Solid Foundation Being Laid Towards Ensuring Equitable Development For Generations: President Isaias (PART II)
Your Excellency, it is well understood that Eritrea’s development strategy has so far placed the realization of food security- in terms of quantity and quality- at the forefront. Indeed, tremendous energy and investment has been marshaled towards that objective. Can we claim that Eritrea has achieved food security or that the country has reached a stage where it can store a reliable strategic food reserve? And for the next five years, what does our comprehensive development strategy look like? Specifically, how can you describe the success in securing an indispensable food reserve?
I had mentioned earlier that food security has become the priority of priorities in all parts of the world. A country may be blessed with natural resources; a country may possess oil reserves; it may enjoy industrial power as well as technological advancement. However, at the end of the day, all these advantages are unsustainable without food security. Of course, the application of this concept varies from one place to another. One may ask if it is possible to talk about food security in a barren, desert country. The answer is yes. Even in desert conditions, you can bring topsoil from outside the country, desalinate sea water and ensure a supply of consumable food for the domestic market. Indeed, there is evidence to such a practice in our region. That being said, we can anticipate what our economy should look like within or after 20 years, taking into consideration the heavy sacrifices we have made. Without food security any other resource is of little significance. One may cite other alternatives. You may rely on revenues generated from activities in manufacturing, industry, tourism and other sectors to buy your food needs. However, food security is built on the same pillars of growth and investment that sustain the other sectors. Without these pillars, one cannot say that there is a “foundation”.
In the last 20 years, as I earlier mentioned, we have not yet covered 10% of the journey towards ensuring food security. Ultimately, we must ponder what food security would look like with the full utilization of Eritrea’s land after being allocated in the aforementioned three development areas. We must envisage a scenario wherein all cultivable land has been cleared and leveled; wherein we have adapted a rigorously developed method of collecting every single drop of water in dams and subterranean reservoirs; wherein we have harnessed the most advanced technologies in water conservation and the means of increased productivity. We must hypothesize whether we could reach a stage wherein we could grow food, the incidence of rain notwithstanding; and whether we could draw water from our dams even after two or three years of drought. We must also visualize food security as it would be in a scenario of full-fledged growth of our reforestation endeavors and the ideal usage of our land in all terrains, mountainous or flat, with equal utilization of our water resources. Furthermore, we must envision food security in light of the possibilities held by our marine resources and in light of the capacities that we could employ to properly utilize them. Of course, all this is a summary of the vision that we must foster and that must be achieved in the long run. At the moment, we must ask how far we have gone to reach that goal. Discoveries of gold, oil, gas or any other valuable mineral resources should not deviate us from the path to achieve food security. The growth of development projects in various sectors is possible only after ensuring food security. This includes growth in industry, agro-industry, and tourism. Indeed, food security guarantees water-provision facilities and sustainable provision of other social services like education and health. Hence, we should not assess food security as a mere sector but within the perspective of multi-faceted development.
Thus, laying the “foundation” means putting in place the requisite infrastructure and development projects that are essential for ensuring food security. If you ask how much we have accomplished in that front, I can say that there have been highs and lows in the last three years –from 2009 through 2010 and up to the current year 2011. Nonetheless, the trend in the graph indicates steady annual progress, not taking into consideration the recurrent obstacles posed by natural events.
With regards to the next five-year plan – I say we should not wait five years. You can draw a plan, or you can have a scheme; your strategy may consist of various programs and projects. However, it is your efficiency and speed at implementing them that should be set as your standard for measuring success. You can drag slowly over a five year plan and risk being extravagant with your time and resources or you can prudently make headway by accomplishing your 5-year programs in just two years. Progress always has its costs. Making a gain tomorrow means paying its cost today. We should avoid complacency and try to increase output and accelerate productivity from our working hours.
Therefore, from a holistic viewpoint, there can be no development without the foundations of food security and there can be no growth in other sectors. We can easily draw lessons from other countries where a misguided dependency on oil or other natural resources restricts the development of programs that ensure food security; a crisis can easily ensue when oil sales cannot guarantee the purchase of food. These lessons have afforded us with the foresight to avert similar problems and we can say that within these 20 years we have embarked on the path towards much better conditions. If we opted to sell gold to meet our food demands it would be a reckless idea. Thus, we must opt to farm, fish and produce not only to meet our food needs but to export the surplus as well. Only then can we say that we have achieved food security. We harbor no undue worries in that regard but we must avoid complacency.
