Ethiopia’s Role in the Changing World

Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation with nearly 100 million people, is the fastest growing nation in the world outpacing even China and India in most recent years. With an estimated GDP of USD76.9 billion in 2017, Ethiopia is currently Sub-Saharan Africa’s third largest economy after Nigeria and South Africa. Its second Growth and Transformation Plan (2016-2020) anticipates that industry will grow at an average of over 20Pct while agriculture and services continue to witness impressive growth.Strong economic growth of about 10Pct over the past fifteen years and impressive progress on infrastructural development are putting Ethiopia on the map for all the right reasons. An ambitious government retains a high level of international support. The country has made a smooth political transition following the death of the charismatic Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012 and has now set its eyes on achieving middle-income status by 2025. The national budget is now 79.1Pct funded by domestic income, with the remainder made up by aid from foreign loans.

Unique in Africa
Ethiopia receives more than USD4 billion in aids from about 40 bilateral and multilateral donors annually. A quarter of this comes from the United States. Still fresh from the memory of the deadly attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Washington’s aid to Ethiopia is principally dictated by its security concerns in the Horn of Africa – Somalia’s instability and lawlessness; the resurgence of hard-line militants in the region; and their links with al-Qaeda.
Ethiopia also has diplomatic clout that is too strong to be easily criticized. It is a respected country in the continent for having defeated European colonizers and maintaining its independence; supporting liberation struggles of fellow Africans; and taking a lead role in the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Moreover, it hosts the African Union (AU), the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and regional offices of nearly 30 other major international organizations. This has helped its leaders, who have historically been skilled diplomats, to manipulate the international situation.
It is a subtle requirement for any external power with an interest in Africa to consult first with Addis Ababa. That is why China and India, among others, maintain as strong relations with Addis Ababa as they have with other resource- richer African states. What works for Beijing and Delhi also works for Washington and Brussels; for Ethiopia’s key role in protecting their interests goes beyond the Horn to the wider continent. Ethiopia’s reputed military and intelligence apparatus and the increasing fragility of its neighbours make it a favorite regional partner to the West.
Ethiopia also receives billions of dollars worth of aid and investment from China and India. Such alternative sources of funds, coupled with a widening tax base domestically, bolster Ethiopia’s latitude to defy donor pressures. Ethiopia has thus become a unique case in Africa, maintaining substantial control over its policies, and rejecting donor demands unless they fit into the government’s own agenda.
Ethiopia offers an interesting case study of an alternative development model. Its top- down economic strategy has restricted the role of the private sector in many areas, while the government has little patience for political opposition. Ethiopia’s developmental state model places the state at the centre of economic and political activity and borrows more from Asian countries like China and Singapore than from the Western neo-liberal approach. It has so far worked well. Meles Zenawi who had ruled the country since 1991, managed to revive the economy.
Surrounded by failed states of Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan, Ethiopia’s relative stability is one constant in the troubled region. Located at the centre of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia has been playing a key role in the stability of the region. Understandably it has repeatedly and practically showed its readiness to pacify the region and ensure better life to the people in the region and wider Africa.
Besides, Ethiopia has played a unique role in the evolution of wider African history over the centuries. Ethiopia has gained international reputation for being the only country in the whole of Africa to actually resist foreign invasion even by more powerful and more advanced European colonizers. Ethiopia’s historic victory against Italian invasion in the famous battle of Adwa in 1896 inspired black people everywhere to adopt a more militant and radical forms of resistance to white domination. Ethiopia’s uninterrupted sovereign existence for millennia has been a source of inspiration to African freedom fighters. Ethiopia was the only African member of the League of Nations, established in 1920, and was one of the four founding members of the United Nations from Africa in 1945.
Since 1991, Ethiopia’s national interests have been completely redefined to focus on the country’s internal vulnerabilities and problems, political and economic. The result, systematically laid out in the Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and Strategy in 2002, identified the major threats to Ethiopia and indeed to its very survival: economic backwardness and the desperate poverty in which a large majority of the people exist together with the understanding of the need for democracy and good governance. Indeed, the philosophy behind Ethiopia’s foreign policy is that all diplomatic activity should serve the country’s economic agenda of providing rapid economic development and democracy to ensure complete participation of people in administering their own affairs. No wonder the government has primarily centered diplomatic activities on the promotion of trade, encouraging investment and tourism. Guided by this policy, Ethiopia has registered remarkable economic achievements especially during the past fifteen years.
In the course of developing the country’s renewable energy resources, which will be a necessary ingredient for achieving its grand vision of industrialisation, the country’s annual energy output has grown from 360 megawatts to 4,200 megawatts. Taking into account the projects that are currently under construction, the total renewable energy output that will be produced from hydro, wind, geo-thermal and solar sources is expected to reach 12,000 megawatts in the next few years.

