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Interview of President Isaias with local media (Part VIII)

His excellency President Isaias Afwerki conducted an extensive interview with the local media from 27 to 30 of December, 2011, regarding global, regional as well as local issues. Excerpts of the eighth part of the interview follows:

In an attempt to alleviate the living burdens of the people, the government has been making huge amount of subsidy on food and basic consumer items. How will the government handle this case and that of ensuring social justice at the time in which we are embarking to a new stage? What about the case of all citizens who have been dutifully working without remuneration?

If we look at the past 20 years, every government employee has been working as national service without due pay and remuneration for its services, except for nominal wages, which barely bring any change. Every one was working without expecting immediate reward believing that his/her sacrifice will eventually bring about social justice.

For the last 14 years due to the unresolved conflict, members of the national service have been working in the public domain without pay. We have not been in a position to allocate a fixed salary budget. But one cannot survive in such a way indefinately. Maybe a few of us could but the majority can’t really keep on living like that, without any other additional source of income. And it is not only the public servant but also its families and the society as a whole. Therefore, as long as we are not in a stage where our economic progress is increasing or where the society is in a position to start earning adequate income and improve its living standard, then subsidy is the only viable solution. Because, our harvests have not been sufficient, crop had to be subsidized. So have fuel and other basic consumer items. Even the ongoing development endeavors are being subsidized. But this is another topic. If we are going to talk about the living standards, was the subsidy in itself satisfactory?

It did alleviate certain problems if not all. But how and for how long will this persist? Those who have been working without pay for 20, 15, or 10 years have been making sacrifices and should be remunerated. And if there is going to be remuneration, our economy needs to register a steady growth. One cannot say “I will make the sacrifice today, because I will be compensated tomorrow.” The sacrifices one makes voluntarily for himself, his family, his country or his people, don’t really anticipate remuneration in return. But in order to ensure equality of life for all, a lasting solution needs to be found. The bottom line remains that the source of income or the salary given as well as improving living standards, cannot possibly be accomplished overnight, but in a gradual process. First, basic food consumption items should be made easily available, as nothing else takes utmost priority. Then there is of course the issue of housing and that of transportation as well. Fuel is subsidized because the people should have easy access to transportation. Education also has to be free for all. It’s every citizen’s right to receive education because without it you can’t secure your rightful place in society. Therefore, with all economic the burden, education was made free for all.

Similarly, health is also free for all. Given our economic growth in the past 20 years, heavy sacrifices were made. But how is the government financing such programs? We might take those who are sacrificing for the greater good of their country for granted; but as to the other expenditures, what income does the government have to finance such endeavors? One of the reasons for not wanting any external financing, like in other countries, is not only because we wanted to protect our independence and sovereignty but also because we wanted to be self-reliant and work our way through. We hear of the European Union doing this or the World Bank doing that, but one needs to know the perils of subsidizing governments. If there is any external aid, we need to know how to put it to good use instead of squandering it all away. And if there is any loan, then we need to invest it in a way that ensures improved standard of living.

Therefore, because we have had no other options, we have been making these sacrifices. Even now, subsidy will persist but should nonetheless assume lesser scopes.

As regards remuneration, the subsidy, that is in terms of supporting livelihood, will persist but improve gradually, at least in the most important sectors if not all. I would say education, for instance, because the sector compels the youth and people to shoulder responsibility. People working in the education sector deserve particular attention because they should be mentally stable and comfortable to focus entirely on the knowledge that they are supposed to be transferring. The same also concerns members of the National Service.

People have now passed beyond the limit of tolerance. Starting from the year 2012, we have plans to introduce programs that address these concerns and bring changes systematically. That of course goes parallel with our capacity. How much revenue do we have? How strong an economy can we generate? And how can we distribute it equitably? The deprived segment of the society needs not only to be remunerated for what they contributed, but it also needs to boost it productivity at the same time. And that is not solely the task of the government, because even the government is working without pay. Our economic situation is improving and our food security programs are in a relatively better condition. Developmental endeavors in other sectors are also progressing well. Therefore, considering the bright future ahead, these pressing questions need to be mitigated.

The outcome of all the programs that you have been mentioning is based on our domestic resources. Considering the human and professional resources of this country, what is the current condition of developing human resources, both qualitatively and quantitatively?

We are still talking about education. The experiences we have gained have given us a better understanding of things. We should improve all professions at the lower, middle higher and top levels. But first, we need to identify and implement the ‘road map’. After having learned for ten years, one’s ideal profession should be consistent with the road map strategy. There could be inconsistencies as well, but at the very minimum level. One should identify the needs to take vocational training along the preparatory courses for the Secondary Leaving Certificate Examinations. That way, upon completion of the twelfth grade, a student can be ready to purse higher education or work in the vocational profession he had acquired. Whether a dozer operator or an auto mechanic, he is getting employment. There’s nothing that can stop him, if he wants to pursue learning and attain higher education. Education is not only obtained from going to school; vocational training facilities like the Sawa Center for Vocational Training should be out in place. These help people build up their capacities and take up trades with great employment opportunities. Either way, education should never stop, be it through correspondence or upgrading courses.

Let’s take for instance our existing construction capacity. We should have skilled personnel to support the operation of all the machineries. Instead of operating one type of machinery for 8 hours, it should be made to work for 16 hours in shifts. You have to utilize your resources to the maximum. That way, not only you will accelerate your activities but also gain more profit and boost your work momentum for greater productivity.

