Addis Ababa’s Landfill Tragedy – By Daniel Teferra (PhD)

According to news reports, over one hundred people died on March 8, 2017 when Addis Ababa’s landfill suddenly collapsed over the makeshift shelters nearby. Most of the victims were poor, who lived off the dump scavenging scrap materials. Since the government launched its urban renewal program, most Addis-Ababans have been forcibly driven out of their homes.
Since the government launched its urban renewal program, most Addis-Ababans have been forcibly driven out of their homes.

“We are already told to leave,” said one of my cousins when I was in Addis Ababa last May. “The government pays us for the house only.”

“We lost our land when all private lands were confiscated in 1975. How much money can you get for a rundown house? And what can you do with that kind of money?”In trying to justify the government’s urban development policy, some say that Addis Ababa is the center of African Union. Therefore, it is necessary to build new roads, malls, hotels and apartments.

No one can fight that. But the problem is that the government is building on confiscated lands. First, the government should have returned the land to the original owners or compensated them at current market value.

The government and its apologists tell us that condominiums are being built on the edges of the City to provide housing at subsidized rates. This is a cruel joke. Most people in Ethiopia today cannot even afford to buy enough food.

The government and its foreign partners have been painting a rosy picture of double-digit growth rates and poverty reduction. At long last, UNCTAD last year got the heart to admit that Ethiopia cannot become a middle-income country even by 2025 let alone 2020.

The so-called double-digit growth rates do not tell us how the people actually live in Ethiopia. Growth rates are just annual changes in expenditures by government, households, businesses and foreigners.

Such expenditures can improve lives if they are directed at the domestic economy. This is not what is taking place in Ethiopia. Despite rising government expenditures, Ethiopia’s economy is still poor.

For example, most of the materials and labor for roads and housing constructions are imported. Thus, the government’s infrastructure loans, coming mainly from China, stimulate China’s economy rather than the domestic economy.

Ethiopians are poorer today than they were some 50 years ago. For instance, in 1961, Ethiopia’s income per capita was 70 percent of South Korea’s. By 2015, the ratio was 2 percent only. Incidentally, in 1961, Ethiopia’s income per capita ($76) was higher than India’s ($70).

Ethiopia is potentially rich. But the main problem is the rigid outlook of successive governments. There is a common thread that cuts across all of them. They control land, the main resource, and keep the people in perpetual poverty and misery.

The landfill tragedy is heartbreaking, but it should not come as a surprise to anyone. It is just one more outcome of a callous and contemptuous treatment of the people by another authoritarian regime.

*Emeritus Professor of Economics.

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