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The Ethiopia Task Group of IDN was set up in January 2009 following a well-attended IDN meeting addressed by two speakers with experience of working in the country: you can view the slides presented by John Parker and Steve Clarke at the launch meeting. Steve's "Letter from Bahir Dar" is in IDN's special collection of first-hand accounts of working overseas.

For a detailed account of work on a master plan for Addis Ababa, including its evaluation by members of the International Development Network, please see the article here.

If you would like to join the Ethiopia Task Group of IDN, and contribute to the tasks it decides to undertake, please e-mail the Network Manager.

Adversity, Challenges, Opportunities: A Role for Spatial Planning?

John Parker and Steve Clarke write:

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and the second most populous (circa 80 million people). Apart from a brief occupation by Italy (1936-41), it is the only African country never to have been colonised. Ethiopia is twice the size of France (1.14  million square km) and landlocked, being surrounded by Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan. The country is divided into 9 ethnic-based regions plus two Charter Cities: the capital, Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report (2008), Ethiopia ranks 170 out of 177 countries. Almost 81% live below the poverty line with about 10 million at risk from starvation. Around two-thirds of its people are illiterate and life expectancy is 52 years.

This situation of human suffering contrasts starkly with the rich history of Ethiopia (or Abyssinia as it was once known), that extends back to the birth of humankind, being the land where the 5 million year old remains of a human ancestor was found. This is coupled with its heritage and traditions dating back thousands of years. Legend claims that the Queen of Sheba bore the son of King Solomon, who became King Menelik and founded the Ethiopian Empire. Today the remains of the Queen's palace can be seen in Axum. Other historical features include the reputed Ark of the Covenant, the great Stelae also at Axum, and the Lalibela churches hewn out of monolithic rock. Ethiopia has some of the highest scenic places on the African continent, such as the Simien Mountains, and some of the lowest, such as the Danakil Depression, with its lunar-like landscape. Together with the Blue Nile and the Great Rift Valley these are a vital part of Ethiopia's worldwide attraction to tourists.

Simien mountains-Middleton.JPG 

Simien Mountains (photo Catherine Middleton)

Unfortunately today Ethiopia is probably better known for its poverty, periodic droughts and terrible famines, ill-conceived policies, long civil conflicts and the border war with Eritrea. Although these problems were deeply ingrained into the country's past they emerged more prominently after Haile Selassie became Emperor in 1930. Apart from the period during the Italian occupation, he ruled until deposed in 1974, by a Marxist army junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. The change in government made little difference in the level of poverty and happiness, if anything conditions deteriorated. The civil war finally led to the overthrow of the junta in 1990, since when, to some extent, political and economic conditions have stabilised. However, foreign investment is still patchy, and although there is a truce with Eritrea, monitored by the UN, there are continuing disputes over the demarcation of the border.

The Ethiopian economy still depends heavily on agriculture (coffee is a key export), with 80% of the country's total employment in this industry and largely at a subsistence level. This is dependant upon rainfall, in a country often affected by drought. Government measures have had some success and Ethiopia's economy averaged 11% annual growth between 2007 and 2008. But inflation is at over 10% and there has been a long period of good weather. The demand for economic growth highlights the desperate shortage of sustainable water supplies and very poor sanitation coupled with a rapidly urbanising population. In addition the current world financial crisis could rapidly undermine this growth.

The sharp increase in world fuel prices in late 2007 and the early part of 2008 affected food and fuel prices in the country and had a significant effect on the majority of the population in common with many other developing countries around the World.

Closely related to the affects of drought, is deforestation, environmental degradation, soil erosion and desertification, especially in the arid highlands, where the increasing population and ever more intensive working and sub-division of the land has had a significant effect. In the last 100 years over 60% of the country's tree cover has been lost, as the wood is used for homes and fuel and the land cleared for farming. There has been a significant migration of poor rural people into the larger cities across the Country, in search of a better life, but they continue to struggle with a marginal standard of living, for the conditions in the urban areas echo the rural situation, especially in the capital Addis Ababa.

