BOOK REVIEW: The Great Land Giveaway

Review by Lisanu Betaw

The recently released book by Dr. Aklog Birara (hereafter referred to as the author) on Ethiopia titled “The Great Land Giveaway” is a phenomenal piece of work reflecting the culmination of a dedicated research effort by an economic pundit with a hallmark of professional excellence and experiential richness. It goes into great depth of analysis of the socio-economic and political realities of Ethiopia today and, predicated on the outcome of the analysis, foresees a looming misfortune befalling Ethiopia if the present anomaly of land giveaway and socio-economic mismanagement are to be allowed to continue to prevail in the times to come. Summarized in broad terms, uncontrolled access, by invitation, to fertile farm land by outsiders with no veritable returns to Ethiopia, corruption and nepotism at all levels of the system, insatiable greed at the highest level, ethnic and political considerations for entitlement to economic assets including land and, in total, unbounded control of the economic and social life of the people are the troubling features that the author brings out in the book. Towards the end the author highlights painstaking measures to be taken in unity if the travesty of development and the menacing trend are to be reversed. Mirrored in the book are the arbitrariness of socio-economic management and the looming dangers facing Ethiopia not just vis-a-vis the generation today but also as a recorded history for posterity.

What are the salient issues that the author underscores in his intensive and extensive analysis of Ethiopia’s socio-economic disorder? Are there other authoritative Africa-wide and other findings of studies and established experiences that underpin the author’s findings and arguments about Ethiopia?

1. Issues that have taken centre stage in the book

1.1 Giving away fertile farm land (at nominal fees) to foreign companies and individuals (with a select few of local elites also having some share) in the name of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

The foreign investors are given an unprecedented carte blanche. With no binding and enforceable conditions included in the grant the foreign investors use the farm lands to grow products of their choices, use technologies to maximize production and export the produce to their countries of origin and, what are left there-from, to the highest external bidders. The continued wellbeing of the communities they displace and the growth and development of Ethiopia at large as well as the protections of environmental resources including wildlife do not go into their calculations. What is left for the displaced communities is the chance of seasonally selling their labour for meagre compensations.

The official arguments of (i) promoting growth and development through the land grant and (ii) the grant being only of unoccupied or unutilized land are a travesty. First, the author convincingly argues that the nation’s genuine and sustainable growth and development can occur only when Ethiopians own economic assets including land, produce what they consider are possible and economical, process their raw outputs into final use products and finally offer the fruits of their labour to the markets within and without. Second, there is no unoccupied or unutilized land except those lying fallow or are grazing areas left to regenerate. Further, the highlands of Ethiopia constituting areas above 1500 metres above sea level and representing 40 percent of the nation’s land mass are home for over 80 percent (87 percent to be exact) of the population and correspondingly of the farming households. The farming households are in dire need of farm lands. Contrary to the land use master plan of the 1980s (jointly produced with FAO and UNDP) which prevents cultivation of land with inclination of 30 percent and above, small holding farmers continue to expand their cultivation of hillsides thereby degrading the vitality of the soil on them.

In the context of these vivid lines of the author’s arguments, the role of the Government should have been one of creating enabling conditions through distribution of land with the right of ownership, building of farm and market infrastructure and provision of inputs (including fertilizers) in the types and magnitudes required.

In a rare occurrence and providing the validity of the author’s argument the new Head of FAO and a Kenyan prominent businessman (the latter taking Ethiopia as a case in point) in an interview with Aljazeera, call land grant a complete failure.

1.2 Development for the author, as for others, means improvement of the lives of Ethiopians across the land. Fundamental in this argument is that when Ethiopians are not empowered to be active role players in their own development and continue to be side spectators development in the nation’s context becomes a misnomer. Growth can occur without development but only to raise the fortunes of a select group of elites and to improve income for the state treasury.

1.3 A misconceived view of the regime in power that the author brings to light in his researched findings is that development is faster and impacting when it is state-led. This, of course, is antithesis to the recorded experiences of development. The lessons from the defunct command economies of the past did not seem to have made a dent in the understanding of the power controlling the economy. Present day Vietnam, according to Greg Mills (Greg Mills, 2010) raised itself from a net importer of agricultural commodities including rice to the world’s second largest exporter of rice and coffee only after its land reform in which private ownership created a stake for those working on the farms.

