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This blog was started in May 2012, one month before the United Nations Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ where the green economy was the main theme. The blog so far has had three specific objectives.

In the run-up to the Rio+20 Summit the initial objective was to raise awareness of Africa’s huge green growth potential and role in rebalancing the global economy. Eight posts were published before the Summit and were sent to as many African environment ministries as possible. One post was published in August 2012 appraising the summit and Africa’s position: Africa, Rio+20 and the Green Road Ahead.

The second objective was to examine the case of Ethiopia, following the death of prime minister Meles Zenawi on 21 August 2012. At the time of his death Mr Meles was recognised as 'the voice of Africa' at international summits and conferences and a leader in Africa's green thinking. Four posts on Ethiopia were published between late August and early November 2012 exploring the paradoxical nature of his leadership with a focus on raising awareness of his green legacy and 21st century vision for Ethiopia and Africa.

The third and current objective is to raise awareness of the importance of the green economy in Africa's growth story. 2013 started with unprecedented optimism for Africa’s growth prospects. Summits, conferences, articles, books, blogs, films and other media now proclaim that 'Africa’s Moment' has arrived. But very few even mention the green economy as an essential tool in the process to achieve sustainability and resilience. For this reason the current focus of this blog is a call to action to 'put the green economy into Africa’s growth story'.

Part of this call to action is writing letters to the Financial Times. Not only does the FT have excellent coverage of Africa but it is also seen by many as the 'world's most influential newspaper'.

Friday, 20 November 2015


In the past month the Financial Times has published a number of articles on the threat to Africa from China’s slowdown and the resulting fall in commodity prices – “African growth feels the strain from China's slowdown” (Oct 27);  "Slowdown calls 'Africa rising' narrative into question" (Oct 27) "China’s slowdown stalls Africa’s rise” (1 Nov); "Nigerian manufacturers face import blow” (Nov 11); “Mozambique hit by commodity price fall” (Nov 12)

Summing up the FT says "a disturbing proportion of the rise in growth since 2000 was based on exporting expensive raw material and importing cheap capital". This is very bad news for Africa and for the rest of the world.

Note: the FT is open to subscribers only but some articles may be accessed for free by following the links.

While no one expected Africa’s long-awaited rise to be without some bumps in the road, the lack of resilience to China’s slowdown is alarming and suggests that contrary to what many people thought “this time” may not be so “different” after all.

This downturn is doubly unfortunate as it falls just when Africans need a position of confidence for the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) climate talks in Paris next month. Arguably the most important negotiations for Africa since those that brought about Independence, the deal obtained in Paris will decide Africa’s future. More than ever Africans need to speak with one clear voice.

Unfortunately, even during boom time Africa’s voice on the world stage was difficult to hear and there is concern that even the modest diplomatic gains made over the past decade are being lost, that Africa is in danger of being sidelined as usual. At the G20 summit in Brisbane (Nov 2014), at the UN’s COP 20 climate talks in Lima (Dec 2014) and at Davos (Jan 2015) Africa’s negotiators were struggling to be heard.

The greatest tragedy, and historic irony, is that Africans, who have the lightest carbon footprint but who stand to suffer most from climate change, have been telling the rest of the world for years what they need to deal with the looming climate catastrophe and volatile global economy: a shift away from business as usual to low carbon, resource-efficient, inclusive and therefore sustainable, green growth.

Africa’s 'green' journey began at the end of the Cold War when the postcolonial development model was deemed a failure and Africans started exploring new models based on sustainability. Progress in green development was so rapid that by 2009, when the financial crisis threatened to tip Africa over the edge, leaders were calling for an Africa Green Fund as a way to deal with multiple crises, and the concept was taken to COP 15 talks in Copenhagen (December 2009).

In 2010 the African Development Bank began work on a Green Growth Strategy to usher a New Green Deal for Africa. At the 2012 Rio+20 “Earth Summit”, where the Green Economy and Green GDP were the main themes, Item 24 of Africa’s Consensus Statement called on the international community for a green investment plan to accelerate the transition to a green economy in Africa. In each of the COP meetings since then Africa’s negotiators have put Africa’s huge potential for green growth central to their adaptation and development plans.
Championed by the African Development Bank and backed by the UN, OECD, World Bank, EU, IMF and other major international institutions, in collaboration with the private sector, Africa in 2015 has developed a sufficient network of 21st century green growth initiatives, with projects on the ground, to accelerate the transition to a green economy. Sadly, not enough people are listening to Africa's green growth story.

