In the Name of Development
There is a true story about a woman who pretended that she was overjoyed after being displaced from her home for the Addis Ababa ring road project. The majority of the displaced residents around Asko district (Gullele) were complaining about the compensation scheme, but government officials did not want to hear such complaints. Consequently, ETV – the state owned television station – assumed the task of falsifying their grievances. Near her village, a journalist stopped a woman and asked how she felt about the ring road. Her response was fast and hilarious: “The ruin of my house is not a big deal. I would be even more cheerful if the ring road passed over my chest!”
Government strategies of repression have multiple faces. Last week, we heard that a peaceful demonstration held by 5000 displaced residents was quelled by police force. Those forcibly evicted residents gathered in front of the Sheraton Hotel to request appropriate compensation for their losses. Although the Sheraton is less than a kilometre away from the state-owned media headquarters, ETV development journalists did not comment on the demonstration. They rather heralded their old hymn, as if the displaced people had been both fully compensated and satisfied.
Such denial appears as a serious psychological problem—a lack of the sense of “object permanence,” in which an individual may lack the power to sense that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be seen. Yet the fact remains that even if the government denies the truth, thousands of forcibly displaced residents have been suffering from homelessness, unemployment, the loss of income earning assets and mutual assistance mechanisms and many more economic and social disorders.
Under any displacement scheme, with or without compensation, forcibly evicted residents generally fall to a lower level of the social stratum. In most cases, the new change does not emancipate these people from their original poverty level; it rather widens the poverty gap. According to Professor Theodore Downing, who has contributed many research works on this issue, failure to mitigate or avoid risks related to displacement may generate “new poverty”, where poor people become even poorer in comparison with their former standards of living.
Recent empirical evidences also shows that displacement and resettlement processes that occur without planned and conscious compensation criterion result in great costs to the displaced people and the nation as a whole.
For instance, under the banner of cracking down on black-market trading and other criminal activity in the slum areas, the government of Zimbabwe implemented “Operation Murambatsvina” (“Clear the rubbish”) when the 2005 election results revealed that urban dwellers favoured the opposition. By July 2005, an estimated 570,000 people had been made homeless under the operation. In India alone, more than 20 million people were forcibly displaced in 30 years. Of these, 75 percent have ended up worse-off than before resettlement.
Chasing the poor?
The eviction of people from the centre of the city is mainly carried out in places like Arda, Kirkos and Addis Ketema sub-cities. These areas are densely populated and the majority of the people are extremely poor. The informal business and underground economies play a great role in sustaining the lives of area’s inhabitants. Considering the high poverty levels, officials argue that by reallocating the land, they might correct unregulated urbanization as well as the poverty levels of the destitute.
However, the majority of the current displacement and relocation actions are not considered to be development-induced projects. The politicians who oppose the unplanned eviction of people claim that the EPRDF is using displacement as an instrument to crack down on opposition strong holds, reasoning that an increasing number of urban poor living in highly congested areas poses an increased danger. Accordingly, dispersing the poor is considered one means of maintaining dictatorial power. This might be a good lesson learned from Mugabe, who punished urban residents by evicting hundreds of thousands from the central part of the city.
“Safety first,” but which safety?
It would seem that the government is further assisted in such actions by the people themselves. Failure to cooperate and present united protest actions and expressions of dissent plays a major role in worsening their lives.
A recent study by the Legatum Institute, an independent research and advocacy organization based in the UK, revealed that the Ethiopian people have been severely suffering from problems related to bad governance and economic imbalances. Amazingly, however, the study concludes that its citizens are remarkably tolerant. It seems that the study thus understands a critical problem in Ethiopia today. Many people prefer to be calm in the face of even the worst government actions, understanding that they are not free.
Recognizing this behavioural pattern, the government may be wise in implementing policies that further their own strategic political objective). Risk-averse behaviour is becoming deep rooted in the livelihood of society. The majority of people are very reluctant to cooperate with others and defend their rights. Rather, they keep calm—insisting on “safety first”—although, in reality, there is no safety at all.