One of the foundational principles of the Government of Eritrea is ensuring social justice. Indeed, it is reflected in the ongoing endeavors to equitably distribute services. Can you give a detailed illustration of the progress achieved so far in the equitable provision of health, education, water, transport, communication and energy?
I shall restrain from delving into the details as they are being presented by the concerned bodies in the symposiums currently being held. However, you may recall that I have already talked about roads. Nonetheless, it is the provision of electric power that should be ranked first and foremost. “Electrification” is paramount. I am not talking about the electricity we use to light our bulbs rather I am referring to the electricity needed to power economic development and enable improvement in the quality of life in general. If we ask: How is the coverage of electric distribution in our country? Is it limited to large urban areas? Or are rural areas benefiting from it as well? The answer is: our capacity to generate electricity is very low. In order for electricity to be distributed to all, power generation must increase at least five or six times the current levels. Moreover, distribution to all regions has not been realized from the single power generator in place. There may be some temporary or stop-gap power sources in relatively electrified areas, but even these have no assurances for the long run and need to be augmented.
The provision of water as well is not equitable, with some of Asmara’s inhabitants drinking water distributed by tanker-trucks while others enjoy tap water. This is the fact as we talk within the boundaries of the capital city. It is imperative that the large urban areas have a reliable source of water along with a proper distribution system. Generally speaking, the cities, the towns and the villages do not enjoy this necessity. Of course, efforts are being made to ameliorate the poor water services in many areas by digging wells and using cisterns, still a lot remains to be done.
Then, education is a priority we need to talk about. There are no problems with regards to the distribution of education services. Relatively speaking, we may point the progress that has been made so far. However, the fact that we have built elementary, junior and secondary schools in even the most remote areas that do not have other basic social services does not mean that there are equitable educational services. Yet, we can say that we have considerably advanced forward in such a short time.
With regards to the livelihood of the people, let’s ask how many in our society lead nomadic lives? And even more, how many live in basic tents made of reeds and how many more live in grass huts? Let’s ask what are the gains to be made from incessant movement year after year? What improvement in the quality of life can be expected from such a livelihood? Taking this broad perspective, we cannot claim that there is equitable distribution of services. The problems of accessibility are existent as I earlier mentioned because there are inhabited places that cannot be reached by tanks, let alone buses. Thus, can we really say that there is a fair distribution of transport services? Meanwhile, the broad distribution of mobile phones may be cited as an indicator of relative achievement in the realm of communication.
Yet, cumulatively speaking, can we say that there is an equitable distribution of services and opportunities? If not, can we say that we have ensured social justice at the level that we aspire for? At the end of the day, it all comes to rights and opportunities. If every citizen is equal from the principled perspective, then they should be equal in practice as well. It is natural for the unproductive and the lethargic to live in poor conditions, and for the industrious and the hardworking to live in better conditions. However, the opportunities must be made fairly available to all before you can say that one is lazy and the other one is hard-working. We may end up being misled if we tried to empirically present this concept as figures can be very easily manipulated and liberally interpreted. It would be better to visit all the corners of the country and ask what change has come about in people’s lives. And what improvement has been made in the quality of life in general? Only then we can cumulatively assess that we are gradually progressing towards ensuring social justice. But we can not console ourselves with impressions that we have already secured equitable development and growth everywhere.
That answers the question, but returning to what I said earlier, the number of standards that we set is not limited. We can have one standard, two, three, four,… twenty, …or thirty standards. Then we can use each and every standard to measure the quality of life in all parts of the country. However, these measurements can only give us an indicative depiction rather than a clear picture of the real situation. So far, the conclusions that we derive from our qualitative assessment are positive; however, we must appreciate the tasks that remain to be accomplished. We must not celebrate the accomplishments that we can easily see in our proximity as representative of the situation in the whole country. We must ask how the people in the remote places that we do not see are living. We must ask if they are receiving the same services that we take for granted. Can we say that the services are equally distributed, and if so, on what standards? These are questions that we must always contemplate as we draw our strategy, formulate our plans and devise our schemes. These are not questions for this occasion alone, but they are ones that should be asked in each and every possible occasion as they constitute the measuring stick for our progress. Each and every citizen must ponder these questions to enlighten himself. Every citizen must recognize his or her right or privilege; at the same time every citizen must be concerned about the rights and opportunities of his or her fellow citizens. This is not a matter that should be left to governmental bodies, administrations and ministries alone to tend to.