With only 9 days to go before COP21 begins, what can Africa put on the table that will convince the international community that the world’s least developed continent, with the world’s greatest untapped resources, has the greatest potential for rapid green growth designed for the 21st century? Three sets of figures should be sufficient to demonstrate this potential: approximate values of ‘Green GDP’ in 2015 for each of Africa’s 54 countries; approximate annual increases in green growth across the continent over the past five years, and estimates for annual green growth over the next five years.

Africa, which has been called ‘the greatest imbalance on earth’, can now play a critical role in the great rebalancing. Africans have a historic opportunity to show the world that they have the knowledge, information, tools, technologies, skills and leadership to make this happen, to show that this time really is different. Now is the moment for Africa’s ‘green voices’ to make themselves heard.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

G20, Climate Change and the Green Economy

The timing of the G20 Leaders Summit in Ankalya, Turkey on 15-16 November offers a tremendous opportunity. It falls two weeks before the crucial COP21 climate talks in Paris when many of the leaders will meet again. In the past few years, despite geo-political tensions, the leaders, when they get together, do show signs they are moving forward.

Whatever the sceptics might say, as far as global summits go last year's G20 meeting in Brisbane on 15-16 November was a success. The positive tone was set a few days earlier by the historic US-China agreement on carbon emissions. The early departure from Brisbane of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who seems stuck in the 20th century, left the remaining G19 and their guests to get on with the task of dealing with 21st century challenges.

An 800-point action plan relating to climate change, banks, growth, Ebola, tax evasion, trade, job creation and much more shows that the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations are, if not ahead, at least in the curve. The level of cooperation at Brisbane has not been seen since the dark days of the financial crisis and is a reason for hope.

But when David Cameron, UK prime minister, fired the parting shot by warning that “the red lights are once again flashing on the dashboard of the global economy”, it was a grim reminder not to forget that on our precarious and interconnected planet anything could happen. Since then China has a slowed considerably causing ripple effects across the globe, particularly in Africa.

Persistent economic uncertainty coupled with what Christine Lagarde, IMF managing director, calls a “tipping point” in climate change, plus mounting social tensions, mass migration and extreme behavior around the world raises the question: are the 20 most powerful leaders doing enough to prevent global economic, environmental, social and climate catastrophes?

It might be fair to say that they are doing their best within the constraints of an economic system that is, as China’s former leaders often said about their own economy, “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.” As long as human development is based on a high carbon, resource intensive, ecologically degrading and socially divisive model, also known as the “brown” economy, any effort our leaders make to improve things is ultimately a Sisyphean task.

Without an urgent overhaul of the system that has dominated the planet (and served us well) for 200 years, it seems unlikely that any group of leaders, from this generation or the next, will be able to steer us through the formidable challenges ahead. For increasing numbers of people around the globe living without hope it is already too late.

The irony of the situation is that seven years ago, as the same system was crashing, the international community took the unprecedented step of agreeing on an initiative that would speed up the process of transitioning out of the old unsustainable economy, towards something radical and new.

Launched by the United Nations Environment Program in October 2008, just weeks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the groundbreaking Green Economy Initiative was the foundation for what became known as the Global Green New Deal. It was a deal made by the world’s wealthy nations to commit 15 per cent of their $3.3 trillion dollar global economic stimulus towards investments in the green economy that would simultaneously accelerate the recovery, tackle climate change and lead to a sustainable future.

Over the following months politicians, economists, business leaders, global institutions, activists, NGOs and international media endorsed the GGND. At the historic G20 London summit in April 2009 world leaders pledged to build an “inclusive, green and sustainable economy”. Never before at such a level had “green” been part of crisis resolution. For advocates of the green economy it seemed like a dream come true. For US president Barack Obama, who came to office promising to green the planet, the GGND was a gift.

Awareness of the need for a global green economy as a tool to achieve sustainability grew rapidly over the following three years reaching a peak at the UN’s Rio+20 “Earth Summit” in June 2012, where the Green Economy and Green GDP were the main themes. The Financial Times’ pioneering special report, Africa and the Green Economy, published to coincide with the summit, demonstrated how far the thinking had developed.

However, although a vast amount of work has been done over the past seven years, with a surge in green investments and green growth as a result of the GGND, the success stories are not reaching enough people to accelerate the process.

The $500 billion deal is now all but forgotten and the green economy has dropped off the international radar. Sentences in the G20’s Brisbane Communiqué are almost identical to sentences from London except that the word “green” has been omitted. Even Larry Elliot, economics editor of the Guardian and a founding member of the Green New Deal Group who first proposed the initiative, does not mention the GGND in a recent summing up of the crisis over the past six years.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals signed by world leaders in September 2015 do not recognise that developing a green economy is essential for achieving those goals. Fortunately the Sustainable Innovation Forum at the Paris talks is keeping the green flame alive by aspiring to "create an unparalleled opportunity  to bolster business innovation and bring to scale the emerging green economy".

