Ethiopia: Africa’s China?

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Date: Tuesday 11 October 2016

Time: 08:00 - 10:00

The pace of economic change in Ethiopia over the last fifteen years has been staggering. A country — known largely for its catastrophic famines — has emerged as the fastest growing economy in Africa, and one of the fastest in the world. This is not simply down to a commodity price boom. Ethiopia has few marketable minerals, and growth has been broadly based on agriculture, communications, and increasingly light manufacturing. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, now under advanced construction, will become Africa’s biggest source of hydroelectricity, and the country is making a major push for FDI, especially in manufacturing.

The big question is whether this growth is sustainable. The government has a major commitment to the project, and is investing in both the physical infrastructure (transport, electricity) and the social infrastructure (education, health) needed to maintain it.

There are nonetheless significant obstacles. The economic ones relate especially to the roles of the public and private sectors, and the need for the public sector to relax what has hitherto been a dominant role, in order for the domestic and external private sector to take the leading role in boosting production. Given the hierarchical tendencies entrenched in Ethiopian governance, this is a matter as much of social attitudes as of government policy.

The more pressing problems, however, are political. The country has recently experienced widespread social protests, and the government faces a difficult balancing act. It will need to combine an essential level of public support — even within a non-democratic structure — with the maintenance of effective policymaking. The next few years, or even months, will prove critical to the success of the Ethiopian experiment.


Professor Christopher Clapham is based at the Centre of African Studies at Cambridge University. Now retired, he has written extensively on the politics and international relations of Africa. His particular focus is the Horn of Africa and especially Ethiopia. His latest book, The Horn of Africa: State Creation and Decay, 1991-2016 will be published by Hurst and Co early in 2017.