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Why is Ethiopia Poor?

by - September 28 2010

At lunch I met a group of Westerners who worked for a local NGO. I asked then why they thought Ethiopia, and Africa in general, was poor. They all seemed to agree on the reason. I'll summarise what they said below:

"In Ethiopia, the social hierarchy is very strong and status is everything. If you are junior then you mission is to please those above so them might lift you up. If you are senior, then the morally correct thing to do is to use the resources you control to help your family and those you are socially connected to, and you are not accountable to those below you. If you are junior you will gain nothing by trying to change the way things are. You will be seen as disloyal, and if you act like you know better than your elders you are likely to be punished. Being productive is not valued. If you get your work done faster then you are just being lazy or cheating.  

"The church is a big part of the problem as they hammer into people the idea that ideas from your elders must not be questioned. The church says that it is sacrilege to even suggest that one could question that the Ark of the Covenant is in Aksum and this idea that the traditional beliefs cannot be questioned flows down.

"Ethiopian culture places little weight on the concept of evidence or of using independent investigation to produce knowledge. All knowledge comes from authority.

The Ethiopian legal system is based entirely on here-say rather than evidence. If the people who believe you are guilty are more esteemed than the people who believe you are innocent then you are guilty. One westerner was married to an Ethiopian woman and gave as an example his attempts to persuade her to chop a potato before boiling. She has been taught by her mother to cook, then peel, then chop. If you peel, then chop, then boil then it will boil faster and taste no worse. It didn't matter how many times he explained or demonstrated this to his wife, her mother was the higher authority on cooking and so he was wrong. If he disagreed with her mother then there must be something he didn't understand.

The people were divided about the future of the country. One person said "they don't want to change, they don't want us telling them we know better, I'm not sure we should be bothering.", but another person said she thought Ethiopia was turning a corner and "coming out of it's dark age".