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Ethiopia Rising: A Story of Poverty and Progress

May 06, 2013

The walia is a species of ibex only found in northern Ethiopia.  Some 40 years ago, the walia was in danger of extinction with fewer than 200 left. It is still endangered, but through conservation measures, their numbers are increasing.  Things are getting better. The development story of the walia’s home country, Ethiopia, is even most robust than the species’ rise.  As leaders from around the world gather in beautiful Cape Town, South Africa for the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa, they won’t talk about the Walia but about countries like Ethiopia and compare notes on challenges and opportunities. 

I left Ethiopia in the late 80’s as the country was preoccupied with a civil war.  I returned a year ago as the representative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation based in Addis Ababa.  The progress the country is making is evident. There has been a reduction in the number of children dying in Ethiopia of over 60 percent between the time I left the country and the present; and the situation continues to improve.  As Bill Gates noted in his Annual Letter this year, “Today, Ethiopia has more than 15,000 health posts delivering primary health care to the farthest reaches of this rural county of 85 million.”  Using the Millennium Development Goals as a measure, Ethiopia is on its way to meet most of them by 2015. 

  The country is no longer paralyzed by the complexity of the challenges.

The country’s economic growth has also been impressive. In the last decade or so, Ethiopia’s economic growth has been among the best performing in the world in large part due to better policies, increased productivity,  and an increase of Foreign Direct Investing (FDI); private equity players are increasingly in Addis looking for opportunities, and local entrepreneurs expanding their operations. 

Why are we seeing these results in Ethiopia now?

In addition to the conditions I mentioned above, the biggest change I have witnessed since my return may very well be the realization by the government, donors, private sector, and the public in general that growth and prosperity can be achieved if the right policies and implementation strategy are put in place.  The country is no longer paralyzed by the complexity of the challenges.  This mental shift from “we can’t” to “we can” has dared a nation to dream big; to become food secure in a few years’ time, to build the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and a new, robust 4,744 kilometers of electrified railway system, to create light manufacturing industrial zones.  As well, there have been significant improvements in the outcomes in the health and education sectors that are critical to building a prosperous nation.  

Ethiopia now knows it does not have to reinvent the wheel in its quest for prosperity. Looking to countries like India, Malaysia, China, Brazil, Turkey and others, Ethiopia can find successful models of newly industrialized economies that sustain impressive GDP growth over decades.  Ethiopia is well positioned to escape the trap of poverty. But it won’t be easy. There are fundamental infrastructure, human, financial capital, and market challenges that will need to be carefully addressed. 

If we can bring the walia back from extinction, we certainly can build on the immense progress this nation has made and improve the health and lives of all people living in Ethiopia.    

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