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Africa has more than 50 political entities and more than a billion people with some of the highest concentrations of genetic and cultural diversity on the planet.

For every destitute failure like Niger, you have some country that bucks the stereotype and dispels some of the doom and gloom that predominates in HBD-realistic commentary about the “dark continent”. One of the biggest and most striking exceptions is Ethiopia, noteworthy as the only African country to successfully resist European colonization.

Reprinting Al’s comment from my post trying to counter some of the extreme skepticism towards Africa:

For a supposedly reality-based community, the HBDosphere has a major blind spot regarding where Africa is today and possible scenarios for its future. Africa has 55 countries; doom and gloom is not applicable to them all.

I’m in broad agreement with your major points, and I which to illustrate them with some examples from the one case I know best, and which has been mentioned in the comment thread. Ethiopia. I lived there for several years in the last decade as an expat, still visit regularly, have invested not only other people’s money, but my own, in there. This is going to be long, sorry.

First of all, keep in mind that Ethiopia is landlocked, has few useful minerals (just a little gold), has no oil and therefore must pay a hefty energy bill in imports, and as a very montainous place it is really difficult and expensive to build modern infrastructure. They speak their own language (Amharic) and, never having been colonized, don’t have the head start that other Africans have in speaking/understanding English or French. It’s also in an exciting neighborhood: Sudan (terrorism and civil war), South Sudan (civil war), Eritrea (formal state of war, tenuous ceasefire at the border), Somalia (’nuff said), Kenya (terrorism), Djibouti (only decent neighbor). That’s on top of whatever ancestral disadvantages it might possess on HBD grounds.

Someone expressed doubts about the increasing crop yields. They’re true. Ethiopia has been growing at or over 10% year-on-year since the turn of the millenium. This growth has been obtained by investment on family farms (there are very few large private estates in Ethiopia, since the Communist dictatorship of 1974-1992 had expropriated all land). This means growth has been broad and benefited a large proportion of the population. It also means it is sustainable. Ethiopia is set to be the fastest growing economy in the world this year, despite suffering from a drought (more below).

Foreign investment is pouring in, mainly Chinese, Korean and Turkish, but with non-negligible and rising amounts coming from the West (U.S., Netherlands, Germany) and Japan. They have made some inroads in products such as flowers, leather, and the textile industry, i.e., the first-tier, labor-intensive stages of industrialization. This is almost certain to go on.

They have also turned Ethiopian Airlines into a major player in world long-haul cheap air transportation, despite not having the bottomless amount of cash the Arab sheikdoms can give Qatar, Etihad, Emirates &c. Ethiopian Airlines revenue has been growing at 25% year-on-year for the last decade or so. It has surpassed South African as the largest African carrier.

Foreign investment (mainly Chinese here) has been pouring into infrastructure. The Chinese have built a major new railway to Djibouti (Ethiopia’s outlet to the sea) and motorways between the major cities. I have used them several times and the quality is generally very good in an absolute sense (in Africa, they have few peers).

Sub-Saharan Africa is famous for electricity shortages, and that kills any possible industrialization. Ethiopia is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which has already started producing a small amount of energy and is set to be completed shortly. It is the seventh largest dam in the world and will supply several times Ethiopia’s current electricity needs. The shortages will not only disappear, but prices will be dirt cheap in global terms – cheap enough to attract foreign investors. Best part? The whole cost of the dam, some USD 7 billion, is being financed from the government budget – not donors, not foreign aid, not outfits like World Bank, and such. It is their own money.

Another thing the Ethiopians are doing is at least trying in education. They have now achieved full primary school enrollment; that is, very nearly all school-aged children really are attending school. This is a major achievement for a Third World country, and one as poor as Ethiopia. They have also created about a dozen universities, and are busy churning out engineers and agronomers. I mean, really: the government has a cap of about 15% on how much social science (that includes law) degrees the universities can grant. They have the priorities in the right place.

Of course, the standards of this education are low on an absolute scale, but even then… Several times I’ve spoken about this with other expats (Asians and Westerners) who were directly involved with supervising their Ethiopian workforce. To the question, ” you know, is someone with a degree in engineering from an Ethiopian university really an engineer?”, the answer almost unanimously was: “well, not really, of course it’s not the same thing as an engineering degree from back home in [China, Netherlands, Korea], but it is much better than we expected. The balance between expertise/salary levels is excellent and headquarters is really pleased. Plus, there are more than enough people capable of continuing to receive training and achieve higher productivity levels”. I myself did not run a large team, but my experience has been much the same.

Ethiopia is world-famous for the 1980s famine. That had nothing much to do with “incompetence”, though. It was planned, and very well planned if I may say so, by the then ruling Communist government (who else?) to genocide the population of the heartland of the opposition. The global repercussion took them by surprise and they had to appear to do something; so they happily received the world’s donations of food and money, gave them to their soldiers or sold them to get guns, and kept the people starving. They lost in the end, thank God (the opposition guerrillas took over the capital in 1992, and they are the basis of the current ruling party).

