Fantahun Wakie: A healthy whole strives on healthy parts: a call for new paradigm

Development Policy19 Mar 2010Fantahun Wakie Birhanu

Solutions to our global development problems will only come if we dare to challenge the old, prevailing and dominant paradigm. The prevailing paradigm has been to try and get prosperous within a system. It gives priority to individuals in a community, to ethnic or social groups in a nation, nations in a continent, and a continent in the whole world, with little effort to address the whole system. The whole system is the whole of humanity without discrimination; complete ecological health without preferential action that is driven by profit and blind trust to the ‘market’ as a self-organizing system, and one that achieves the optimum level for balancing the social, economic, ecological and political interests of different groups.

Old and new paradigms

A sharp turn is needed, away from the old paradigm of working within a linear frame of thinking towards the new paradigm of working with the whole system in complex, unpredictable and dynamic paths. But this is very difficult. The difficulties arise not because it is technically impossible, but rather because this new paradigm is very demanding for the worlds’ minorities who enjoy luxurious lifestyles; mainly in the north, but also their few equivalents in the south. These minorities will be trapped by the dilemma of valuing a type of life that is less extractive to nature, less polluting to the environment, and more just wealth distribution; this is what is required by a new paradigm.

Unhelpful philosophies about humanity, nature, security, economics, and generalisations about the interactions of all creatures on this globe, are the driving force behind human-made poverty. I think the time has come to do away with old development thinking and to earnestly listen to the feedback we are getting from nature and the economy, international security and stability; this is expressed in climate change, ecological collapse, financial crises, market failures and conflict among nations and ethnic groups. These are a bold testimony to international governance philosophies – to depart from the old prevailing paradigm which is manifested in slavery, colonization, the holocaust, racism etc. This paradigm is still around, being camouflaged behind the free market that sees ‘profit’ as its main guiding principle.

We are all witnessing the impact of development processes and practices, guided by this prevailing dominant paradigm. Economic, socio-political governance and ecological imbalances affect communities, nations and the whole globe; we are experiencing these in ever-increasing socio-economic inequalities.

A fundamental decision that the global governance institutions and rich nations have to make at this juncture is: do they dare to ‘question the prevailing paradigm’ that is responsible for what the world is experiencing? Once the world makes that decision, hopefully the necessary steps to switch from an old to a new paradigm will begin at global and national levels.

Media and education

Reversal processes at the political level provide the legitimacy and momentum to start overhauling the content of the social, economic and natural sciences to support this new paradigm. Political decision makers at all levels of governance, from organizations to nations to the international level, have to bring the mainstream media back from the hands of profit-driven corporations to a balanced, joint control of the scientific society, CSOs and democratic nation states, who all have a role to play to put this new paradigm into action. The current practice of the mainstream media is highly skewed towards promoting consumerism, which is driven by wealth accumulation at the cost of environmental damage and inequality in human society.

Within the new paradigm that I advocate for, the content of all formal and informal education at schools, and the basis for information disseminated to societies through the mainstream media, must be founded on a basic principle – all humanity is a single ecological family and interconnected through a dynamic life system. Basing education and the media on this philosophy provides a guideline for new national and global governance, economic and market principles, international relations and resource sharing, environmental management. This in turn will promote environmental sustainability, equality and security. As an actionable practical step, global governance and economic institutions like the UN, the EU, the AU must show pragmatism to:

  • introduce global laws and governance systems that ban corporate lobbyists from twisting global decisions that would serve human equality and environmental sustainability;
  • create a mechanism to control national and translational corporatism through the auditing of environmental sustainability, minority/majority-skewed wealth distribution, and the global and national socio-economic justice dimension;
  • find a way to halt single-sided, neo-liberal globalization that works against multiple-value systems of society – there is too much focus on wealth accumulation through greed at the expense of the natural environment and human equality;
  • create an internationally recognized institution, made up of groups of scientists who are free from corporate funding but guided by CSOs, and rooted on the axis of the new paradigm – this institutions will carry out multiple-issue research to inform national and global development decisions;
  • establish internationally binding aid management criteria based on the analysis of how aid impacts national independence and balanced interdependence among nations; and• promote food and medicine sovereignty (not temporary security), equal ownership and access to agricultural technology (no life patenting, no plant seeds and animal gene monopoly, etc).