Considering the urgent need for change, it seems that most people – political leaders as well as the public - either don’t believe the green economy will make any difference to global stability and climate change or don’t understand how it could. Unfortunately most people seem stuck with the idea that the green economy is confined to clean energy whereas it encompasses every aspect of our production, consumption and trade.
If Mr Cameron (who entered office promising to form the “greenest government ever”) is correct about the red lights flashing, this is a good time to start thinking about how a new green stimulus could soften the blow rather than wait until it happens and have little ammunition left to deal with the ensuing chaos.

Only the G20 has the potential to change things fast enough at the required scale. As the need to clarify and revive the green agenda as a path to sustainable growth becomes more pressing (and more obvious), world leaders have a unique opportunity to come together in 2015 on a Global Green New Deal phase II.

Nowhere is a Green New Deal needed more urgently than Africa where climate change, ecological degradation and a global downturn could cause a mass exodus that will make today's "migrant crisis" look like a trickle. And having the least developed brown economies nowhere has more potential for rapid green growth. New African Development president, Akinwumi Adesina, has called for a New Deal on energy for Africa ahead of the Paris talks. Making it a Green New Deal would solve all the other problems as well as climate change, a multi-win solution.  

At their September 2009 summit in Pittsburg the G20 said of their multi-trillion dollar stimulus “it worked” and it did, but only up to a point. Much, much more needs to be done. The 800-point Brisbane action plan was a good start but it needs a new ingredient to prevent business-as-usual, the brown economy, from hijacking the process.

The new ingredient lies in the GGND and now is the time for the G20 to study its outcome: how much did each country spend, where did it go and what was the result? One thing is certain. They will soon be able to say of their first green stimulus “It worked”. Then, hopefully, they will say “Now let’s make it work better.”

Friday, 10 April 2015


For more than decade Africa has registered strong economic growth with impressive results across a range of social, environmental and governance indicators. Not since independence have the continent’s prospects looked so promising. And now, more than ever, the world needs Africans to succeed. However, Africa's continued rise is by no means assured and many questions remain unanswered. 2015 looks likely to be a decisive year for the ‘Hopeful Continent’.

Two historic international negotiations are taking place in 2015 that require Africa to speak out and to speak with one voice: the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN General Assembly expected in September and the UN’s Climate Change Summit in Paris in November.

The outcome of these interlinked negotiations will determine the direction and pace of Africa’s rise and its necessary transition to a sustainable and climate resilient economy that, by definition, must be low carbon, resource efficient, socially inclusive and environmentally responsible.

African leaders in their Consensus Statement to the UN’s Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ in June 2012 made it clear that the only way to succeed in this transition is by building a green economy. The African Development Bank has made it equally clear that green growth is critical for Africa’s future. In the months leading up to this year’s summits Africa’s ‘green voice’ must be heard.

Unfortunately the opposite could easily happen, as there is mounting concern that Africa is unsure of its place on the world stage and may be losing the diplomatic gains it has made internationally over the past decade.

The lack of African representation at last November’s G20 summit in Brisbane, the challenges encountered by Africa’s negotiators at the UN Climate Change talks in Lima last December and Africa’s struggle to get heard at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January 2015 justifies concerns that the continent is in danger of becoming sidelined once more, and at a critical stage in its long awaited rise.

It is against this vulnerable backdrop that Africa has to deal with a host of converging and interconnected challenges - economic, social, environmental and political - driven by both internal and external forces.

Economic: falling commodity prices, fiscal and current account deficits, foreign exchange crises, illicit capital outflows, tax evasion, rising borrowing costs and non-performing loans are contributing to the continent’s unsustainable debt.

Social: persistent poverty, rising hunger, inequality, unemployment, illegal migration, disease, extremism and insecurity if not addressed could turn Africa’s huge demographic dividend into a global demographic time bomb.

Environmental: climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, flooding, desertification, biodiversity loss and extreme weather events threaten Africa’s agricultural output while the continent faces population growth of historic dimensions. 

Political: With many older leaders reluctant to step down and nearly a third of Africa’s 54 countries holding elections in 2015, the continent’s hard won democratic advances of recent years will be severely tested.

