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This year, the government has been working hard to brighten up the lives of its employees. In fact it has been pretty desperately trying to figure how far it can go: 10%, 30% or 100%? Regarding the imminent increase in salary, that is. No one knows what the increase will be. It’s all speculation at this point. The hope is that the increase will keep up with rising costs of groceries, housing, energy and health care. It’s always tricky for any government to increase employees’ salary. In the first place it takes a bit more than a token pay check to keep employees satisfied, especially ahead of a coming election, at the same time you don’t want to break the government budget.
Still, it would have been enlightening and appropriate to have a little bit of public debate on the issues: how much is the raise going to be? How are these increases being met? Through cost cutting and other measures like, streamlining government expenditures? Or through borrowing? Money printing? What about the spiralling effect on the salaries of the private and other sectors of the country, the impact on reserves, balance of payments, and inflation? When a single pay raise influences such a large proportion of the population, surely one should worry about inflation.
As I said the debate on the pay raise or the budget itself is simply missing (including in parliament). But who cares. We live in a system where the political class decides on the issue, and attempts to inform the people of the cause later on. No debate. It doesn’t seem to matter what the people’s opinions, interests and expectations are. As long as the government is standing behind it, the decision will go on.
One of the upsides of having tight party elite is that at least they know what’s going on. We, the deluded masses, may have to wait for decades to find out who, from say, the party’s left wing was the driver of this policy; or how the decision to invest here and not there was made. But the elite are supposed to know in real time – and on that basis to take control. Does this make our system superior, because issues are decided in closed doors, before they reach the public? You judge.
And yet our political elites [mostly in private] are the first to agree that active participation that takes place through public forums can form a powerful ground for an understanding of efficient citizenship and a functioning democracy. For, such forums are primarily those that bear the traces of how people wish to be governed in the context of preferences and expectations that have been voiced.
They (the public officials) may argue (in private) that holding public debates on issues that concern society will also help creation of an open, transparent and accountable government. They (again the public officials in private) may stress that the risk of power abuse will be reduced to a minimum in a government which is constantly supervised and held accountable through public debate.
But wait a minute, to fulfil all of these functions the existence of a society that consists of people that are tolerant and respectful of differences is required, besides legal and constitutional guarantees that will enable free public debate.
The fact that Ethiopians are civil, tolerant and respectful of one another is always stressed by our public officials, the media, and community leaders as positive assets for advancing democratization. Lately, however, progress towards democracy, openness, transparency seems to have come to a halt. There are no excuses for not having moved further and faster to democratisation.  We have had enough time. Fifteen, twenty years back we were at a more advanced stage. This nation wants to move toward Democracy, it doesn’t want to have an oligarchy with a political class doing what it wants.
Let me return to the subject of employees pay hike… Salary increases happen because the government is confident that growth will remain strong. So yes, when government grows it can pay more to employees, and surely Ethiopia grew at a double digit pace for quite some period. But to continue its growth it should also focus on reforming the supply side economics and supply chain management, otherwise future earnings are destined to decline.
How, then, can it advance growth? One easy and literally free move is to do away with excessive regulations. Our local businesses of all kinds are directly affected by government regulatory overreach. They’re small businesses that you and I patronize every day, from auto repair shops and coffee joints, to manufacturers and contractors. Small businesses that provide goods or services to our community are being strangled by these excessive rules. The government needs to act now to reduce their burden and push for further growth. Now don’t get me wrong, like any rational businessperson I recognize that certain regulations are effective and justified. However, far more rules handed down from the various sector ministries and agencies carry significant long-term costs and add little benefit over existing rules.
More about this issue in the future…