On the 3rd anniversary of Meles Zenawi’s passing, African leaders and scholars gathered in Kigali to build on the ideas left behind by one of the continent’s finest post-independence statesmen. Mr Zenawi passed on August 20, 2012.
Before Zenawi died, he had penned a revolutionary manuscript that for some reason remains unpublished, questioning the existing status-quo of development paradigms dominated by free market scholars who’re opposed to the State’s active involvement in market affairs.
In essence, Zenawi’s paper argued that ‘market led strategies had hit a dead end and new beginnings were required to set Africa on a transformative development discourse.’
His argument comfortably fit in the theoretical framework of a ‘developmental state’ which international political economy scholars refer to as a phenomenon of state-led macroeconomic planning.
Zenawi’s paper was an attack on neo-liberal economists who believe in the independence of markets exclusively guided by forces of demand and supply arguing that economic intervention by governments is the source of market failure.
In his 1962 book, ‘Capitalism and Freedom,’ Milton Friedman, a Chicago school of thought scholar, wrote that “allowing demand and supply to determine resource allocation is more reliable than on politicians and bureaucrats.”
Neoliberal scholars like Friedman, according to Zenawi’s paper, had successfully reduced the state into a role of a ‘night watchman’ in the development discourse of countries, in favour of market forces.
But Zenawi fiercely opposed the notion of a ‘night watchman state’ and he sought to use his own country as an experiment for the rest of Africa; he set out to develop Ethiopia into a developmental state, something his critics dismissed as a utopian ambition.
Unfortunately, he was still at it when he died in 2012; but he had left a legacy which has internationally been praised for laying the foundation of Ethiopia’s current growth and development discourse.
But most of all, Zenawi’s paper left African leaders with food for thought meant to inspire a sane debate around development, a debate that kicked off in earnest here in Kigali on Friday, with President Paul Kagame, a close friend of the late Premier, hosting over 200 participants.
Free markets vs state intervention
Development in the 80s and 90s was mostly driven by the international development agencies’ sponsored paradigm that ‘States were bad for markets, so kick them out,’ according to Dr. Donald Kaberuka, the outgoing President of the African Development Bank (AfDB).
So those years saw a lot of privatisation of State-owned enterprises encouraged by the likes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund; countries also went on a ‘de-regulation’ rampage that was meant to ‘free the markets from governments.’
On the ‘kick the States out of the market,’ President Kagame posed a question; did we actually have States in place at all? And if we did what kind of States were they?
In Rwanda’s case, politicians in the 90s were busy not developing but killing the State with their grand scheme of the 1994 Genocide that wiped out over a million people, people who form the primary asset in a developmental state.
“So for us, in building what we have today, we had to start from literally nothing and the last twenty years have been about building a functional state,” said Kagame who was speaking as a panelist in the first session of Friday’s symposium.
Most participants attending the conference agreed that Rwanda is a good example of a true developmental State and where the State is functional, it plays a useful role in supporting the markets to perform better through enabling policies and dialogue with private sector actors.
According to Dr. Kaberuka, the collapse of the Lehman brothers in 2008 after filing for bankruptcy with $639 billion in assets and $619 billion in debt and the subsequent global economic crisis signaled what most economists don’t want to believe…
“That no one knows how development happens; but we know what kills development,” Kaberuka said.
The US financial sector which runs on pure principles of market forces almost came to a halt with the so-called too-large-to-fail banks on the brink of collapse when they got a lifeline from the American State in form of a bail-out.
Kaberuka told Sunday Times that a developmental State is not a choice between a command economy and free markets, but rather about finding a consensus on how the State and Markets can work together to achieve better results.
Like every theory, Developmental States have their own critics, most of who argue that it encourages the creation of strong men and dominant party systems that could stifle dissenting views from smaller political parties, civil activism, human rights and press freedom.
However, Friday’s debate wasn’t about how to groom a developmental state, but rather democratic developmental States where leaders create space for everyone to have a meaningful contribution to the development process.
“It’s about building a national consensus and understanding what is good for a country and how to collectively achieve it,” said Kagame, while describing a democratic developmental State in Rwanda’s context.
What the debaters seemed to agree on is that there’s ‘no size that fits all’ and that a key fallacy to break was that where democracy is often measured using a single yardstick for all countries in total disregard of their special national contexts.
Zenawi and Rwanda
At the end of the day’s debate on development and democracy, Semehal Meles Zenawi, the Late Premier’s daughter, excitedly ran and wrapped her arms around First Lady Jeannette Kagame as they both left the Serena conference hall alongside other participants.
That’s how close the Meles Zenawi family is to Rwanda; before he died, Zenawi was the holder of two prestigious medals from Rwanda.
In July 2009, Rwanda awarded Zenawi with the national liberation medal known as the “Uruti, for helping to liberate the country and end the genocide in the country. He was also honored with Rwanda’s highest accolade, the “Umurinzi” medal in recognition to his contribution to the Campaign against Genocide.
At his funeral, President Kagame told mourners that Zenawi’s ‘remarkable achievements have made us all proud – Ethiopians, Africans and beyond.’
“I say this, not simply to praise him, but from the knowledge of, and experience with him as a friend, a comrade, a leader, a visionary and gallant fighter for freedom; he was a man of such high calibre, rare talent and selflessness that we all feel the magnitude of the gap he has left,” said Kagame.
It’s therefore no cause for wonder as to why Rwanda hosted this inaugural symposium organised by the Meles Zenawi Foundation in partnership with the African Development Bank whose outgoing President, Dr. Kaberuka, is another big fan of the fallen Statesman.
Ethiopia is one of the two largest partners of the AfDB’s concessional window and Kaberuka worked closely with Zenawi.
At the launch of the Meles Zenawi Foundation in January this year, Kaberuka was invited by the family and trustees to give the inaugural lecture in Addis.
He said: “I learnt much from him; he was one individual you could never cease to learn from, no matter how frequent your interaction”.