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Eritrea: Views and Musings

1. The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must…

Thucydides, an ancient Athenian military general and historian who lived during the fifth century BC, is considered by many as one of the greatest historians. Regarded as one of the founding fathers of the international relations theory of realism, his most important work, despite it not being fully completed (it actually ends in the middle of a sentence), was his History of the Peloponnesian War. In this timeless classic, often described as “by far the best historical work that has come down to us from antiquity” (Ste. Croix 1972: 1), Thucydides chronicles the nearly 30 years of war and tension (lasting from 431 to 404 BC) between the two preeminent city-states of ancient Greece: Athens, a great sea power and possessor of a great empire, and Sparta, a powerful land force and leader of the Peloponnesian League. In the centuries since it was written, Thucydides’ exhaustively detailed historical account of the Peloponnesian war has had an enduring relevance and it continues to influence and guide how we understand and analyze human nature, politics and public policy, international relations and state behavior, war, and the global political order.

While Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War has numerous important parts and elements which are worthy of discussion, one of the most significant (and highly memorable) is the Melian Dialogue, which “remains the starting point of discussions about the relative role of ethics and interests in foreign affairs” (Lebow 2003: 26). In this section, Thucydides records the debate between the leaders of a small island, Melos, which, although a colony of Sparta, has not joined Sparta in the war against Athens and, thus, remains neutral and Athenian envoys. Athens, a rising predatory power, is determined to decimate the population of Melos because they refuse to submit and pay tribute while the Melians, threatened with an invasion and certain annihilation, plead for their survival. However, early within the dialogue, the Athenians flatly reject the notion of justice, brazenly stating that despite the Melians’ neutrality and notwithstanding the fact that Melos has done nothing to harm or offend them, the Athenians are justified in destroying the Melians simply because they can: “we both alike know that into the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it, and that the powerful exact what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Eventually, the Athenians take the island of Melos for themselves. They put to death all the men of military age and sell the women and children as slaves. Within interstate relations and foreign affairs, virtues such as justice, ethics, and morality, it would seem to appear, are subordinate to absolute power and brute force. Simply, might makes right.

This harsh conception of justice was illustrated late last week. Specifically, it was reported that the international sanctions on Eritrea, first imposed in December 2009 and then broadened in 2011, were expected to be lifted soon. The key factor in the lifting of the sanctions, however, is not Eritrea’s cessation of support for terrorism. According to simple logic, it cannot be. Recall that the allegation was not proven when the sanctions were originally imposed, while over the years it has not received the slightest scintilla of support. United Nations (UN) monitors have consistently acknowledged that they have “not found conclusive evidence” of Eritrean support for terrorism or Al-Shabaab.
Instead, the sanctions on the young, low-income, African country are being removed for the exact same basic reason that they were first imposed – the large, powerful, Western countries simply decided to do so, safe in the knowledge that they could.

Throughout history, there have been a few principles of international affairs that apply quite generally. Thucydides’ maxim that the strong do as they wish while the weak suffer as they must is one. The case of unjust sanctions on Eritrea is just the latest case in point.

2. Clarifying unemployment and underemployment…

Over the past several weeks, Eritrea Profile, as well as other national outlets, has featured coverage of the recently published National Labor Force Survey (NLFS). The NLFS, the first of its kind in Eritrea, was carried out by the Ministry of Labor and Human Welfare, with significant support and cooperation from other local institutions and several international partners, including the International Labor Organization (ILO). Begun in 2015, the NLFS involved the collection of data from thousands of respondents located throughout all six of Eritrea’s administrative zones (“zobatat”).

One of the NLFS’ most interesting findings is that Eritrea’s unemployment rate is approximately 3.5%. This is quite low, particularly when compared with the unemployment rates of various other countries in the surrounding region or around the world. The low unemployment rate makes it seem as if the economy is at full employment. However, the figure does not tell the whole story. For Eritrea, the issue is not necessarily unemployment, which is quite low, but underemployment. Underemployment fails to make use of scarce economic resources, including human capital, and reduces the long-run growth potential of economies. In addition to Eritrea, many countries around the world are experiencing a similar situation.

Generally, unemployment refers to people who do not have a job and are currently looking for one. Underemployment, which encompasses skill-related underemployment, downgrading, or over-education, is often difficult to measure because it is frequently defined in several ways. However, it can broadly be understood as a measure of employment and labor utilization in the economy that looks at how well the labor force is being utilized in terms of skills, training, and experience. Labor that falls under the underemployment classification includes those workers who are highly skilled but working in low paying or low skill jobs. Underemployment also considers the availability to work. For example, time-related underemployment refers to gainfully employed workers whose working week is shorter than the statutory working week and who would like to work more.

Often, we simply look at the unemployment rate as the key measure of economic success. However, focusing solely on unemployment overlooks the important fact that many people may not be working to their full capability or capacity, failing to grow and develop or reaping little economic gain. Moving forward, it is crucial that Eritrea not only provide enough jobs to keep people active and employed, but also support the creation of quality, advanced jobs where people can work to their full capability and capacity and truly maximize their potential.

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