Add mounting geopolitical crises and the ever-present threat of another global economic downturn to the mix and it becomes clear that for Africa to meet these challenges, continue to rise and contribute to sustainable global growth, something urgently needs to change. The most viable route to bring about such change and roll back business-as-usual is through developing an inclusive and robust African green economy that measures Africa in new ways.

Meles Zenawi, late prime minister of Ethiopia who by the time of his death in 2012 was seen as the ‘voice for Africa’, said during the financial crisis “Africa is a green field for investment because it is the least developed region in the world”. Africa’s least developed status is now Africa’s greatest advantage for expanding green growth and could be Africa’s best card in this year’s international negotiations.

With the window of opportunity for change closing fast there are four ways Africa can raise its ‘green voice’ on the world stage and improve its negotiating position in 2015.

One. Put the green economy into this year’s record number of Africa summits. Worldwide there are more than one a week yet hardly any have the green economy in their otherwise excellent programmes. Each of these summits is a unique opportunity for Africans and their green partners to explore ways and means of creating green growth with others who may not be aware of the huge green potential in this ‘last frontier’.

Two. Form a Pan-African Green Economy Coalition that will unite all 54 African countries with a common goal of spreading knowledge of the continent’s current and potential green growth. Despite a vast network of green growth initiatives and partnerships created in Africa over the past 20 years there is no single coordinating body bringing all these together. Such a coalition would create space for the public and private sectors to communicate in new ways and to form a single green voice for Africa on the world stage.   

Three. Present a Pan-African green investment plan to the international community that will demonstrate how Africa can become an engine of global green growth for the 21st century. Item 24 of Africa’s Consensus Statement to Rio+20 called on the international community to ‘put an international investment strategy in place to facilitate the transition to a green economy’. As this has not been forthcoming, the 2015 summits offer an historic opportunity for Africans to develop and present a green investment strategy of their own.

Four.  Develop a smart Pan-African publicity campaign designed to get Africans talking about the green economy. This can be done through traditional as well as social media. Such a campaign will clarify Africa’s unique potential for accelerating green growth. It should be made clear that the green economy is not restricted to low carbon energy (as is so often thought) but also, and equally, includes resource efficiency, social inclusion and environmental responsibility.

If Africa is still a ‘green field for investment’ the challenge is to keep it green while delivering the investments, goods and services Africans need. Enough foundation work has been done since the end of the Cold War to make this happen. The knowledge and information are there. The management tools and green technologies have been developed. The financial instruments are being honed. The skills have been learned and the people are ready. Political and business leaders know what is required. Global corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars of underperforming funds. 

With the right investment Africans are now in a position to take the lead in pioneering 21st century green growth strategies from which the rest of the world can learn. The opportunities presented by this year’s summits may never be seen again. As the late Wangari Maathai, one of Africa's pioneering  green voices, used to say "We know what to do: why don't we do it?" 

This is Africa’s third era of hope. The first was at independence. The second came at the end of the Cold War - Africa’s ‘second liberation’. Although ‘this time is different’ unfortunately so much is still the same and business-as-usual, or the high carbon, resource intensive, socially divisive, environmentally degrading and unsustainable ‘brown’ economy, continues to be the most dominant force on the continent. For this time to be truly different in ways that will benefit the world, this is the time for Africa’s ‘green voice’ to make itself heard.

Thursday, 5 February 2015


Note: all quotes in italics are from Meles Zenawi (MZ), late Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The Prime Minister is referred to here as ‘Meles’ as this is how he was universally known throughout Ethiopia. It does not imply familiarity or disrespect. Up to 8 Financial Times articles may be accessed for free by following the links.

Is Ethiopia’s state led model sustainable?

For Ethiopia, green growth is a necessity as well as an opportunity to be seized. It is an opportunity to realize our country’s huge potential in renewable energy and a necessity so as to arrest agro-ecological degradation that threatens to trap millions of our citizens in poverty (MZ) – Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy document, 2011.

After more than a decade of outstanding success stories, 2015 is a critical year for Ethiopia as the government’s democratic credentials, economic performance and development plans will be under close scrutiny worldwide. National elections will take place in May and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will face the electorate for the first time. The second phase of the Growth and Transformation Plan will be announced and there will be much debate about the achievements of Phase I and searching questions about Phase II.

This falls at a time when the sustainability of Ethiopia’s stellar growth and rising public debt are being questioned by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, other global institutions and leading economists. There are also voices of caution within the government itself. According to the Financial Times, Ethiopia’s December 2014 maiden $1 billion bond sale came with ‘unfamiliar investor warnings’ about ‘famine…war… political tension…high levels of poverty and strained public finances’. The IMF has, uncharacteristically, added ‘weather related shocks’ as a further threat to Ethiopia’s growth.  

