater number of the sites can be credited to the (apparently internationally intriguing) government contracts freely awarded to the low-bidding Chinese, and the obvious efforts of the Sheik to leave his scent all over the city.…which leaves the remainder of the contracts to be greedily divied up between the gaggle of homegrown nouveau-riche, EPRDF-supporting “businessmen”.
For all intensive political purposes, it seems the “act” of construction has now become favored over any potential end result within this city. And no wonder, considering the amount of aid dollars that continue to miraculously disappear within these borders every year! Fortunately, most diplomats, international donor assessment teams and self-assured foreign economists don’t actually spend enough time in the city to notice the chronic stagnance of the majority of the sites (though, admittedly, in some areas of the city buildings seem to pop up faster than you can say “vote harvesting”!) While it cannot be denied that most governments of the world have been found guilty of awarding contracts or lucrative ‘business opportunities’ to family, friends, and/or political supporters at some time or another, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi seems once again determined to lead the perverted pack of power-hungry politicians (say that 10 times fast! …Sorry, late-night buna kicking in) in the quest for bonded political validation.
At this time, such action serves two very important functions in this country:
1. To supply a shameless masquerade of “well-managed donor funds” (that can be referenced in a pinch to satisfy the international community) and
2. To ensure political loyalty amidst an increasingly vocal national majority opposition (umm…I hear they call it blackmail in the free world?)
It is common knowledge here in Addis that local construction contracts are almost exclusively distributed amongst party members and EPRDF “supporters” with breath-taking generosity and alarmingly low criteria, but just like everything else in this country, the evidence of such favoritism is obviously “everywhere and nowhere” and therefore easily ignored by the outside world.
This would, perhaps, be easier to understand if this new wave of development served to improve the lives of those living here, but so far the economy has failed to noticeably repsond. Though the investments of Al-Amoudi have naturally proven profitable for himself and the party members involved, they do not, for the most part, serve to significantly benefit the local community. He has obviously set his sights on visitors from abroad, and many of his ‘attractions’ (such as the Sheraton and the park) remain almost entirely inaccessible to Ethiopians for various reasons (cost and his ego, respectively). Those that remain affordable are intentionally boycotted by most citizens and therefore can no longer be considered a valuable economic contribution—Pepsi sales, for example are at an all time low. The system of consistently awarding major development contracts to the lowest bidder also raises some obvious questions: though I far prefer the self-interested development of the Chinese to the diastrous, multi-faceted consequences of guilt-driven Western charity, let’s face it--their roads are crap!
More importantly, the shameful state of the national economy, despite drastic increase in urban business ventures, can inarguably be attributed to the lack of capacity and requisite expertise and experience harnessed by the ruling minority party (which I plan to write much, much more about this at a later date). You see, apparently after being given a business liscence and development contract, you are actually supposed to have a viable business plan and even (*gasp!) efficiently operate for profit…which evidently poses quite a problem for many of the EPRDF’s business elite. A friend of mine in the construction business recently shared some hilarious stories of party members trying to get started (like the man who walked smugly into the office of an established civil engineer and told him that he needed a building designed immediately. Despite the fact that the confused cadre obviously required the services of an architect not an engineer, the man nonetheless played along. “Ok. What kind of building did you have in mind, sir” he asked, most likely stifling a laugh. “Uhh…you know,” the EPRDF stooge replied, “just a building. For rent.” “Just a building?” pressed the engineer. “I think you need to have something a little more…specific…in mind. Let’s try it this way—how large of a structure are you thinking?” “Big,” replied the cadre confidently. “I need one big building.” )
Though I am obviously paraphrasing, this pathetic exchange and countless others like it take place in this city on a regular basis, and the long-term consequences of such unskilled and corrupt transactions unfortunately extend far beyond the temporary appeasement of the international donor community. These unsuccessful businesses, in addition to failing to stimulate the economy, serve to absorb the finite land available for actual future city development and sap the nation’s resources with little or no return. Furthermore, shoddy, hastily-constructed buildings which fail to comply with minimal safety regulations are consistently approved for operations, creating hazardous environments for both construction workers and future employees, tennants and clients.
The essential government monopoly on urban development has also resulted in a notable absence of city planning. Though it seems a bit superfluous to mention, in Piasa (possibly the city’s only district which hints at architectural cohesion) the ghastly new high-rise buildings currently being constructed directly in the middle of the city square, couldn’t possibly appear more incongruent. On a more practical note, however, such a lack of central planning and long-term vision is beginning to create serious problems for a city already unable to cope with the ever-increasing number of rural-urban migrants. Instead of confronting this obviously critical issue, the city’s poor now find themselves even more tightly packed between the ‘false fronts’ of the main roads, forced further back into dangerously overcrowded slums by the large new buildings. In this way, it has become possible to hide most of the shocking urban poverty here, while at the same time giving the appearance of development—I am ashamed to admit that I stayed here for some time before discovering that over 90% of the houses in Addis are, in fact, constructed from corrugated tin and mud. The conditions of these proliferating slums are terrible and further deteriorating—there are few chimneys to relase the dangerous fumes from indoor cooking (most commonly fueled by cow dung, despite availability of alternate energy sources, due to the now impossibly inflated cost of charcoal), roofs leak, rats reign and disease runs rampant. Clean water is often not an option and sanitary conditions are unacceptable; hyenas scavenge the waste left out in the city by night, and during the day raw sewage flows through the gutters where children play.
I cannot figure out why no one cares or even appears to notice this, but I suppose we can again assume that Meles has once again fooled those who ‘matter’. Such conditions “are to be expected within the least-developed nations of the world”, I am repeatedly assured, and conversations always seem instead to focus on the city’s “positive new developments” (which ‘thankfully’ conceal such filth and poverty). It is truly unbelievable what the “razzle-dazzle” of some charasmatic double-speak, an array of deliberately obtrusive buildings and a whole lot of scaffolding can obscure.