Friday, March 30

Trial Update: More of the same

The same white walls and peeling blue chairs. The same speculations and prayers. The same crowd shifting nrevously in their seats. The same delays. The same excuses.

Well, pretty much. Today, after over an hour delay, a summary of half the evidence presented by the prosecution was read. All 3 judges were there this time; one was apparently ill (though I couldn't tell which one--maybe the one that sniffled a couple of times?) and so, of course, the trial was postponed until Monday.

This time, it was clear that everyone had had enough, and the frustrations of both family members and the defendents was more than evident.

My predictions for Monday's session? If we are lucky, they might get through the rest of the evidence. But then it will probably be adjourned again before any ruling is given.

Thursday, March 29

Sachs is Back in Town

It seems that economist-turned-celebrity Jeffrey Sachs will be in town on Monday for the upcoming ECA conference. The topic is “Investment in Africa”, and all of the continent’s Ministers of Finance are invited. Sounds like quite the party.

I wonder if we can look forward to surrendering the city to blue-camoflauged federal security forces once again?

Tuesday, March 27

Blocked Again

I am unable to access blogspot once again.
Maybe it is just a glitch? Otherwise, back to the same old...

(It was nice while it lasted!)

Monday, March 26


After the disappointment of Friday’s session, I chastised myself for getting my hopes up. But today I have decided otherwise.

Instead, I choose to hope even more ferverently that they will be released at the end of this week. In the days to come., I will envision the happy reunions and city-wide celebrations, and will dwell on the thought that the agony of our friends and heros will soon be over.

I will choose to hope, simply because I can.
Even the EPRDF cannot take that away.

Sunday, March 25

Blogging on ethio-zagol post

I will now be contributing from time to time on seminawork blog and am happy to be invited to participate in his/her newly established community forum. See my first post here.

The new format of this site is really exciting--breaking news, blogs, diaries--the perfect arena for thoughtful public debate and productive dialogue. Exactly the kind of thing we need around here these days. EZ has done it again!

(I will still continue blogging regularly on this blog.)

Friday, March 23

Trial Update

It was a beautiful morning and we all arrived early in order to get a seat, as it was rumored that they would only be allowing a limited number of people inside the courtroom today.

There was an unusual feeling of excitement in the air, and even the most skeptical among us dared hope that today was THE day. All the regulars were there—the ferenj (journalists , observers, and diplomats) crowding the front rows, the immediate family members behind to the left, and additional relatives, friends and supporters left to fill in the gaps.

As usual, we had time to kill. After the greetings, speculations and words of encouragement were exchanged, casual conversation began to wane and the defendants had still not appeared.
Finally, shortly after 10 o’clock, they were brought in and everyone sprang to their feet, waving and smiling (now skilled in the art of communicating without words.) The prisoners looked well and flashed us triumphant thumbs-up as they filed in. They appeared overjoyed to see one another again, and we silently interpreted this scene as the appropriate prelude to their immediate release.

After about 15 minutes everyone was settled in their seats and the judges filed in.
Leul. Momhammed…When it was clear that Judge Adil would not be present (a fact that was neither acknowledged nor recorded), all hope instantly evaporated.

The session was over less than 5 minutes later.

The trial would once again be adjourned, due to the “complexity of the case”, we were told. At first, the date of May 9th was given, which was almost immediately corrected to April 9th. By way of excuse, the judge assured us that they had first intended to resume proceedings on March 30th, but couldn’t because it was a holiday. Then he hesitated again, and consulted the other, amidst disproving murmers from the crowd. After a few moments of confusion, he again corrected himself and announced that the trial would definitely resume the following Friday (the 30th). He announced that on this date the court would make their final ruling and then repeated that this would be the “last one”.
(It is amazing, really. He must have spoken less than 5 sentences--which he had over two weeks to prepare--and he still managed to get it wrong not once, but twice!)

There were sighs and tears from family members, and frustration was evident on the faces of all in attendance.

And then it was over.

Monday, March 19

The IMF: Friend or Foe?


On March 17th, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released the 2007 Country Report for Ethiopia. The findings of this report include a national economic “growth rate of almost 11 percent” (from 2003/3004-2005/2006), which has resulted in a “real per capita income increasing at the fastest rate in Ethiopia’s recent history” at 7 percent per annum over the same 3-year period (translating to $121 annual per capita income, according to ATLAS calculations).

Frankly, this comes as quite a surprise to me. While I do not have enough information to confidently assess their methods of data collection, I can assure you that such growth has yet to trickle down into the pockets of the poor (or even the middle class, for that matter), though the current rate of inflation is noticeably felt by all.

