Ethiopia's Award-Winning Agriculture Faces Reality Check as Millions Hunger


In a world increasingly attuned to the nuances of data reliability and its implications for governance and development, Ethiopia finds itself at crossings. The awarding two weeks ago of the Agricola Medal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) by the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO) for his government's efforts towards achieving food self-sufficiency contrasts with the sobering reality on the ground.

The accolade, conferred in recognition of initiatives such as the "Wheat for Food Self-Sufficiency Program" and the "Green Legacy Initiative", ironically precedes a dire warning about the severe food insecurity and malnutrition due to El Nino-induced drought. A grim announcement from Shiferaw Teklemariam (PhD), head of the Disaster Risk Management Commission, and Ramiz Alakbarov (PhD), the UN's resident and humanitarian coordinator, revealed that 10.8 million Ethiopians face dire conditions, affecting six of the 11 regional states from Tigray to Oromia with severe food insecurity and malnutrition.

This number only adds to the FAO's previous report of 25 million Ethiopians under the grip of acute food scarcity.

The jarring comparison captures a broader dilemma between celebrating progress and confronting realities as well as ambition and verity. Ethiopia's commendation for agricultural initiatives unfolds against a web of crises — drought, soaring prices of wheat, and lengthy queues at bakeries reminiscent of harder times. The dichotomy also manifests the broader issue of data and statistical interpretation in a post-truth era, where the credibility and legitimacy of information sources are perennially in question.

Ethiopia is hardly alone in this. A global struggle where data often becomes a battlefield for competing narratives obscures the line between efforts and outcomes. The discrepancies in basic demographic data and economic projections for Ethiopia illustrate the complexities of relying on official statistics in environments where transparency and institutional capacity are compromised. The conflict in population estimates alone, with figures ranging from 101.9 million (Ethiopian Statistics Service) to 126.5 million (UNFPA) across different reputable sources, shows the challenges of formulating accurate economic metrics and, by extension, informed policy decisions.

The ambiguity extends to economic outlooks, where projections of GDP growth vary widely among international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and African Development Bank (AfDB). Each forecast reflects its methodology, data sources, and potentially underlying agendas, contributing to a fragmented picture of Ethiopia's economic reality. For instance, the IMF's projection of a 6.2pc GDP growth rate for 2024 contrasts with the Ethiopian government's more optimistic forecast of 7.9pc, exposing the difficulty in navigating economic policy amidst such divergent assessments.

The implications of these data discrepancies are profound, affecting not only policy debates but also the credibility of statistical data as a tool for governance. The diversity of perspectives, while enriching discourses, also presents a formidable challenge for policymakers attempting to reconcile these projections with on-the-ground realities. In settings where the freedom of information is limited, and data collection practices are inadequate, statistics can be manipulated to justify certain policies or reinforce political power, undermining their role as impartial instruments for decision-making.

In response to these challenges, the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) has spearheaded a roadmap to transform and modernise official statistics across the continent by 2030. This ambitious initiative seeks to enhance the quality, accessibility, and timeliness of data by adopting new technologies and methodologies, focusing on the need for substantial investment in statistical infrastructure and human capital.

By outlining a vision for enhancing the quality and accessibility of data, the roadmap acknowledges the critical role of credible statistics in policymaking. Its call for substantial investments, coupled with a commitment to transparency, could offer a path forward for countries like Ethiopia. Implementing this roadmap, with its emphasis on regional and global cooperation, harmonisation of statistical practices, and user-centric approaches to data production, presents an opportunity to redefine the landscape of development policy in Africa. By promoting stronger partnerships and leveraging the potential of new technologies, African countries can build statistical systems that support evidence-based decision-making.

For Ethiopia, which is committed to investing 34.7 billion Br in statistical development over the next three years, this represents a critical opportunity to advance towards more data-driven governance. It would be helpful for Beker Shale (PhD), director of the ESS, and his team to realise the success of such efforts is contingent upon regional and global cooperation, the harmonisation of statistical standards, and a commitment to transparency.

The journey towards sustainable development and evidence-based policymaking in Ethiopia, and indeed across Africa, shows the role of credible data. Yet, achieving this goal in a landscape characterised by political, economic, and environmental volatility requires a nuanced approach that recognises the many obstacles involved. The weaponisation of statistics, whether through manipulation or selective presentation, threatens to undermine the very objectives of development policy. The pursuit of data accuracy and reliability should transcend technical concerns, touching on the core of governance and the ethical responsibilities of both national and international actors.

The challenges of limited resources, varying levels of technical expertise, and the need for substantial investments in infrastructure and training loom large. Yet, the optimism embedded in the roadmap, fueled by the opportunities presented by the digital economy and increased regional integration, should offer a vision of a future where data-driven development is not just an aspiration but a reality.

As Ethiopia's experience demonstrates, the path to development is not merely about ambitious projects or international accolades but about the rigorous pursuit of truth through data. In a post-truth era, where facts are often contested, the integrity of statistical systems becomes prominent. Ethiopia's leaders should take their commitment to statistical modernisation not simply as a technical enterprise but as a strategic imperative, essential for understanding the daintiness of development in an uncertain world.


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