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Ethiopia Already Is the ‘China of Africa’
They share fast growth, a strong national history and a sense that
the future will be great.
By Tyler Cowen
May 31, 2018
Will Ethiopia become “the China of Africa”? The question often comes up in an economic
context: Ethiopia’s growth rate is expected to be 8.5 percent this year, topping China’s
projected 6.5 percent. Over the past decade, Ethiopia has averaged about 10 percent growth.
Behind those flashy numbers, however, is an undervalued common feature: Both countries
feel secure about their pasts and have a definite vision for their futures. Both countries believe
that they are destined to be great.
Consider China first. The nation-state, as we know it today, has existed for several thousand
years with some form of basic continuity. Most Chinese identify with the historical kingdoms
and dynasties they study in school, and the tomb of Confucius in Qufu is a leading tourist
attraction. Visitors go there to pay homage to a founder of the China they know.
This early history meant China was well-positioned to quickly build a modern and effective
nation-state, once the introduction of post-Mao reforms boosted gross domestic product. That
led to rapid gains in infrastructure and education, and paved the way for China to become one
of the world’s two biggest economies. Along the way, the Chinese held to a strong vision that it
deserved to be a great nation once again.
My visit to Ethiopia keeps reminding me of this basic picture. Ethiopia also had a relatively
mature nation-state quite early, with the Aksumite Kingdom dating from the first century A.D.
Subsequent regimes, through medieval times and beyond, exercised a fair amount of power.
Most important, today’s Ethiopians see their country as a direct extension of these earlier
political units. Some influential Ethiopians will claim to trace their lineage all the way to King
Solomon of biblical times.
In other words, the process of organized, national-level governance has been underway for a
long time. It was this relative strength of Ethiopian governance that allowed the territory to fend
off colonialism, a rare achievement. It is also why, when you travel around the country, a lot of
the basic cuisine doesn’t change much: Dishes are seen as national and not regional.
It is thus no surprise that once Ethiopia abandoned its 1970s communist ideology and put
some basic reforms into place, its government was able to rise to the occasion. The
infrastructure is remarkably good by regional standards, and the Ethiopian government is
known for conducting a relatively successful industrial policy. The state-owned Ethiopian
Airlines is run as a responsible business, it is becoming a major air power, and standards of
service are high.
The Ethiopians I have interacted with express a remarkable degree of enthusiasm for their
country and culture. Maybe that isn’t unusual in a rapidly growing nation, but I’ve been struck
by how historically rooted these sentiments have been. Ethiopians are acutely aware of their
past successes, including their role in biblical history. Like many Iranians, they think of
themselves as a civilization and not just a country. They very self-consciously separate
themselves from the broader strands of African history and culture. And, as in China, they
hold an ideological belief that their country is destined to be great again.
China and Ethiopia intersect in yet another way, with the Chinese helping to build the place
up. There are new and modern apartment buildings scattered around Addis Ababa, built by
the Chinese, a light rail system in Addis that would look nice in any country, impressive dams
for hydroelectric power, and a high-speed rail connection to Djibouti and the coast.
The pride of Ethiopians in their history and freedom from colonialism may help explain why the
nation has accepted so much Chinese infrastructure involvement with little evidence of the
angst that has plagued some other parts of Africa. The intuitive background assumption in
Ethiopia is that foreigners may try to interfere, but the government won’t lose control. There
are prominent statues in Addis Ababa celebrating how the Ethiopians drove out both the
Italians and the British.
Just to be clear, Ethiopia is hardly a finished nation-state. There are festering disputes with
Eritrea to the north, a place many Ethiopians strongly feel belongs to them. The southern and
more tribal parts of the country are not always well integrated into the major commercial
centers ruled by the highlanders, and there are clashes with the Oromia and Somali regions to
the east. For those reasons, the national optimisms found in the better developed parts of the
country are not found everywhere.
That said, if you are looking for a special place in Africa, Ethiopia may be your best bet. But to
understand its recent success, you have to go beyond policy — it is also a matter of their
history, their confidence and, above all, their ideas.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP
and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Tyler Cowen at email@example.com
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|This is Addis Ababa. All aboard! Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images