For those not living in this country (or, rather, any of us who have more than $121/year on which to survive!) this new GDP figure, while perhaps a statistical improvement from a decade ago, is nearly impossible to grasp in actual terms. Let’s forget the math for a moment--a stroll through Shola market on a Saturday afternoon unfortunately proves a far more accurate indicator of current economic conditions than any official document. Considering a friend struggling to feed her family on a monthly income of 400 birr (approximately $50/month) puts things sharply into perspective for me: one litre of oil now sells for 16 birr. A kilo of tomatos 4 birr, onions 3.5; oranges, sugar and coffee (unroasted) have become rare luxuries, at 6, 8 and 24-26/kilo, respectively. A large loaf of bread sells for 2 birr and a month’s supply of teff flour (50 kilos for a small family of 5) has become unafforable at 250- 270 birr. 1.5 litres of bottled water sells for 4 birr and omo (washing powder) for around 24/kilo.

And it gets worse. The eucalyptus debate can be put on hold in Ethiopia it seems, as the price of charcoal has actually doubled (a month’s supply is now 80 birr); at 1 birr each, cow dung patties have become the biomass fuel of choice for the majority of poor households (and for the bargain of a single birr, the health hazards of methane gas must be necessarily forgotten).

Yet, in spite of these drastic increases, none can compete with the leap petrol has taken in recent months. From around 5 birr/litre in August, it has since been driven up to 8.25, and rising still. Cars have become weekend luxuries for former 7-day motorists, and taxi drivers are forced to continually count their losses (as people are increasingly unable to pay the higher fares). A mini-bus ride costs between 65 cents-$1.60 birr, while 50 cents now barely guarantees you standing room on the perilously crowded yellow city buses. In this light, feeding even a small family on $50/month becomes a super-human feat, yet this is nearly 5 times the average per capita income in Ethiopia today, according to the findings of the annual IMF country report.

Which brings us back to the role of this instituion in developing economies such as this one:

The IMF can certainly be recognized as more-highly functioning than the plethora of international aid agencies that currently saturate this region of the world, however, their credibility in the arena of the world’s poorest populations (and not Western or emerging markets, where they have achieved some success) must come from actual measured achievements and not merely relative success in comparison to the abysmal failures of the aid industry as a whole. After all, millions of lives are at stake.

Accordingly, when considering the recommendations of country reports such as this one, we would be well-served to begin with a single, basic question: Has the IMF actually proven its ability to achieve macroeconomic stability in the poorest regions of the world? (Unfortunately, I think we all know the answer to that one…)

Absolutely, these countries are plagued by severe obstacles to economic prosperity (the “root causes of extreme poverty”, --political, historical, geographical, social) for which the IMF cannot be blamed, but it is worth noting that (as pointed out by NYU professor of economics and former senior World Bank economist, William Easterly, in his fascinating book “White Man’s Burden”) “of all 8 cases worldwide of state-failure or collapse”--Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Zaire—“seven of them had a high share of time under IMF programs in the 10 years preceeding their collapse”; therefore, “statistically speaking, spending a lot of time under an IMF program is associated with a higher risk of state collapse”. This seems as good a starting point as any and, at the very least, should raise some serious red flags regarding the credibility of such intervention methods within the Ethiopian context.

Though officially “the financial assistance provided by the IMF enables countries to rebuild their international reserves, stabilize their currencies and continue paying for imports” (, recent history sadly demonstrates that quite the opposite has been achieved. A great part of the problem lies in the fact that statistics available in the poorest countries of the world--the very same statistics used to determine the current GDP and thus predict future economic performance--are often unreliable or downright inaccurate (due to the challenges of gathering information from highly inaccessible rural regions combined with widespread political corruption and intentional data manipulation). Also, how do the “human complexities” that cannot be represented by a financial programming model accurately factor into such country projections and interventions? The problem is they cannot, and do not.

Further, the nasty habit of refusing to seriously penalize the fiscal corruption of borrowing governments has thus ensured that money continues to flow, regardless of actual economic performance and repeated failure to translate progam agendas into real on-the-ground benfits for the desperately poor. This suggests little incentive for developing countries to comply with all conditions outlined by the IMF, and reccommendations are thus accordingly often only partially implemented, increasing the risk of further economic chaos.

(Enter: the art of diplomatic language.) Fortunately, there are plenty of euphemisms to choose from which conveniently afford the IMF justification to continue to lend to irresponsible and corrupt governments (extending new loans to help pay for the old ones, and round-and-round we go!)—hence, reliably overly-optimistic country projections and annual progress reports abound, alongside the ever-lengthening list of countries wallowing in economic turmoil.