Your Excellency, the economic situation around the world is at a difficult stage at the moment. The phenomenon is evident even in the rich and developed countries: for instance, Britain has increased student fees by 12%; the US has been downsizing its public sector and trimming the federal government. Against the backdrop of this global economic reality, the Eritrean government has been making considerable spending in development as you mentioned earlier and has also started giving subsidies, in kind, to ease the livelihood of the members of the Defense Forces. Of course, it is not difficult to estimate that the amount of money being spent is huge. Wouldn’t you agree that these expenses could entail financial problems? And how are they being managed?
This topic is not a new one. Indeed, the support that is being given is not a peculiar practice that has surfaced this year. Perhaps, earlier practices may be recalled in another occasion. But more importantly, what we must remember is that there are no sufficient wages or salaries in this country. Especially when we talk about the armed forces and government employees—the matter is not limited to the defense forces only. Can we say that all who work for the government, and all those who are directly or indirectly dependent on the government are making a standard living? What type of life can you lead with 400-500 Nakfa? Even if you are paid 1000-2000 Nakfa, can you still make a living? At the end of the day, what can you buy with that money? People who raise families and have dependents cannot make a good living with that. Definitely, this is a matter that needs to be recognized. However, alleviating the situation calls for realistic steps. The initiatives that have been recently taken are only temporary. Starting from myself, can we say that all of us are being rewarded for our work? I can say that I am better off than others in that regard. But not everybody is able to make a living. If that is the case, then how is everybody doing? In reality, it is the people who are subsidizing the economy and the well-being of the nation and not the other way around. If a person is not earning the income that he should earn and if he or she is going through hardship as a result then he or she is making a sacrifice and subsidizing and supporting the economy and growth of the country. The person is not compensated or rewarded. This is an important matter that must not be ignored. We cannot argue that the government pays salaries; we cannot claim that members of the defense forces are able to raise and support their families with their income. The problem has to be seen with the same lens used to see our overall situation in the country. This does not mean that the problem is permanent or indefinite. I would refer to the support initiatives being undertaken as “interventions”. With the increasing cost of living and rising markets, it cannot be expected that a person doing his national service with a salary of 150-200 Nakfa or 500-600 Nakfa can make a living. Just ask what is the price of a kilo of meat or the price of a kilo of sugar. And how do you get from one place to another with that money?
Thus, the support being given now is not an example of the government’s charity or benevolence. Indeed, the government is not handing out alms. The people are working; the people are paying sacrifices, and at the end of the day they must be able to get rewarded. Certainly, the issue of compensation is not one that can be postponed indefinitely. At this time, regardless of the continuous external pressure and belligerent plots, we can say that the tasks that we have been undertaking to singularly change our situation; to ensure food security; and to develop infrastructure and other development programs have shown a marked progress. However, if we sum it all up and calculate the ratio of GDP over the income of every citizen, we find that it is absolutely disproportionate. But this does not mean that the individual challenges have been forgotten as we go through this phase. The sacrifices and the support that have been made by the people should be rewarded. Previously, the hardships were associated with the struggle and the concomitant sacrifices. However, despite the relative contrasts with the present situation, we can still maintain that there are historical similarities.
If we properly appreciate these salient points then we do not need to look 5 or 10 years ahead, rather we should look at what can be done every year. The support initiatives that are currently being undertaken for underpaid members of the defense forces and government employees are intended to help alleviate their living situation with irregular aid, in cash and in kind. On the other hand, the ultimate issue of salary increase and adjustment is one that should be decided by improved productivity and economic growth rather than mere good wishes. The solution should not be solely financial. Before announcing an increase in monetary terms, the condition of the market as well as the value and power of the money and its subsequent effect in people’s lives must be carefully measured. The approach should be two-pronged, comprising of tackling the current overall challenges on the one hand and easing the hardship of the people on the other.
