Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

The needs of the poor, the needs of the city – a mismatch


Whether you know it or not, your house can be targeted for ‘slum’ clearing any time. The well connected, using cities as their personal real estate agents, are proposing the following assignment: “Find me your most prominent location, get rid of what is on it, help me pay for it, and maybe you will be lucky enough to have me built some edifice.” Such is the state of the current eminent domain power.

Can cities ‘clear’ your property? Yes, they can! The 1994 Constitution permits the government to “hold, on behalf of the People, land and other natural resources and to deploy them for people’s common benefit and development”. By ‘common benefit’ don’t read transfer of your private property for the use of the general public (i.e. so a public highway can be expanded, or a city hall, courthouse, or school get built,) read rather it’s ok to transfer your home to a private entity, which would then develop commercial office space, which would, in turn, generate more taxes for the city.

Indeed, the Constitution suggests that when the government takes property from a private person, the taking must be for “public use.” But then again no one seem to test the court in cases property the city annexed, whether it is done so for a “public use” or for a private, but more economically profitable, project. Why?…I suppose citizens want to think “it’s for the good of all” or because “I don’t mind cooperating with that if it makes us all “better,” or most often they’re frozen by either fear or apathy… until one day they wake up and find themselves living in a cage.

As one who sees this government not concerned in advancing freedom as a priority, I still think it’s important to examine and understand first the concept of freedom. Clearly, what it means to be free is not appreciated the same by all parties or else there would be universal agreement on opposing the government’s agenda.

In truth, freedom is an illusive concept. Or at least its relationship to government makes it one. At its heart freedom is anarchy. It is the state of being completely and utterly free to do as you please. In a society such absolute freedom does not work as some would take actions that harm others. Absolute freedom and anarchy was certainly not what citizens of our nation had in mind when they voted to accept the present Constitution in 1994.

The Constitution, like most others, allows the government not just to ensure that each person is protected in his or her rights to the fullest possible extent – limiting freedom only to the degree necessary to protect the life, liberty and property [with provisions] of all; but it [the Constitution] also allows the government to carry out systematic and often legal dispossession of land for development purposes. In other words, people are not free to take anything they want because that would infringe on the rights of those from whom they would take it. The government, however, can do so as long as it advances a ‘development’ agenda. A parenthesis: even if the “public use” requirement is satisfied, you would assume the taking still must be for “just compensation.” But in reality, “just compensation” tends to mean a price significantly below the property’s value on the open market.

And that’s unfair! But we voted for a Constitution where the government would be free to actively re-engineer society. We voted for a system where the government would not only protect life, liberty and [some] property, but also dictate the way in which society live. In fact our Constitution, as framed, is an instrument for the government to restrain and/or lead the people, it’s not an instrument for the people to restrain the government, in case it comes to dominate our lives and interests. Our Constitution is, to put it simply, the exact opposite of what the US framers attempted to create with their Constitution… (although this today is becoming less and less obvious.) That is a critical difference.

And that brings me to my chosen example. Look around Addis Ababa. There is major slum clearing campaigns in progress. Entire neighbourhoods are literally wiped out. Of course getting rid of the houses means also getting rid of the people, people who would have been there for two or three generations. But wait, we are not getting rid of the people we are doing away with poverty… I suppose we need more wealthy people living closer together and more poor people living farther apart. (Seriously!)

The city’s plan does not spell out how the land will be developed, (does the City Council really know what to do with all the cleared lots? This fact alone should render the condemnation of homes not for ‘public use.’) for sure large portions will inevitably be handed over to major investors and property speculators. In other words the government is committed to raising one person’s standard of living by taking from another, in the name of ‘development’…or simply explained: chasing poor people from the inner city for the comfort of the wealthy. And this means that the future holds misery for the many and privilege for the few.

Granted, promoting economic welfare – including increasing a city’s tax base – may be a legitimate public interest. But that does not mean that shifting private property into different hands is always a ‘public use’ simply because the government will profit from the transfer. That is because the government will naturally profit from the operation of the free market, too – without having to intervene among buyers and sellers.

At the least even if the annexation for private entities might be permissible, shouldn’t it be only in certain circumstances and under certain conditions: Shouldn’t there be at least a reasonable certainty that the condemnations will result in those public benefits. Shouldn’t the city have a use for the property, shouldn’t there be a contractual, statutory, or other minimum standards in place to ensure the likelihood of realization of the public benefits that justified the condemnation in the first place. The government may argue that this is the essence of a developmental state. And yet the true developmental state is founded on liberty, which means secure property rights, freedom of exchange and production, and the rule of law.

In endorsing the power of the state to pursue ‘development’ as it sees fit, we chose to turn back the clock and make us all slaves of government itself. Today citizens lose their house, their neighbourhood, their ‘Edirs’ to our government master without much of a say. People are pushed further away from their workplaces and centres of economic activity. New expenses in the form of higher transportation costs and rental payments also add burdens that may be too much to bear. Thus, although they gain access to relatively better quality housing, there are significant trade-offs involved. One solution may be upgrading slums through infrastructure development. This allows for improvement of living conditions in the slums without the negative effects of displacement.

In truth, the spectrum of alternatives makes it clear that juggling the interests of the poor on the one hand and those of the city on the other is difficult. In the end, it becomes a question of ideological stance, and this is where the general public needs to have a say. Do Addis Ababians think that current city ambitions can justify the displacement of the poor? Are Addis Ababians favour the transformation of the existing ‘slums’ into something better? One good topic of debate for the next election.