Finally, despite the fact that international funds are essentially guaranteed--even in the wake of gross human rights violations and ongoing political oppression--this government will nonetheless be expected to miraculously attempt to bring federal spending within the the limits outlined by the IMF policies (an interesting suggestion when partnered with the observation that “further efforts are needed to strengthen public financial management and financial sector reform”). Grudgingly, Meles may be an extraordinarily intelligent man, but a magician he is not and a reduction in public expenditure--however justified--poses a serious national dilemna. With the social sectors already trapped in a perilous state of disrepair, any additional budget cuts (by a government comfortable devoting a mere 4.9% of the annual federal budget to public health services!) will forseeably serve to further deny the most vulnerable people of society access to these vital services. Even if the rate of inflation can be successfully halted and eventually reversed through such demand-dampening measures, there is no guarantee that the social sectors will receive the radical transformation they desperately require in the future. (Equitable distribution of funds and proper sector allocation under the EPRDF at this point seems an almost laughable suggestion.)

Fortunately, the IMF is not an ‘official aid agency’ and therefore conveniently lacks accountability to the very citizens their economic advice is designed to most greatly assist.

Wednesday, March 14

Swallowed Whole

Ethio-China road (towards Gotera) has been under construction for months, and for some reason a massive pit has been dug in the middle of the road…or, should I say, where the road used to be.

Somehow project completion and site maintenance must have slipped the minds of those in charge, and marking this extreme hazard with even a single sign is apparently not considered important.

This morning there was an entire car sitting in the bottom of the hole, which had obviously plunged in head-first unaware.
Go figure.

(I swear, you can’t make this stuff up.)

Monday, March 12

“Low-cost” generic drugs

It is common in this country for physicians to form alliances of sorts with local pharmacies in order to supplement their meagre government salary of 1200-1400/month (approximately $175 USD); many pharmacies carry only specific brand-name drugs and the physicians, in turn, prescribe those medications exclusively--the profits of which are then shared between the two parties.

In late November 2006, the Ethiopian Drug Administration and Control Authority (DACA) closed down over 60 local pharmeceutical agents for “failure to comply with national quality control standards” after recent visits to manufacturing headquarters in India apparently revealed shockingly inadequate production conditions.

It was further discovered that several of these Indian drug companies initially submitted an entirely different drug for testing (capable of passing quality control inspection procedures) at the national Louis Pasteur Laboratory in Addis. Then, upon being awarded the contract, quality of the drug promptly declined—resulting in an entirely different, sub-standard product to be exported and distributed within Ethiopia.

Sources suggest that the majority of the Ethiopian agents recently put out of business following this investigation were well aware of this dangerous practice and “accordingly compensated”.

Though quality national pharmeceutical manufacturing companies do exist in Ethiopia, they are repeatedly forced out of the market, unable to compete with the “low-cost” generic drugs generously supplied by the Indian market.

And so it goes.


Tuesday, March 6

A Balancing Act

Someone recently suggested that I may be damaging the credibility of my reports by “coming across as too one-sided”, and that perhaps if I “attempted to better balance my views in the future” I might be able to interest (or even engage in on-site dialogue) some of the potentially sympathetic and influential diplomats in this country.

Well, how about that!

My only reason for writing is to provide a glimpse into life at present in Ethiopia—which means disclosing things as they really are; the very name of the blog is meant to suggest the extreme polarity we have been thrust into post-election. The EPRDF has made it unmistakeably clear over the past year that ‘all who are not with them are against them’, and their brute force alone has made it easy enough for me to choose the latter.

Also, freedom of speech does not exist here. Aside from the blogs and news portals, no truly independent media sources exist to report what is actually occuring, leaving only the state-controlled media in full operation (and it is certainly no secret that presenting “fair and balanced reports” to the international community is not high on their agenda as of late). Considering this information monopoly, it naturally follows that anything to the contrary appears biased. Even the truth.

But for those of you who nonetheless question my integrity, rest assured. There is no need for me to bother omiting details or spinning any stories; the most basic facts of life in this country provide more food for dissent than anything I could hope to create.

Currently in Ethiopia, people are being imprisoned, tortured and killed on a regular basis for merely expressing their opinions.

Sorry. I cannot find the means nor motivation to frame such horrors so that they appear “balanced” (…understandable. Excusable. Forgiven.) Enough disappointing news articles and watered-down country-assessment reports abound. Enough people already turn and look the other way.

I do not intend to join them.

Monday, March 5


The trial has been adjourned yet again until March 23, 2007.

Today’s session was incredibly brief. All requested documents have been compiled and translated; the judges apparently now require another 10 days to decide whether to allow the defendants a chance to present a defense or release them.

And so the countdown begins…