From late 2015 or so, Ethiopia (and East Africa from Eritrea to Mozambique generally) has been suffering from the effects of the latest El Nino phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, which interferes in the framework of air currents in the southern hemisphere with the result that in East Africa the rainy season is shortened by one or two months. As Karlin’s piece shows, there is barely any major irrigation works in Africa. (In the case of Ethiopia, the topography makes it nearly impossible in most of the country, and in all the more densely settled regions). Well, the current Prime Minister gathered the high-ranking foreigners in there (ambassadors and businessmen) to tell them, in effect: “if you say you’re our ally, this is the time to chip in. By the love of God, if you want to help, don’t give us food. What we need is money that we can funnel to the peasantry of the most affected areas, so they can buy food, and seeds and cattle to replenish their decimated holdings. If you give us food, more of our peasants will be priced out of the market and things will only get worse. And by the way, if you don’t help us, we will do this ourselves with our own money”. Funds from abroad were not forthcoming, and none of you has heard of any major famine in Ethiopia in the last two years. The economy did not even slow down! Why? Becase Ethiopia has been achieving nearly 40% of investment/GDP ratio, and invests over two thirds of its budget on capital investment (infrastructure); numbers almost unheard-of in the Third World, and particularly in countries as poor as Ethiopia.

Of course, this has focused on the positive side of the picture, because few people know about this, and – as I see – none in the HBDosphere. (Those who do, are making money out of it). There are of course, major, enormous, obstacles for Ethiopia to continue improving; the most immediate is, what else, rivarly between the ethnic groups. (Today, the minority Tigrayans, just some 4 million people out of 100 million, hold the upper hand and buy out the elites of the other way more populous ethnies. The Oromo have been staging demonstrations since last year, and large parts of the country are currently under a relatively mild martial law). Acute foreign exchange shortage is another difficulty; exports are growing, and growing well, but are still too small to finance industrialization-driven growth, so the government is very careful with the foreign exchange it gets (this is a major pain in the ass for foreign investors; but if the government did not do this, the now-more-numerous middle and upper classes would spend this money away importing luxury goods from Asia and the West).

The Ethiopian economic strategy proclaims the relatively modest objective of achieving middle-income status by the end of the 2020s. (If they keep up their current rates of growth, they’ll get there well ahead of schedule). That’s a pittance if you’re a Westerner, but a genuine achievement if you were the world’s poster-child for abject poverty just a few decades ago.

I could tell you a lot more, about politics, security. terrorism, crime, the problem of Islam, etc, but I’m sure your eyes glazed over into TL;DR long ago. Anyway, if someone read this far and is interested in more information, look up the name of Arkebe Oqubay.

What makes this all the more impressive is that Ethiopia was subjected to an IQ shredder of sorts during the Italian occupation.

A reader and long-term correspondent on primarily Eurasian matters sent me the following email:

I’ve been there a couple of times. Ethiopia is fucking amazing. It’s like what visiting Korea in 1960 must have been: still poor, but with all the numbers going up, up, up.

Anyway, here’s a depressing bit of historical trivia about Ethiopia: when the Italians took over, back in 1936? Mussolini literally told the new colonial regime to “liquidate” as many educated Ethiopians as possible. Which they enthusiastically did. Haile Selassie’s government had laboriously scraped together the cash to send a couple of hundred Ethiopians abroad to university. Almost all of them were killed, as were most of the country’s literate administrators and technicians. If you want the depressing details, google Yekatit 12 or the Graziani Massacre. The exact numbers are of course contested, but it looks like the Italians killed 20,000 to 30,000 (out of a population that was then 9 – 10 million), disproportionately targeting the educated and skilled.

That is similar to the Katyn massacre in absolute terms, twice as bad in relative population terms, and perhaps an order of magnide or two worse in terms of its impact on the educated, technically competent fraction of the population of Ethiopia relative to Poland. And yet the former is an order of magnitude or two better known. I’ve read several books covering the lead-up to WW2 and this is the first time I’d heard of Yekatit 12.

Additional wrinkle: this ended up being a double whammy for Ethiopia, because after the war, they very reasonably asked for war crimes trials for the people who did this. This was terribly embarrassing to the Allies, because some of these exact same people had switched sides and were now key players in the new postwar Italian government. (In particular Marshal Badoglio, the first postwar prime minister, had been implicated in all sorts of horrors in Ethiopia.) The Allies did not want an Italian equivalent to the Nuremberg trials! So, to shut up the Ethiopians, they made a deal: they gave them Italian Somaliland — modern Eritrea. This turned out to be a poisoned gift, because Eritrea is ethnically and linguistically distinct from Ethiopia. Before long there was an independence movement, and then a grinding twenty five year long guerrilla war that helped keep both countries poor and miserable.

The last war with Eritrea ended in 2000. Ethiopian GDP per capita (PPP) – i.e., adjusted for population growth – has expanded by 150% since 2000 ($620 to $1600 constant 2005 international dollars), if from a very low base. I think that’s the highest rate of expansion of any Sub-Saharan Africa with the exception of some small resource exporters.

• Category: Economics • Tags: Development, Ethiopia 
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.

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