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Ethiopia's new employment plan more politics than jobs

Merga Yonas Bula
February 21, 2017

The Ethiopian government has been trumping the country's recent economic success. But a new plan to employ young people appears to be more about quelling protests than providing employment.

Äthiopien Protest
Image: Reuters/T. Negeri

The town of Ambo is located in the Oromo region of Ethiopia, 120 kilometers (75 miles) west of Addis Ababa and is known as the kicking off point of the protests against the infamous re-zoning plan of the government almost three years ago. Reports show that security forces responded to the protests with lethal force that claimed hundreds of lives while thousands more were arrested.

"The urgent problem of the youth now is not unemployment rather lack of peace in their area, because those employed or unemployed people are still getting killed or arrested," said an unemployed young man from Ambo who requested anonymity from due to the current political situation in the area.

As a response to the growing protests, the Ethiopian government declared a six-month state of emergency last October. One of the factors that the government attributed to causing the protests is unemployment.

Äthiopien Mulatu Teshome ist neuer Präsident
President Mulatu Teshome hopes that jobs will be the antidote to future protestsImage: Elias Asmare/AFP/Getty Images

In his address to parliament last October, President Mulatu Teshome said that his administration pledged to create more jobs for the youth. He argued that the youth in both rural and urban towns have no stable means of income and rely on daily labor. As a result, Mulatu said, these young people are living in an atmosphere of "extreme anxiety."

"If the government does not focus more on the youth," Mulatu warned, "it should realize that our country could again face the kind of political crisis that was experienced recently."

A new jobs bill

Two weeks ago, the House of People's Representatives passed a new bill dubbed the "Youth Revolving Fund," which promises jobs for unemployed people aged 18-34 years. In the preface of this 11-page bill, it is stipulated that the economic achievements of the country had itself created new demands from the youth which the government could not fulfill.

Therefore, the government has allocated about $500 million (474 million euros) to create jobs for the 2.9 million unemployed. The bill also gives the state-owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia a mandate to administer the fund.

According to local reports, the fund will be disbursed to the youth through the bank's 3,900 branches and 1,700 micro-finance centers. To receive the fund, young people should be organized according to their interests and submit a project proposal to the bank. Although the new bill asserts that the bank then gives the money to the youth following a "revolving-fund system," there is no clear explanation as to when and how they will be paying back the money they borrow.

Communications Minister Negeri Lencho, however, claimed that the new fund is not meant as a mere distribution of money to the youth.

"The students study either by selling their coffee plantations or their cattle to transform their lives," the minister told DW. However, he said, "the government has no capacity to employ all these youth and it is hard to claim that the economy has accommodated them."

Desperate measures?

According to recent data from the Ministry of Education, Ethiopia's 37 universities enroll over seven and a half thousand students for undergraduate and postgraduate courses each year. However, there is no clear data of how many find work upon graduation.

Äthiopien Proteste | Ausgebranntes Auto in Sabata
Violent protests, like this one in Sabata, are often perpetrated by disaffected youthsImage: DW/M. Yonas Bula

Mulatu Gemechu, deputy chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, compared the government's job creation plan to a man who sinks into water while holding onto foam. He also criticized the government's politicized education policy as contributing factor to the weakness of the economy.

"Those students who are affiliated to the ruling party get a grading such as A or B or C and then can get a job easily," Gemechu told DW. But, he said, "if students get a D, for not being associated with the party's activities, then they do not get a job."

As a result of this lack of academic freedom and employment, Gemechu claimed, there are graduates working on cobblestones as a daily laborer. Thus, he sees the job creation fund rather as a political investment aimed at diverting the genuine uncertainty of the youth.

In a recent opinion piece, the economist Getachew Teklemariam argued that "the story line from the side of the government is that it [youth employment plan] was never a reflexive response to the unrest. What is true, nonetheless, is that the unrest has, at least, pushed the agenda to the fore."

One resident of Ambo who preferred not to give his name, agreed that unemployment is an issue in Ethiopia but that it is not right "if the government claims the unrest is due to youth unemployment."

He then spoke about how his friend was killed by the security forces and urged the government to respond to legitimate youth issues like "peace and the respect for human rights."