With uncertainties surrounding Ethiopia’s future increasing, the first session of The Economist’s Ethiopia Summit in Addis Ababa on 4-5 February - ‘Driving Continued Growth’ - asks the most important question in Ethiopia today: Is the state led model sustainable?

Before answering this question it must be remembered that the state led development model in Ethiopia is not new but has been tried twice before, first under emperor Haile Selassie and then under a military dictator. In both cases the model was not sustainable. Its main problem was that it was based on the planning, technologies, economics and accounting system of the western inspired development model of the day.

This model is largely driven by foreign debt, oriented towards exports and funded by the public. Large-scale infrastructure projects in remote and challenging environments are centrally planned by a limited number of professions using a limited number of calculations and inappropriate technologies. Local knowledge is irrelevant. Projects are studied for feasibility and not sustainability and are often politically motivated which reduces their chances of success.
This model contains a wide range of ‘hidden costs’ or externalities, trade-offs, side effects and unintended consequences. The costs remain ‘hidden’ by an accounting system using gross domestic product as a measure of economic performance. GDP tells us nothing about sustainability. The economic, social and environmental costs can lead to rapidly diminishing returns. For instance, by 1980 most of the large-scale developments in the Awash Valley, where Ethiopia’s major investments were focused, had failed because the hidden costs were too high.

At the historic Lem, or Green, Meeting in June 1992, just one year after assuming responsibility for one of the most challenging countries on earth, Meles acknowledged this failure by blaming Ethiopia’s “suffering…hardship…and senseless” natural resource destruction on the “top down” and “irresponsible” decisions of the previous regimes.  Surrounded by the wreckage of a failed development model, and in the spirit of Agenda 21, Meles called for a “conservation-based, people-led, people-centred” development that would require a “multidisciplinary, broad-spectrum approach for there are no piecemeal solutions to the problems at hand.”

With this speech and the subsequent division of Ethiopia in 1995 into 9 ethnic federal states, Meles broke with the centralised, top down and irresponsible model of the past and began leading Ethiopia on a new green journey for the 21st century, away from extreme vulnerability towards resilience, sustainability and economic independence.

Inspired by this vision, over the past 23 years Ethiopia has confirmed its legendary ability to field large numbers of people and raise productivity in remote and challenging conditions. Ethiopia has become a world leader in terms of small-scale developments, environmental rehabilitation and green economy initiatives. Tigray, for instance, has been called ‘the land of 40,000 micro-dams’.

The culmination of Meles’ green thinking is the Climate Resilient Green Economy strategy, the first of its kind in the world and a model for Africa’s sustainable development. Never before in Ethiopia’s modern history have things looked so promising. This ancient land’s legendary ‘great abundance’, which foreigners for centuries looked at with envy, is again within reach. Ethiopia’s current renaissance, which is based on the green foundations laid since 1992, will be good for Africa and good for the world.

However, there is still far to go to realize Meles’ green vision in Ethiopia and there is a great danger that history might be repeating itself as the ‘top down’, state led model has returned. For Meles was a leader with one foot in the 21st century and one in the 20th. Whether this time round will be ‘irresponsible’ or not remains to be seen.

Meles looking back – ‘development-as-usual’

The future of the world is green and when we plan for our future we must do so on the basis of green technologies.  All the more so because we have not heavily invested in old technologies and we are as it were investing in a green field (MZ) –‘ What does the green economy have to do with us (Africans)’Perspectives on Rio+20, 6th African Economic Conference, 2011.

Meles’ 21st century vision was born of his years as a freedom fighter living close to the severely degraded and vulnerable landscapes of Tigray. After 1991 this green vision evolved as he masterminded the transformation of Ethiopia from failed state to one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It required a profound rethinking of Ethiopia’s development in a little known, highly volatile and dangerous part of the world at the forefront of climate change. On the subject of developing the country’s remote lowlands Meles said, We went in there blind”. (quoted by John Markakis in ‘Ethiopia: the Last Two Frontiers’, 2011.)

Based on his knowledge of life on the land Meles was convinced that the micro-management of small-scale, or ‘bottom up’, developments within an ethno-federal system whereby local knowledge was essential, was the only way to heal the environment, tackle poverty, end the wars and build a 21st century green economy as a path towards sustainability and resilience. By 1998 Ethiopia had become a leader in what US president Bill Clinton called the ‘New Africa’.