A high proportion of the urban population particularly in Addis Ababa, live below the poverty line. Unemployment and under-employment is rising with the majority of those working in Addis Ababa engaged in the informal sector. To them must be added the socially excluded the street children and beggars and in common with much of Sub-Saharan Africa, the extent of HIV/AIDS infection rates also results in many social problems and has added significantly to the numbers of street children in the larger cities of the country.

Although all land is owned by the State, the ability to obtain building land and housing is extremely difficult especially for the poor, with no policies and programs to assist them. The result is a large number of people living in sub-standard structures including under plastic awnings and on the footways. The provision of services (water, including public taps, sanitation, refuse disposal, public transport, etc) are inadequate for the city in general, but the urban poor suffer most. All this results in consequential health and environmental hazards. Despite attempts by the government and the municipality to remedy the situation it shows little improvement. On the contrary it seems to worsen as the city attracts more migrants.

So how can spatial planning help?

Spatial planning in Ethiopia has had a chequered history since the mid-1930s, when European architects and town planners were taking an interest - mainly in Addis Ababa. In more recent years a National Urban Planning Institute (NUPI) existed between 1985 and 2005 to prepare the Addis Ababa Master Plan (AAMP). This eventually helped politicians to understand the importance of planning for all urban centres in Ethiopia. In 2005 NUPI became the Federal Urban Planning Institute (FUPI) and in 2008 this changed to the Federal Urban Planning Coordinating Bureau (FUPCB), which has four broad objectives.

  1. To provide capacity building support to regions, urban centres and the private sector;
  2. To provide urban planning related consultancy services;
  3. To serve as an information hub on urban planning; and
  4. To assist regions, urban centres and the private sector in the preparation of urban plans; and to prepare plans with strong linkages to their rural hinterlands and serving as centres of rapid development.

The approved AAMP was prepared during the Marxist regime when the political policy framework was a command economy with everything controlled, planned and directed from the centre. Now, with a more democratic political regime, and facing all the demographic, environmental and poverty issues mentioned earlier the FUPCB has been charged with preparing a new master-plan in the context of its four broad objectives; these must be applied in the context of the country's poverty.

What are now needed are comprehensive public policies by government, managed by the city authorities and backed by the private sector and non-governmental organisations, with regard to employment, goods and services. One policy that should be at the forefront is to try to reduce migration to the cities by improving life opportunities in the rural areas.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that currently there are 1,119 NGOs in Ethiopia. Of these, 141 are international NGOs while the rest, some 978, are local NGOs. More than 575 NGOs are engaged in development activities while more than 100 are engaged in specific fields. These are heavily regulated and controlled by the Federal Government that wishes to see emphasis placed on work in the Health, Education, Food health, education, food security and water supply sectors.

This is in addition to the many Foreign Government foreign government agencies such as DFID, USAID and GTZ etc. that offer aid and capacity building assistance to the Federal Government and projects around the country.

The Federal Government has recognised the importance of education and has in recent years focused much effort on improving school and teaching capacity and has embarked on a programme of significant investment particularly in tertiary education. One of the main problems in the past was that teaching as a career was seen by the previous regime as the job for the less academically successful as the most able school leavers were directed towards medicine or engineering in a Soviet-style system, this is slowly changing. One of the major problems that remains however is to encourage new graduates and skilled workers to remain in the country.

With the help of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN there are significant HIV/AIDS education programmes, which are having a greater impact. The Polio Eradication Project funded by the WHO has been very successful and has nearly eradicated the disease in many areas. Much of the work of the UK's DFID and GTZ - DFID's German equivalent) seeks to improve the quality and capacity of governance in the regions and municipalities around the country. Amhara Region was the first in the country to adopt (in 2002-3) a charter for the strengthening of municipal capacity and governance (with the Regional Government being facilitated by GTZ), which saw the introduction of City Managers to run the larger cities in the Region and advise the elected politicians on policy and a move away from the previous Region/Zone and Woreda governing system, thus giving the municipalities more autonomy in running their affairs.