Role in the Horn
Historically, the Horn of Africa forms one of the most dynamic and politically turbulent sub-regions in Africa. Ethiopia, by far the largest and increasingly, the most economically powerful nation in this troubled region, has been playing a critical role with all its neighours.
It advocates shared vision and action for peace and development in the sub-region and believes that its relations with the neighbours is vital for regional integration. It has been taking concrete action to promote regional integration by linking the sub-region with massive infrastructure developments. In this regard, Ethiopia’s road link with Djibouti, Sudan and Kenya is creating an enabling environment for trade and people to people relations, and the new standard-gauge rail linking Addis Ababa and Djibouti, with Chinese help, has taken the effort to a new height. The Ethiopian Airlines has also been a leading carrier with an extensive network in the continent. The huge hydro-electric power dams, particularly the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopia has been building are targeted not only to satisfy the domestic demand but also to supply the region with much needed cheaper and clean electric power. The GERD will not only benefit Ethiopia but also the downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt and contribute to the East African power pool, taking the aspirations for regional integrations to a new level.
Despite the fact that the country sits along the long and mighty Nile, Ethiopia has been plagued by severe famine in recent history. Today however, Ethiopia is on a rising trajectory and with its policies stabilizing, the GDP of the country has seen a massive resurgence. According to the IMF Ethiopia’s GDP which stood at USD33 billion in 2012 is estimated to rise to 76.9 billion in 2017. The economy is growing rapidly and attracting ever increasing international investment particularly from the emerging powers such as China, India and Turkey. A new wave of investment is also coming from the West. Attracted by the cheaper production costs in Ethiopia than in Far East and China, America’s clothing giant PVH Corp, owner of the Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands has started sourcing from Ethiopia. Information about Ivanka Trump’s interest to change the labels of her shoe collections from “made in China” to “made in Ethiopia” has also been on the news quite for sometime; and Vanity Fair, another US garment giant started production in the recently inaugurated Hawassa Industrial Park. The Swedish Giant, Hennes and Mauritz (H&M) also invested in Ethiopia recently. All these and other investment projects in the pipeline are testimonies of the growing appetite of Western Investors in Ethiopia.
On the peace and security front in the horn of Africa, Ethiopia has made significant contribution in decreasing external vulnerabilities to external security threats. Ethiopia’s commitment to peace and security in the sub-region is amply demonstrated by deployment of troops in Darfur and Abeyi in the two Sudans; and Somalia, in recent years. It may be noted that in Abeyi, it is the Ethiopian troops keeping the peace of that disputed border between Sudan and South Sudan.
During the past couple of years Ethiopia has tremendously increased its contribution to the UN Peacekeeping operations, besides its involvement in the AU peacekeeping operations, particularly the AMISOM in Somalia. Ethiopia’s participation in the fight against terrorism in the sub-region is very well known. As part of AMISOM, and with the active involvement of Somali National Defence Forces, Ethiopian troops are currently engaged in a successful regional effort to defeat al-Shabaab.
Ethiopia has always endorsed the principle of maintaining peace and collective security. Its forces were deployed in a number of UN peacekeeping and humanitarian missions in Korea, Congo, Ivory Coast, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia. With 8,321 troops, police and military experts to UN peacekeeping operations in the world, Ethiopia is currently one of the biggest peacekeeping troop contributor countries in the world.

Role in the Global Arena
There is a need for global partnership in other areas as well. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are one such areas of partnership that can make a difference in addressing the pressing issues of our time such as poverty, hunger, disease, income inequalities, and climate change. It is generally appreciated that Ethiopia has been playing a leading role in climate change negotiations. The country is vigorously pursuing a green economy strategy whose goal is to achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2030. Ethiopia has achieved much in producing energy from renewable resources. It has been playing a leading role in the drive for generation of clean and green energy in Africa. Ethiopia fully participated and supported the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP 21 in Paris and agreed on the historic outcome documents.
Ethiopia’s main focus at the United Nations currently pertains to social and economic issues along with maintaining security and peace worldwide. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Ethiopia works with the Government and other organizations and agencies to achieve growth and poverty-reduction, climate and environment issues, among others. Currently, starting from 1 January 2017 Ethiopia is one of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. In November 2016, in Marakesh, during the fortnight of Climate negotiations, Morocco, Ethiopia was also elected to the Chairmanship of the Least Developed Countries Group of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Ethiopia is no more known by famine and drought as it used to be the case forty years ago. Poverty, civil war and political instability could no more be the corporate identity of the nation. In the area of diplomacy, the country has achieved much in the past two decades or more. The significant contribution Ethiopia has been making towards the maintenance of peace and security in Africa in general and in the Horn of Africa in particular has helped it with the trust and respect among the peoples of African countries and fame, support and acceptability among the international community. The success of Ethiopia in all sectors and areas are attributed to the Foreign Affairs and National Security Policy and sound socio-economic policies and strategies pursued by the government. The country’s diplomatic and political ties with many countries in the world are getting praises worldwide, despite much persisting internal problems.

“Ethiopia has always held a special place in my own imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African.”

Nelson Mandela
Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography

5th Year • May 2017 • No. 50

K. Mathews (PhD)

is Professor of International Relations at Addis Ababa University. He can be reached at

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