The support interventions being done now are rather small. We must think about doing more beyond them for they are nothing more than palliative remedies to the problem. The matter cannot be divorced from the issue of nation-building and laying the economic foundation that I mentioned earlier. They are essentially two faces of the same coin. Of course, this does not imply mean that one must indefinitely struggle and face hardship, and that one ought to make sacrifices by living without a salary and being unable to support his family. If we are to ensure social justice then we cannot ignore this point. It is surely not fair that one part of the society makes all the sacrifices and perpetually supports the country while the other part is oblivious. In reality, if the quality of life is determined by the effort and toil that you undertake then those who are being subsidized now should really be the beneficiaries of even bigger rewards, because they have earned it. In a nutshell, we should look at the attempts to alleviate living costs and the efforts to achieve a lasting solution as contributing factors to the goal of ensuring equitable improvement in the standard of living.
Thus, I don’t think we should dwell on the current subsidies as they are insignificant. The initiative should grow on a yearly basis. Every individual must get a house to live in. Everyone should get sufficient social services. Everyone should be able to send his children to school and get access to health facilities. Everyone should get transport facility to go from one place to another easily. It is the sum total of all these that should bring about the required change in the standard of living.
Turning to other topics now, we see that one of the biggest problems being faced by developing countries is the migration of people from rural to urban areas. In Eritrea, however, the opposite seems to be true. People are going to the most remote areas to engage in agricultural and other activities. How does the policy of the government and the culture of the people, in its broadest sense, contribute to the perpetuation of this trend and the vitalization of a working culture?
Of course, this is a point that highlights the difficulty in implementing development programs. If the rate of rural-to-urban migration being witnessed in other countries was applied to Eritrea, its population of 4 million people could be easily clustered in just two or three urban centers. What would the population do huddled in two or three cities? Would there be employment for everybody? What would the people produce? Would there be textile factories to employ everyone? Would there be robust manufacturing industries producing cars? And if the people were to engage in agriculture, which land would they farm? The fact of the matter is there can be no sustainable development if the population is concentrated in urban areas; huddling in the cities is a sure recipe for decline. Equitable development is not a choice derived from good wishes or the good will of any government. A prudent and sensible government should know that concentrating development in limited urban centers entails the gravitation of people towards those centers like moths to a fire. In that case, there cannot be the sectoral or regional development that I mentioned earlier. We cannot talk about equitability just for the sake of equitability in theoretical and ideological discourse. Essentially, economic development must be achieved through the full exploitation of all the resources in the country. And all these resources are not limited to only two or three places. They are scattered all over, in the north and south, the east and the west. Otherwise, can we say that we are striving for food security without utilizing, reforesting, and conserving all our land, including the rugged mountainous areas? What would we do if all the populace was concentrated in few cities? In that respect, we must take the services to the population instead of bringing the people to the services. Of course, we can see people gradually piling in some urban areas, leaving behind the hardships of animal herding or farming, with illusions of easy life in the towns. Yet, at the end of the day, those people do not find work and have nothing to eat in the towns. In other words, the concentration in urban areas restricts the ability of the country to enterprise and profit. Thus, we can soberly argue that the concentration of development in a limited area cannot guarantee economic progress. But we should keep in mind that this line of argument does not necessarily apply to the issue of social justice.
Indeed, some countries focus their development within urban areas when they possess the prerequisite industrial development and technological advancement or when they are disadvantaged geographically. Thus, urbanization can only be considered an option that is taken in light of special circumstances. In our case, we possess an approximately 1000 km long coastline; our land is more or less evenly distributed in the whole country in terms of quality and area. Taking these merits into consideration and factoring in the flexibility that they afford us, it would be reckless and irresponsible to focus on urban areas for development and to concentrate the population in those areas. The alternative to the urban concentration is not a simple one, which may be the reason behind its unpopularity. People may choose to take the shortcut and concentrate on the cities and towns. There are intellectuals who argue that concentrating on urban areas is the only viable option based on the premise that distributing social services to the peripheries requires too much costs. I personally feel that this is a shortsighted perspective.
We still have a long way to go in our charted journey. The western areas around Omhajer and Tessenei and north towards Akurdet; the areas around Gash and North Barka have still not been exploited and we have also not been able to distribute and provide basic services to them. The same is true with the Northern Red Sea and the Southern Red Sea. Even in the so called developed areas in the central highlands, the development is limited to few cities while the rural areas are not getting their share. Thus, we must take caution not to limit growth to urban areas as it can have a debilitating gravitational effect. The path that we are on is the only sure one through which we as well as our prosperity can reap benefits.