But it has not been a smooth ride and the growth of Ethiopia’s green economy is by no means assured. Beginning in 1998 a series of events conspired to cloud Meles’s people-led green vision. The 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, the events of 9/11 and the ‘war on terror’ in the Horn of Africa remilitarised both governments and caused a dramatic shift back to central control. Rift Valley fever in livestock, the drought of 2002 and the subsequent negative GDP in 2003 dealt a severe blow to Ethiopia’s green growth plans and reemergence onto the world stage. Green development was an expensive trial and error process, the ‘green’ economy was still in its infancy and green investors were few and far between.

Ethiopia’s need for what Meles called ‘rapid and sustained growth’ coincided with China’s ‘big push’ into Africa and the beginning of the biggest global economic boom in history. With Addis Ababa one of China’s major ports of call in Africa and Meles playing a key role in the Africa-China relationship, the Prime Minister turned towards Beijing not only for investment but also for inspiration.

Between 2003 and 2008 Meles announced a series of centrally planned, mostly publically funded projects – dams, farms and sugar enterprises - that he believed would ‘supplement’ his people-led, small-scale developments. By 2008, just before the financial crash, Ethiopia was registering double-digit growth and had become ‘the China of Africa’.

These three main investment categories followed the same pattern as the two previous regimes, except this time on mega scales that will transform the fragile landscapes and cultures of the Horn of Africa in ways never before seen, with mega hidden costs to match.

After Meles’ death in 2012 the new government led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn quickly confirmed its commitment to Meles’ mega plans. As part of Meles’ brainchild, the Growth and Transformation Plan, the Ethiopian government continues to invest billions of dollars of public money on projects whose hidden costs are well known. Today there are more of them and they are increasing as the planet heats up, populations increase and ecosystems break down.

Many of Ethiopia’s mega projects are based on 20th century plans. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was designed in the 1960s by the same Italian company building it today. The Gibe III and Takezze dams were first conceived in the 1980s. Some projects are on or near sites of schemes that had previously failed such as the Tendaho mega sugar project on the lower Awash where the Dergue’s more modest cotton scheme rapidly turned to salt, one of the major hidden costs that destroyed many other large-scale irrigation projects in Ethiopia.

Many too-big-to-fail projects in Ethiopia’s lowlands are well advanced and some have begun production. Hidden costs, including huge time and cost overruns, have already started to appear. The $360 million Takezze dam in Tigray completed in 2009 has been plagued by unforeseen problems including severe water shortages and a landslide causing $42 million worth of damage. In 2010 the Awash River overflowed the Tendaho dam destroying 18km of irrigation canal and 4,000 hectares of productive land. Some privately run mega irrigation schemes in the Gambella region are experiencing the same sort of operational and management problems encountered in the post-colonial era only on far greater scales. This is only the beginning.

Based on these and many other hidden costs it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how 20th century, climate vulnerable development projects can play a sustainable role in Ethiopia’s 21st century climate resilient green economy. These are high-risk strategies in a country where risk aversion has been central to survival for thousands of years. One long drought like the one that raged across the Sahel between 1968 and 1973, including Ethiopia, will cripple project revenues. 

Some economists consider Ethiopia’s state led model to be unsustainable in the long-term ‘as financing by the central bank leads to macroeconomic instability and hinders private sector development’. Put another way, too much public investment ‘crowds out’ the private investment needed to make growth sustainable. But what is just as important to consider is the type of investment the government makes on behalf of the public. As one report on Ethiopia’s public borrowing put it, Not ‘how much?’ but ‘for what?’ The question all Ethiopians should be asking therefore is ‘how efficient and effective are our investments?

Finding a balance

The [premise] that the public sector is inefficient and the private sector is efficient is a [destructive] myth (MZ) – World Economic Forum Africa, Addis Ababa 2012

In his pursuit of a ‘democratic developmental state’ Meles was famously doubtful of the private sector, and his rejection of free market neo-liberalism was vindicated by the financial crash of 2008. Giving too much free rein to the private sector searching for maximum, short term returns in such a complex and vulnerable country as Ethiopia could lead to a return to ‘landlordism’ and result in another disaster. But is Meles choice of the ‘China model’ through his developmental state any more sustainable? This model, which dates from the 1980s and involves massive public investment in infrastructure projects, might work well in the shorter-term but sooner or later cracks begin to appear as they are in China today.

A recent report shows that since 2009 China has ‘wasted’ a staggering $6.8 trillion in ‘ineffective investments’ and the country, according to the Financial Times, is now ‘overborrowed and overbuilt’. If the China model in China, as the country’s former leaders often said, has produced growth which is ‘unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable’ these hidden costs in far more vulnerable Ethiopia could be greatly exaggerated.