The new paradigm should enable us all, in the north and south, to manage the obvious tension between greed (life patenting, hoarding, monopolizing, the war to control natural resource, winners-driven market arrangements) and sustainability (security, ecological balance, wealth distribution, global peace, complementing differences and diversities). Such a paradigm will save humanity from the dangers posed by climate change, wealth disparity, environmental degradation and endless conflict around the world.

A new dialogue

We need to get away from the usual window dressing and protective, statuesque stance. It is the right time to engage in a constructive, but drastically new, dialogue about global sustainable development in general and issues of development aid in particular. It is right time because the irresistible critical feedback from the financial crisis, climate change, terrorism and the stunning trend towards ecological collapse, are all vividly evident to decision makers and the scientific community. It is right time because these feedbacks do not favour those who try to defend the importance of greed, selfishness, competition and the application of the ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ theory to human society. It is right time because linearity and reductionism, induced by the Darwinian-Newtonian science frames that shape the prevailing global governance and nations’ policies, are crumbling and really require new frames of thinking.

In spite of these strong feedbacks, we are witnessing appalling resistance in today’s global institutions and rich countries’ state policy makers, recently expressed in:

  • investment in ‘protecting the wrongs’, such as bailouts for financial institutions;
  • awarding those who are polluting the environment and negatively affecting the biosphere, for example pushing poor countries to follow a development path that help polluters to go on polluting while the poor act as a carbon sink; and
  • globalizing the world’s many liberal value systems into one, universal human value system through militaristic and economic means.

The whole reaction to the current economic and environmental crises is not that of paradigmatic shift, but of defending the status quo of inequality, nature blundering, unbridled consumerism and competition based on the survival-of-the-fittest theory that is applied to human society.

Many of the comments I make above can be well supported by looking at the tip of the iceberg with regard to economic development, and what is taking place in Ethiopia. I will give a few practical examples.

1) Land resource degradation

The national and international community pay little attention to reversing the land resource degradation that is accelerating in the highlands of Ethiopia. The natural resource base that supports life, especially soil, water and forest are in its fastest degrading state. In these situations, Ethiopian smallholders farming communities are stuck with the practice of farming and living on marginal and degraded land. The majority of the rural population suffers from critical food shortages; children die from malnutrition, women are subjected to heavy labour collecting water and fuel wood; farmers cut more trees, both to sell and to expand farmland as they struggle to cope with declining soil productivity and increasing family size. Surprisingly, there is a little effort from national and global institutions to devise a new strategy and policy to reverse this negative trend. Instead, aid resources go towards feeding those farmers who are unable to produce sufficient food for their families.

2) Foreign direct investment

Contrary to what would have been done by national and international institutions, the aid industry, policy makers in developed countries, and the government of Ethiopia all promote foreign direct investment (FDI). This is expressed in the form of giving away fertile land and land resources. Currently, more than 5 million square kilometres of fertile land around the country is earmarked by the Ethiopian government for foreign investors to come in and take over.

Ethiopia is witnessing FDI that is about the international corporate; local rich elites are snatching large areas of fertile agricultural land, evicting smallholder farmers, cutting down natural forests to open new farms for export products, and taking over water sources for irrigating large private farms. The local poor, on the other hand, are forced to work as hired labourers on private farms.

Among the areas already given away for large farming companies are the fertile crop lands and pastoralists rangelands around Addis Ababa, Debrezet/Bishoftu, the Nazareth/Adama area, Zeway Lake, around Sebeta town, Hawassa Lake, around Bahirdar in Amhara region, Gambela and Benihsangul. The new companies produce commodities that are not part of the people’s food system; they are mainly for export and make little contribution to improving the national food deficit and hunger. The common products are flowers, tea and palm trees.