The reform of the Civil Service nationally to make it more accountable and open has also been a key aim of the Federal Government. It remains to be seen whether early benefits are sustained in the long term. Poor governance in many areas is still one of the major causes of poverty, due to the inability of the people to effectively participate in political decision making, and a severe lack of public services. There is also however the need to encourage the population to participate and remove an often prevailing attitude of 'Why bother, because it won't make any difference?'. There also remains underlying tension between the Regions and a widely held belief of some parts of the population that inwards investment to the Regions is more biased towards some than others. There are active independence/separatist movements, not always committed to peaceful ends to achieve their aims, in some of the Regions.

Clearly there needs to be more accountable governance, improvements in education, health, water and sanitation services, and far more opportunity for the poor to become productive. The governments second Poverty Reduction Strategy includes plans to increase local empowerment, transparency and accountability. It also needs to develop stronger co-operative agreements with adjoining countries. Opportunities will occur for changing Ethiopia's parlous state, and the choice for the Federal Government could be whether to focus its attention on a limited number of regions and cities, or to take a wider view across the nation, in both urban and rural areas. Reform of governance is desperately needed. The governance of the country is slowly changing for the better, with this must come a growth of citizen participation in decision-making and greater transparency. The greater involvement of the UN, World Bank, IMF and other sources of investment in future development, as it moves from the previous central economy to a more market-oriented one, will be crucial. Also needed will be the collaboration and friendly advice from other major nations on the best approach spatial planning and sustainable development practices should have a key role in this scenario.

One of the biggest problems facing the country is the dominance of Addis Ababa. Businesses and people all want to be based in the capital city. This has led, for example, to a drain on qualified professionals from the outlying Regional Bureaux to posts based in Addis Ababa and a growing desire for work outside the government sector. To many people it seems that the streets of the capital are "paved with gold". There are severe staffing problems at Regional Bureaux, Zonal Office and Municipality level particularly in the areas of infrastructure, construction supervision and urban development.


Debrak - a small town in Ethiopia (Photo Catherine Middleton)

A true spatial planning strategy needs to try and encourage inward investment to other areas of the country and an improvement in transport and economic infrastructure to facilitate this. There is little evidence of this approach in current thinking or organisation.

The Ethiopian Roads Authority (ERA) and the Federal Government are working on key road corridors to improve their quality. This is to some extent working as shown by the completion in 2006 of an asphalt-surfaced road from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar (some 575 km to the north), which has reduced journey times for freight moved by lorry from at least two days to around one on average. Public buses now also complete the journey in one day.

Ethiopian Airlines has recently announced the purchase of a new fleet of eight Q400 aircraft from Bombardier with 78-seat capacity to replace the existing ageing 50-seat Fokker 50 fleet on internal routes.

The changes, challenges and opportunities briefly outlined above generate and demand innovative and sustainable solutions to many serious planning problems: increasing rural migration into cities; lack of employment opportunities; acute shortages of affordable housing and modern schools; inadequate fresh water supplies purification for drinking; soil erosion, deforestation and desertification; protection of historical and cultural heritage; and the integration of land use development and transportation. Above all looms another threat that poses a particular problem for Ethiopia, which has suffered from drought throughout its existence, this is that global climate changes, will probably adversely affect it more than most countries of the world. 

What can other spatial planners and associated professionals do?

In the face of such formidable issues, we can assist our Ethiopian counterparts by offering our knowledge and experience. This might help with planning education, institutions, systems and practices, and give rise to policies and ideas for meeting urbanisation and rural challenges in a sustainable way. These must be not just for the short and medium term but must also prepare for the longer-term future with its changed environment and climate. This is not a one-way process: IDN's approach is always about being prepared for the future by learning from others, exchange of experience and sharing and spreading knowledge.

Hopefully, as an Ethiopian proverb states: When one is prepared, difficulties do not come.