Eritrea: Escaping from the 25 Years Long Economic Trap-Part I
By Tewedeberhan Gebre
The Self-Reliance Policy Dogma
In the Eritrean case, the prevalence of ineffective leadership is the result of the sham political ideology of ‘self-reliance’. I stand for the original tenets of self-reliance. In free Eritrea, self-reliance is misinterpreted and misused for political gains. During the armed struggle, the EPLF proved its resilience against all the odds based on the original meaning of self-reliance by the American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson (1841) defined self-reliance as: “… the ability, commitment, and effort to provide spiritual and temporal necessities of life for self and family.” For him, self-reliance is to depend on one’s present thoughts and impressions rather than on one’s past self and other people’s past thoughts and practices. Emerson unequivocally rejected “foolish consistency” and “conformity” to old thoughts and impressions for current thoughts and current impressions. Hence, the attributes of self-reliance are independence, confidence, and determination. In his words (p. 7):
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speaks what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said to-day. -`Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ – Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood, [emphasis added].”
In his assertion above, Emerson presumed that mankind should not encroach upon his nature. In the words of Emerson (p. 7):
“All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; | read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment, [emphasis added].”
From self-reliance, individuals, households, and society at large benefit. Self-reliance enables individuals to meet and satisfy needs, to be self-productive, and be able to discover one’s talents and challenges towards the fulfillment of one’s aspirations. Similarly, at the household level, self-reliance enables the household to discover its collective talents for the fulfillment of the household’s and its members’ spiritual and temporal needs. A self-reliant citizen and a prosperous and self-reliant household are key for societal development. Self-reliant household enormously contributes to education, health, and skills needed by employers and investors. Not only that but also a productive and a prosperous household increases national savings, a capital greatly needed to generate economic growth and employment.
An important question to ask is: what is the role of the state/government for citizens and society at large to be able to self-reliant and fulfill their needs? A lot can be discussed to answer this question. However, the role of the state/government, in general, is creating a space for expanded choices and opportunities for its citizens. Beyond upholding law and order, governments are required to expand education, health, and economic opportunities for their citizens. A citizen who is uneducated, unhealthy and poor cannot effectively participate in the process of development. When governments invest in quality education, health, and economic development, the paybacks are wellbeing and prosperity. For a population to thrive economic growth need to be inclusive.
Inclusive growth focuses on economic growth which is a necessary and crucial condition for poverty and inequality reductions. Inclusiveness adopts a long-term regulatory and policy frameworks that allow the labor force to be absorbed by the labor market, ensure equality of opportunity regarding access to markets, resources, and unbiased regulatory environment for businesses and individuals. Governments’ investment in education and health would have little impact on the overall wellbeing unless education and health are integrated into the labor market. In a closed economy, essentially a labor market doesn’t exist, or even if it exists, it is malfunctional and biased. In the absence of a functioning market economy, citizens are forced to work for state-owned businesses, often against their choices, with the consequences of wasted talents and underdeveloped skills. Eritrea is a typical example of a closed economy. In my modest opinion, in the Eritrean context, the idea of ‘self-reliance’ is not only misunderstood but also misused for internal and international political games.
On the ground, the government’s policy is completely against the tenets of self-reliance – independence, confidence, and determination of individual citizens. In other words, citizens are disempowered, families are disintegrated, and businesses are systematically dismantled. What we have now is a government that hugely depends on foreign aid to provide basic services such as education, health, and clean water. Under such a situation, Eritreans have no choices but to leave their homeland en masse in search of better life elsewhere.
‘Self-reliance’ as the government’s lead ideology is deceptive and didn’t deliver anything. It is time to question our mindset and settle the political dust that blinds us to see the big picture of nation-building. As stated by Emerson “[w]ith consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” We have been consistently singing ‘self-reliance’ for the last quarter of a century. Did anything change? No matter how much we love our people and nation, nothing will be changed in the life of our people and the image of our country unless we stand up together and fight back our “foolish consistency” and “conformity” to the bogus ideology of state ‘self-reliance’. No matter how many times we sing ‘self-reliance’, it is always poverty, impoverishment, imprisonment, and mass migration. As people, we have been manipulated to believe the misinterpreted and misused self-reliance. Misinterpreted and misused because self-reliance refers to the power of individuals, households, and communities over their destinies against the state and non-state monopoly of social and economic life.
Eritreans should ask: where we are now, where we want to go, what the backgrounds are for everyone to agree upon, what is stopping us from realizing our dream to build a prosperous nation, what unsatisfactory situations we are confronted with, and what would be satisfactory instead. Unless we have flawless answers to the above questions as people and nation, our future is not clear. From my discussions above, let every one of us understand that self-reliance is misunderstood and misused by our leaders for political ends.
In the coming series of presentations, I will try to provide an overview of the standoff and highlight the possible scenarios to escape from the current trap of fake ‘self-reliance’ and from the quarter of a century “foolish consistency” and “conformity.”
Emerson, R. W. (1841). Self-Reliance. Available: https://www.google.co.uk/?gws_rd=ssl#q=self-reliance