The irony of this situation is that the size, complexity and physical challenges of a country like Ethiopia do require state led or ‘top down’ involvement at every level. But to be responsible it needs to be balanced with people led or ‘bottom up’ planning, management and investment. The IMF, for its part, has been urging the government to avoid ‘crowding out’ the private sector with too much public investment. To ensure sustainability Ethiopia’s development requires a unique combination of macro and micro planning, a balance between public and private activity.

Another question therefore, not only for Ethiopia but for all other countries still following the late 20th century state led model, including China, is: ‘How can the state led model be made responsible?’ Put another way, ‘How can top down be coordinated with bottom up?’

This question cannot be answered easily. Like establishing democracy in Ethiopia after 2000 years of centralised rule it is what Meles might have called a ‘work in progress’. The next section proposes three early steps that could be taken in this work.

Three steps forward

Einstein is supposed to have said you cannot solve a problem by limiting yourself to the level of thinking that created the problem in the first instance (MZ) – What does the green economy have to do with us (Africans)?, 6th African Economic Conference, 2011.

Of all the hidden costs in pursuing an outdated development model perhaps the greatest long-term cost to Ethiopia is the cost of failing to realize Meles’ green vision for the 21st century. Investing billions of dollars in 20th century development strategies will lock up Ethiopia in a system and ‘level of thinking’ that in our fast changing world is fast becoming redundant.

If, as many people are saying, from US president Barack Obama to IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, that Africa’s true wealth lies in its people, the answers to Ethiopia’s challenges lies there.  Here are three steps that could be taken in the quest to find a balance between the government and the people, the public and private sectors, the top down and bottom up approach to development.

·       Open the green debate: Develop a strategy to put Ethiopia’s and Africa’s green growth stories into this year’s national and international Africa summits and conferences. Each year more and more Africa summits are taking place around the world with hardly any mention of the green economy. One way to start this process would be to hold a green growth summit in Addis Ababa where both public and private sectors are equally represented.

·       Spread the green news: Create a Meles Zenawi green growth web site including a green growth directory to show where such growth is happening in Ethiopia. A landmark 2013 OECD report - ‘Making Growth Green and Inclusive: the Case for Ethiopia’ - states that there are ‘already glimpses of a green economy in Ethiopia’. A green directory for Ethiopia would highlight these ‘glimpses’, discover their growth potential and reveal them to green investors.

·       Develop green measurements: Introduce a green component into the next phase of Ethiopia’s GTP to be announced in 2015. Since the early 1990s a vast amount of work has been done towards measuring sustainability. At Rio+20 the green economy was the main theme and Green GDP, or GDP+, was recognized as a key tool in its measurement. Ethiopia, which has done more than most countries in formulating green growth strategies, is well qualified for introducing new forms of measuring economic performance.

Thanks to Meles, Ethiopia has regained its position as a leading influence in African affairs and has a key role to play in making Africa heard on the world stage in 2015. Reviving Meles’ green voice and his vision for pioneering fairer, greener, climate resilient and sustainable economies in Africa is urgently needed. Rethinking the government’s mega development strategies is integral to this work.

Enough foundation work has been done in Ethiopia over the past two decades to make this happen. The knowledge and information are there; the tools and technologies have been developed; the skills have been learned and the people are ready. Ethiopia is now in a position to take the lead in pioneering green growth strategies from which the rest of the world can learn. The contribution of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Minister of Environmental Protection Belete Tafere at the October 2014 Global Green Growth Forum in Denmark shows that there are many who are ready to listen.

A tough man in a tough neighbourhood

If you don’t open the doors and windows of a house, those confined will break the doors and walls and run out to get fresh air. So leave the doors and windows open for the people to feel free and relax inside the house (MZ) - quoted by John Markakis: ‘Ethiopia - the Last Two Frontiers’.

All Ethiopians, from the central highlands to the remote periphery, are justifiably proud of their long-standing cultures and traditions. If Ethiopia is the Cradle of Mankind sustainability has been practiced here longer than anywhere on earth. For many good reasons Ethiopians are reluctant to listen to foreigners making suggestions for their country. The Finance Ministry recently rejected proposals from the IMF as ‘not wise advice to take’.

When foreigners question the government’s mega hydroelectric schemes they are often accused of wanting to ‘keep Ethiopia in the dark ages’. Two recent reports from the Financial Times – ‘US energy: Off the grid’ and ‘Thinking beyond the grid’ – suggest that such schemes might do just that.