3) Humanitarian and development aid

The donor countries who provide both the ‘development’ and humanitarian aid (including emergency food supplies) often turn a blind eye to the implications of the current national development practice may potentially have on ecology, food sovereignty, national independence and on sustainable development and global socio-economic justice. We in Ethiopian have never heard any comments from northern diplomats in Addis Ababa about effects of large farming companies, or the long-term implications of the national state continuing to lease out fertile land to the new ‘agro-colonialists’ – Saudi Arabia, China, India, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and others. Companies from the Netherlands are also visibly around as floriculturists, taking up fertile land close to lakes for cheap water and close to roads and airport for easy transportation. For effective poverty reduction and real development to take place in Ethiopia, it is high time to correct the self-defeating act of the so called FDI vis-à-vis the humanitarian and development aid.

In this context, the national government invests in large irrigation and hydropower dams, trans-country roads, airports. The foreign aid agencies and their local non-profit counterparts appease the local poor by capping of small springs or developing shallow water wells for clean drinking water; they construct rural schools, provide contraceptives to control population growth, fight HIV/AID pandemics and so on. There is no clear and well informed decision about what is a strategic investment or development focus that will pull out Ethiopia out of poverty. However, one can easily comment that there is a need in Ethiopia to reflect on whether the current development focus serves the needs of the majority, or whether the usual business of strengthening the status quo – keeping the majority in abject poverty and as servants of the few wealthy. It is still common everywhere to see young schoolchildren and women travelling long distances to collect fuel wood and fetch water from dangerous precipices and deep valleys. At the same time, fresh clean springs with considerable discharge are leased out for bottling companies under the investment policies supported by countries that provide aid, who support such moves.

4) Locally produced goods

Those same countries that provide aid to Ethiopia are advocating for the liberalization of national markets. As a result, small traditional manufacturers are exposed to tight competition from high-tech commodities from Asia, Europe and the US. In addition, advertising through multiple media is eroding the culture of valuing local products and living on environmentally friendly, hand-made products. Mindless copying as a way of life, and striving to live off imported commodities, has discouraged local production and, at the same time, reduced employment opportunities.

Ethiopia has huge livestock potential, and vast areas of land suitable for fruit farming. In reality, the country imports soya and dairy milk from Europe and apples from China. It is horrendous for any development practitioner who travels in Ethiopian cities and towns to observe that more than 90% of the shelves of mega supermarkets, small shops and rural kiosks are occupied with imported goods: cosmetics, food items, clothes, electronic goods, household utensils, furniture, laundry materials. Except for electronic materials, the rest would have been produced locally given the right development and market policies.

Traditional medicines and healing practices are discouraged through formal teaching and media campaigns. On top of that, the erosion of biodiversity is accelerating, leading to the extinction of many medicinal plants at a time when pharmacies are full of expensive and unaffordable imported drugs. This prevailing reality is encouraged through concerted pressure from the digital media, which bombards school curriculums and (inter-)national market polices. This media is pushed by those same countries that provide aid to the poor communities of Ethiopia.

Market principles

Aid money provides savings and credit, and start-up capital for rural and urban poor to start petty trades that enable them to survive. But there is a less clear mechanism for taking poor communities beyond this, to enable them live in the new situation that the World Bank and IMF are aspiring to, i.e. a liberalized national financial sector that serves the interests of international investors. On the other hand, bailouts for the big international banks and big manufacturing industries are hailed as innovative and best way to save the ‘world economy from total failure’. The question here is: who are the world?’ Is it the majority who are poor or the minority? This contradiction calls for practical alignment among ‘market principles’, development goals, aid objectives – within the new paradigm of considering humanity as one ecological family that deserves equity and equality.

In summary, true development (environmentally sustainable, socio-economically just) is possible if we embrace a new paradigm that is founded on the notion that humanity is one ecological family. This would be expressed by letting communities and nations take and give whatever promotes equality and justice, but never go into destructive competition rooted on social Darwinism. We could have a healthy whole, if we all genuinely work to have healthy parts that make up the whole.