1.4 The private sector, normally considered as the engine of development has been, according to the researched findings of the author, wantonly weakened principally through monopoly of the major business and industry sectors by the state-cum-party enterprises but also through discouraging policies, tax burdens and bureaucratic machineries to reduce the level playing field. Evidenced by the findings is that there is a void in the enabling environment for the sector to function with freedom, fairness and unfettered drive.

A researched revelation by Greg Mills about private sector in Africa in his book “Why Africa is Poor” shows great similarities to the fate of private sector in Ethiopia. The following is what Greg Mills writes:

“Africa’s people are poverty stricken not because the private sector does not exist or was unwilling to work in sometimes difficult settings. These people and companies do exist, though the private sector is often not private at all, but rather an elite-linked system of rent seeking. Even where there is a degree of independence, government attitudes towards private businesses range from suspicion to outright hostility.

1.5 Ethiopia, as truly and convincingly explained in the book, possesses bountiful supply of natural and human resources. The troubling reality, however, is that there is a web of man-made factors that continue to militate against the deployment of these resources to its growth and development: They included distorted policies, divisive and non-inclusive governance, state and party control of the economy, nepotism, rampant corruption, weakening of the private sector, absence of fair and impartial access to opportunities and declining relevance of education to growth and development. The regime in power preaches about agro-based industrialization which is a travesty in the absence of Ethiopians owning economic assets, playing the roles of producers, processors, exporters, importers and, in general, participants in their nation’s growth and development. The concept and practice of what the author calls “virtuous cycle” take root only when the latter conditions prevail.

1.6 Finally, the book makes extensive coverage of small holder farms and the inherent economic benefits they create. In particular, the following superior values of the farms are articulated:

– Intensive use of land

– Capacity for rural labour absorption

– Crop-livestock integration

– High labour input per unit of area

– High responsiveness to incentives

– Great opportunity for land augmenting

Some living examples reinforcing the author’s down-to-earth analysis and convincing conclusions are the pathway to development followed by South Asian countries in the past and the remarkable development performance of Vietnam today which placed emphasis on small-scale agriculture.

To the deserved credit of the author, he does not underestimate the significance of large-scale farming. In fact, he reminisces about graduates of the then Alemaya agricultural college and retired citizens of the nation going into operating large-size farms with impressive successes. His prime contention is that that ought to be left to native Ethiopians.

2. “The primary reason why Africa’s people are poor is because

their leaders make this choice” (Greg Mills, 2010).

A few statements are quoted from Greg Mills in some of the preceding paragraphs to support the arguments of the author about some of the issues on Ethiopia. Greg Mills, in fact, highlights many more retarding factors regarding the development of Africa which have astounding similarities to those that the author discusses on Ethiopia. The following are some of them:

– Reliance on primary commodities for exports and incorrect policies and procedures to facilitate trade

– Inefficient land use

– Ruinous and self-interested decisions taken by single parties and with no bottom up pressure

– A system thriving on corruption and nepotism

– Land holding structure in which it is distributed on the basis of political allegiances thereby impeding ownership and entrepreneurship

– Top down imposition of the will of governments and resulting institutionalization of weak governance

– Bad choices in place of better ones in the broader public interest because the latter is not in the leaders’ personal and often financial self-interests.

– Leaders externalizing their problems making them the responsibility of others.

An interesting conclusion comes out visibly from the research outputs by Greg Mills about Africa and by the author on Ethiopia: The issues highlighted for Africa as a whole and for Ethiopia as part of Africa greatly coincide. This certainly is not because the two authors came together and shared or reconciled findings but rather each independently carrying out his own research supported by his own vast experiences led him to the conclusion that happened to be similar to that of the other. This is a telling evidence that the book by the author on Ethiopia is the outcome of a dedicated research by one who has his country at heart. The regime in power opted for almost all the failing strategies that stunted and still continue to stunt the development of Africa. The book deserves not only to be read but also owned by all Ethiopians and by those whose hearts go out to Ethiopia.

Final Point:

A considered suggestion to the author is to produce an abridged version of the book both in English and Amharic to serve as handbooks of this historic work. This, of course, implies more in terms of effort, time and material resources but the potential rewarding impact will outweigh all of these.