When foreigners write about Meles Zenawi more issues arise. To some, Meles was a hero, a saviour, a visionary, one of Africa’s greatest sons. To others he was a ruthless dictator, a tyrant who would stop at nothing to hold on to power. The truth is somewhere in between, for as Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, ‘The battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.

Anyone who has only rudimentary knowledge and experience of Ethiopia can begin to understand the battle line running through Meles as he wrestled for 21 years to solve Ethiopia’s enormous challenges and to reconcile Ethiopia’s complex contradictions, while trying to generate balanced, economic growth in one of the most unbalanced and impoverished regions on the planet. Without condoning any of his more controversial actions, Mark Malloch-Brown, former UK Minister for Africa, said at the London Memorial for Meles in April 2013: ‘He was a tough man in a tough neighbourhood’.

Meles himself often referred to the challenges of working in such a tough neighbourhood. The Horn of Africa is arguably the toughest and least known neighbourhood on the planet. With the effects of climate change accelerating, resources disappearing and populations set to double in the Horn over the next 30 years, unless Meles’ green vision for Ethiopia, which will allow ‘the people to feel free and relaxed inside the house’, receives due attention from all concerned it is likely to get tougher.

This has been written by a foreigner, or feranji, who, like countless other feranjis has been enchanted by Ethiopia’s great diversity, beauty and hospitality. And like many feranji’s, from the first Portuguese travellers in the 16th century to modern day agronomist’s, this writer has also been mystified why in a land of such abundance so much poverty exists. This is the Ethiopian paradox. Resolving it was Meles’ greatest challenge and is the greatest challenge of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

This has not been written ‘to bury or to praise’ Meles Zenawi but to look at his green vision for Ethiopia and for Africa and what might prevent that vision from being fulfilled.


The paradox of Meles Zenawi – 22/08/12

Ethiopia ahead of the curve: the green legacy of Meles Zenawi – 06/09/12

Rethinking Ethiopia’s growth and transformation – 05/11/12

Africa’s green voice falls silent: 2013 London memorial for Meles Zenawi, 30/06/13


Now is the moment to rethink Ethiopia – 28/08/12

Green voices silent as Ethiopians rally to outdated cause – 01/07/13

Green bonds are the answer to Africa’s investment needs - 23/12/14


RECOMMENDED READING – Ethiopia: the last two frontiers by John Markakis, 2011


My connections with Africa began over 40 years ago. After an engineering training in the UK, I began travelling in Africa in 1972 and have visited over half of African countries. From 1974-1992 I worked in Africa and Asia (1) as a development ‘expert’ on various agro-industrial projects (2) financed by international development banks as well as the private sector. For nearly 20 years I witnessed first hand the ‘hidden costs’ of the western, post-colonial, top-down development model, and by the late 1980s my work in Africa as a management consultant was focused on ‘rescuing’ failing projects that had not accounted for these costs.

I first visited Ethiopia in early 1975 and again in 1976. I followed events there as closely as possible over the following 20 years and returned in 1995 to travel and to lead history, cultural and environmental tours. During the late 1990s and early 2000s I travelled extensively in the Horn of Africa and lectured internationally on Ethiopia, including at the Royal Geographical Society in London, on the architecture of Asmara and on the life and work of Sir Wilfred Thesiger. I also assisted in the establishment of Bishingari, Ethiopia’s first eco-lodge, cataloging the bird life and teaching local guides bird watching techniques and other relevant subjects.

In 2004 and 2005 I made two month-long journeys down the Awash River and around the Aussa oasis on foot where I discovered, not the lush environment described by travellers like Thesiger in the 1930s, but an ecological disaster. Subsequent studies of the development history of the Awash Basin, and the destruction of the main Awash Valley up to the present day projects, led me to explore late prime minister Meles Zenawi’s green vision for Ethiopia and how it might be applied on the Awash.

In April 2012 I started a blog – Working Towards a Green Economy in Africa. My first post on Ethiopia was on 22 August 2012 – ‘The Paradox of Meles Zenawi’. Posts on Ethiopia can also be found on Meles The current focus of the blog is to ‘put the green economy into Africa’s growth story’ including writing letters to the Financial Times which has probably the best Africa coverage of any daily international publication. I have also attended a number of Africa summits and meetings, and entered on-line debates always with the same question: where is the green economy in Africa?

Since 2001 I have been based in Sicily (‘one foot in Africa’) where I am establishing two small pilot biosphere reserves as part of an initiative to understand and develop Sicily's green economy.

(1) Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Zambia, Tanzania, Congo, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Yemen.
(2) Tea, Coffee, Palm Oil, Sisal.