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A Politics Awash with Scarcity Mentality

May 4 , 2019
By Tibebu Bekele ( Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement. )

Scarcity mentality is described as “the zero-sum paradigm of life” in Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”

It is a lose-win mindset based on the belief that “there is only so much pie to go around, and if you get some, there will be less for me.”

Unfortunately, this kind of mindset has dominated Ethiopian political thought and action for almost the last half a century. For instance, take two of the most prominent call-to-arms issues of the Ethiopian student movement.

“The country’s worsening situation, more specifically the deteriorating condition of the peasantry and the urban masses, provided the objective basis of the radical motivation,” wrote Bahru Zewde about the student movement in his seminal book “A History of Modern Ethiopia.”

At the forefront of the radical agenda were both “land to the tiller,” which transferred land ownership from private to government ownership, and the urban land and housing proclamation that nationalised all land and "extra" houses in the cities. Both were based on taking property from some and distributing it to others. In both cases, the underlying root cause issues of landlessness in the rural areas and homelessness in the cities were not tackled in any innovative way.

After the nationalisation of urban land and houses, the Dergueregime hardly lifted a finger in tackling the housing problem further. There was very little construction of urban housing during the seventeen years of the revolution. The housing problem became much worse than it ever was.

The rural situation was no better. It is true that peasants and tenant tillers have had better rights of usage though not outright ownership of land. But their lives have not improved significantly. They still were victims of drought and famine. In fact, even though the student revolutionaries and the Dergueused the rightly infuriating death by starvation of about 100,000 people to oust Emperor Haileselassie, they later presided over the estimated death of over a million people in the 1984 famine.

Even though revolutions may start with good intentions and morally justifiable indignation, most of the quick fixes used to galvanise popular support will not necessarily address the underlying issues. Indeed, the problems could even be exacerbated.

“Even on sober reflection, one is hard put to single out with confidence any unequivocal benefits that could be ensued after nearly two decades of social mobilisation and economic remodeling,” said Bahru about the Ethiopian revolution. “Only the land reform - in as much as it eradicated centuries of social inequality - appears to have had enduring positive content, and even this … was not an unqualified success.”

What if then all the collective brainpower of that most well-educated generation this country ever produced was focused on how to solve the problems in new and creative ways rather than the old school rob-and-grab mentality?

It is mind-boggling to think that the plethora of political parties that ended up killing each other over the minutiae of communist ideology did not come up with meaningful new ideas to address economic problems facing the nation. Too much energy was spent in plotting to take over what is already built and produced, rather than concentrating on addressing the underlying issues in a fundamental way.

This is why the same questions remain prominently contentious issues today. The Robin Hood method of taking away from some to distribute to others is a short-sighted populist tactic that does not sustainably address the underlying problems. It emanates from a mindset of scarcity.

Most discouraging about all this is the alarming similarity that can be drawn between the political discourse of today and the mid-1970s. The only, and obviously more dangerous, contrast is that ethnic differences, rather than class, are being emphasised more now. Instead of agitating to take property from the feudal lords, it is from the settlers this time.

Both are based on fundamentally the same premise of taking from some to give to others. What we should have learned, from none other than our own history, however, should have been that the Robin Hood model is a temporary fix at best. That it creates as much injustice as it tries to correct should be easy for all to see in this country. There are government agencies still dealing with issues related to the 1975 nationalisation of properties. There are still court cases being litigated to this day. This old model is not the answer.

A paradigm shift is urgently needed. The unhealthy obsession with appropriating what has been already produced has to shift to leveling the playing field. It has to start from a belief that given a fair and equitable chance, those that may have been disenfranchised in the past can make a better future for themselves.

The best way to correct historical wrongs is to create a better future for all, not to perpetually fight over the same small pie, but to work together to make a bigger pie for everybody to get a slice.

This requires an “abundance mentality,” which Covey defined simply as “a concept in which a person believes there are enough resources and successes to share with others.”

This mindset creates a win-win situation. It says that one does not have to lose for someone else to win. We all can be winners by working collaboratively to solve our problems.

Political and community leaders need to put more of their focus in coming up with ideas and policy prescriptions to unleash the potential of the youthful population. What they are doing now is getting them to develop an attitude of entitlement that kills their self-esteem and creativity.

This is not to discount the call for justice and historical redress. It is to point out even those things can be addressed in forward-looking, solution-oriented thinking that is based on a mindset of abundance.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them,” as Albert Einstein said.

PUBLISHED ON May 04,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 992]

Tibebu Bekele (, who is interested in constructive dialogue and civil engagement.

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