New pragmatism in Ethiopia's efforts to boost farm output

``Socialism does not preclude incentives,'' says Ethiopia's finance minister, Ato Tesafaye Dinka. ``We are trying to motivate our farmers to produce more,'' he noted in an interview. Mr. Dinka is here to talk with World Bank officials about an agricultural loan for his country.

Like communist or socialist governments elsewhere, the Marxist-Leninist government of Ethiopia is groping for ways to provide more economic incentives for its farmers without losing political control.

Another means of boosting agricultural output, Mr. Dinka maintains, is the government's effort to resettle people from crowded and ecologically-devastated areas in the northern highlands to more fertile regions in the southern lowlands -- an effort that has received much criticism.

He denies the charges of a French group, ``Doctors Without Borders,'' that the government has been forcibly depopulating the war-torn region of Tigre, with a large resulting loss of life, as a means of shrinking support for secessionist Tigrean guerrillas. Dinka says that people had already started to move south voluntarily on foot because of the famine and fighting, so the government decided to provide transportation.

The finance minister calculates that 500,000 people have been resettled. Not one, he says, comes from Eritrea, where another independence movement has long fought the Addis Ababa government. And only some 50,000 have come from Tigre, leaving behind more than 2.4 million people, he adds. Indeed, the government suggests that many of those resettled from the troubled areas were government supporters -- not allies of the secessionists.

One knowledgeable foreign resident in Ethiopia says that some people ``may not have been terribly happy to move.'' But, this source says, the doctors group greatly exaggerated the casualties in the move.

Recent news reports indicate some settlers may be already better off on their new lands than they were before moving south.

Ethiopian agricultural production has already recovered somewhat from the extended drought that produced severe famine in 1984-85. Experts calculate that Ethiopia will need only 400,000 tons of imported grain this year, compared to 1.2 million tons last year.

Dinka hopes that, with good rains this fall, food production will be back to its pre-drought level by June of next year. Staple grain prices are already down 60 percent from the famine period.

The current danger to crops is the possibility of a plague of locusts and grasshoppers. ``We are really worried about that,'' says Dinka.

Barring that, he figures Ethiopia is ``back on the track'' towards economic development. ``As of now, the economy is in reasonable shape,'' he says.

Ethiopia, however, is one of the poorest nations in the world. Dinka estimates that, prior to the famine, per capita income was about $120 per year.

As an alternate member of the Politburo, Dinka is one of the small group of technocrats and military men that run the country. (In l974, a group of leftist junior army officers overthrew the kingdom of Haile Selassie.) His talks here with the World Bank are aimed at obtaining a $50 million loan to improve the nation's agricultural system. The money would be used for farm inputs, such as seed and fertilizer, and for extension services, marketing facilities, and research.

World Bank officials want to make sure that the agricultural system offers incentives to farmers to produce more. Critics charge that inadequate incentives are one reason Ethiopia has suffered food shortages. In this nation of 44 million people, farming is the primary occupation.

Under the existing agricultural system, private farmers own their own land. When they produce more than needed to feed their families, they are required to sell part to state marketing organizations at low, set prices. They can sell the remainder in the free market at whatever price they can get. The government sells its share of the crop to city dwellers or uses it to feed the army. It amounts to a form of taxation.

Some government officials have talked in the past of eventually collectivizing agriculture. But that talk has faded with the growing recognition of the need for incentives.

One foreign expert comments: ``They are being more pragmatic and free-market oriented than they were before. They are trying to tailor their Marxism-Leninism to Ethiopian conditions.''

Dinka insists, however, that any new system will retain the nation's ``socialist orientation,'' its one-party system, and its planning framework. The government will not privatize everything, he says. ``But we are looking for better ways to do things.''

Dinka, who has masters degrees in business and engineering from Syracuse University, claims three areas of achievement for his government.

First, it overthrew a ``feudal'' system where relatively few absentee landholders owned the bulk of the land, with tenant farmers turning over as much as 75 percent of their crop as rent.

Second, it has increased the level of basic literacy from about 7 percent of the population to some 60 percent. Much of this progress has been won by teaching adults to read and write. Also, the number of children in school has gone up from about 1 million to more than 4 million. While previously 10 percent of school age youths were in school, now between 40 and 45 percent are attending.

Third, it has expanded several-fold the availability of health care for the people, especially those in the countryside. It has spent money on clinics in smaller towns and villages, rather than on expensive, modern hospitals in Addis Ababa, the capital.

``A lot remains to be done,'' he says. ``We have not achieved a high level.''

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