If the capacity of the people and the nation is to be built in line with the desired objectives, education should focus on vocational training. This comprises of over 80% of the youths, meaning the dynamo for the country’s economic growth.

And there is the participation of women. They make up half of the society’s capacity. They should be given ample opportunities and encouragement to involve them not only in education but all other sectors as well.

To generalize, we might be working to augment colleges and institutions of higher education, but I am of the opinion that more focus should be made on expanding and strengthening technical and vocational schools.

Excellency, what about professional prestige; for instance, those who score full marks are given laptops. And any child you ask what he wants to become, the answer is a “doctor.” What would you say regarding this dimension?

Tuning the minds of the youth is a far sensitive and complicated issue. If we are talking about a road map or what this country needs in the coming 5, 10, and 20 or 30 years, we need to channel our human resources towards the marine, agricultural, mineral and other different sectors.

Childhood will always be childhood, full of ambitions. It’s very difficult to identify your options early on. There are suggestions from professionals that children have the hobby or tendency to do this or that that, but it’s not highly effective. I call it perception. When a child says “I want to be a pilot, a doctor or an engineer,” he is only saying so because he perceived from the society’s attitude that such professions bring a certain status (good salary and good living conditions). It’s not because he has the talent and he knows that he can do well with it. If this is the case, how plausible can his choice be? With time, it could bring about distortion.

A student can choose more than one field if he has the desire and the potential. But he needs to be oriented in a way that he can register optimum results of his potential and at the same time meet or satisfy the requirements of the country. I don’t want to talk about particular fields of study but we need to campaign for driving our human capacity to higher levels, both in quantity and quality.

One issue that causes concern is this student centered learning strategy. Once stereotyped, it has been established as a de facto system, regardless whether it is correct or not. But its consequences remain of grave concern.

What I would like to say is that such things should not be neglected at a time when we have drafted strategies at the national level to build the capacity of our human resources and setup institutions to accomplish that. Other than that, utilization of human resources that can bring about qualitative change is another big topic.

It is to be noted that you labeled an efficient and effective management as a wheel for economic development. Since domestic accomplishments primarily count upon organization and management efficacy, does Eritrea have requisite management and organizational capacity so as to accommodate the verging economic development? You also remarked on functional review and structural adjustment. Can you shed light on the details of the programs underpinning the building blocks of administration, management and politics?

We should always call to mend the institutions, work methods and the system fostered during the days of Eritrea’s liberation struggle, but especially that of the 30 years of armed struggle. Of course, there is no need to recreate the superseded erstwhile state of affairs and circumstances in spite of the changing environment. The culture nurtured, the values cherished and the small-scale institutions established in those old days, however, are not to be regarded lightly. For the past two decades, the defining fundamental values of the Government were efficient, effective, clean and lean management. This is by no means a novel invention. Bureaucratic governance is invariably at odds with efficiency. Management and administrative efficacy coupled with the transfer of technology and knowledge ought to be efficient and effective for a tangible outcome.

Needless to say, understanding these management and administrative theories or concepts is not something mind-boggling; translating the values fostered in the days of liberation struggle into reality is, however, a demanding and time-consuming task. Despite their dynamic nature, there could have been some fundamental values that conformed to a given historic time. Indeed, it is the objective environment that dictates your method of work. Therefore, if you are to act upon an objectively challenging environment, you need to upgrade yourself.

Eritrea has its own distinct merits. Whereas the benchmarks Eritrea might only serve to assess the country’s overall headway, there is no need for the nation to compare itself with other countries other than scoring the desired accomplishments through effective performance. Once Eritrea sets the sought after standards, the nation will have to appreciate its progress as per the benchmarks in order for the country to translate those standards into practice and stay abreast of them. What are the day-to-day challenges of the past 14 or 20 years? What is the war that is being declared against Eritrea without respite? This is an unendingly dynamic spiral in the face of the country’s preparedness to prevail over all hurdles.

To this end, efficient institutional performance remains compulsory. Based on the experience gained thus far, educational and vocational skills ought to be upgraded and management and administrative procedures require constant refining at the government, ministerial, administrative, association, and construction companies and the Front levels. On top of other institutions, the aforementioned institutions have gradually reached the summit of performance. You cannot apply the same strategy for a long time in the absence of a dynamic system, which can accommodate the objective situations. With the increasingly growing capacity of putting into practice, we need to streamline our organizational capacity in the effort to make effective use of this asset and translate our vision and goals into something concrete.

Plans that help refine a feasible strategy can then be mapped out. In the course of effective implementation of the set strategy, there must be proper harnessing of resources and time, as well as harmonious complementarity between and among action programs of all sectors. Organizational capacity is not something static, but rather, it is the dynamic organization that ultimately survives fit through adapting the changing environment. Proper organizational capacity is the wheel towards strong economic growth, better quality of life of the people and better social services. Eritrea accords the dynamic nature of such organizational capacity central position in its national life and social services. But how can the ministries, administrative bodies and the said institutions streamline their organizational performance?

Generally speaking functions of these institutions might remain unrevised for a definite period; with the shifting of the objective situation, nonetheless, respective functions may well be defined for a synergic effect of the desired organization and structural adjustment. When it comes to human resources, constant upgrading of the human capital inevitably creates new dynamism if merged with and complemented by the prior knowledge and vocational skills. A number of initiatives have over the past year been and will continue to be taken towards reviewing functions and adjusting institutional structures of the ministries and administrations. Popular participation will as ever be strengthened for promoting the broad-based aspiration.

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