Ethiopian Diplomacy in 2015: an appraisal

By Fitsum Girma

January, 2016

Since 2002, Ethiopia has crafted a well-articulated and a far sighted Foreign Policy. The document is publicly available and it’s largely stood the test of time. Of course, no foreign policy, even clear and discerning, is any good unless it is backed by effective and competent implementation. Performance is as important as coherence in drafting a policy.

Last week the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia published the major achievements of the country’s diplomacy in 2015. Since I came across that post, I began to wonder how exactly can one really measure a country’s foreign policy performance. Can we say it is a success or failure simply by looking at the number of interactions the country has made with the rest of the world? Does success depend upon getting in quantities of foreign exchange? Is it merely avoiding conflict with a neighbor which is making determined efforts at destabilization? Was Ethiopia’s diplomatic activity of the year 2015 really successful? In addressing these questions and providing my conclusion since I can not exhaustively list all the diplomatic activities done last year in this brief article I will base my arguments on the activities that I thought are most important.

Judging either a specific implementation of a country’s foreign policy is a success or a failure is a tricky business. First, a foreign policy outcome unlike other policy outcomes depends not only on a country’s own decision. In Foreign policy, one cannot know for certain how others will respond and how that specific action will be perceived by the other side. Hence, the way the counterpart reacts matters. Thus, even the ‘wisest’ choices made to carry out a foreign policy can lead to disappointing results depending on how the other side reacts. Second, the global stage is never still. It is not always possible to be sure if a country’s foreign policy performance has been a success or a failure just by comparing it with the previous year performance. Hence, the time factor needs to be brought into equation. Third, to make the backdrop even grimmer, the result of a foreign policy decision made years back might bore a fruit years after the decision is made making the judgment of one country’s performance in a specific year a more tedious task. All these factors make it hard to judge whether a specific foreign policy performances of a country in a particular fiscal year is a success or not.

Is there an alternative? Yes, I believe there is. Even if we cannot objectively evaluate all the ramifications of a country’s foreign policy performance, we can consider its achievements by looking at whether the effort exerted has helped the promotion of the country’s national interests and in achieving the strategic foreign policy objectives. By utilizing this yardstick, I have attempted to assess and evaluate the diplomatic activity of Ethiopia in 2015.

Ethiopian Foreign policy document unequivocally puts that the major objective of the country’s foreign policy is ‘to ensure international conditions that are conducive to achieving our development and democratic objectives.’ Furthermore, the document states that in order to achieve those broad objectives its diplomatic activity should “…attract investments, solicit grants, secure technical support, eliminate or at least reduce external threats, widen the number of international friends, secure allies that can help the country withstand intractable challenges and threats, forecast potential threats and address them through dialogue and negotiation.”

This document very sensibly relates the success of the country’s foreign policy to the works done domestically to bring about development and democracy. So it would be only fair to start by evaluating the major activities done domestically and their contribution in achieving the broader foreign policy objectives of the country in 2015. In this regard, Ethiopia has done a great deal and received international applause for its strategic performance in many aspects.

Ethiopia held its Fifth General Election which saw a record number of voter turnouts measured by any international indicators. The election has been observed by ‘The AU Election Observers’ Mission who concluded that the parliamentary elections were calm, peaceful and credible as it provided an opportunity for the Ethiopian people to express their choices at the polls.” Despite the fact that the election has left the national parliament completely dominated by the ruling party and its allies, yet the whole process of election 2015 represents a step forward for a country where democracy is at its infancy. And it proves that the effort the country is making in the political front is of course paying back.

Later in the year, and may be with a far reaching symbolic meaning, Ethiopia for the first time in its history celebrated a National Diaspora Day in the presence of thousands of Ethiopian Diaspora. It was an excellent example of the Government’s assurances that it was undertaking measures to broaden Diaspora engagement in their country’s development as well as assisting them in wider roles. Consequently, the Diasporas have increased their contribution to the Economy of the country either directly or indirectly. In 2015 alone Ethiopia has received a 3.7 billion USD in remittance from the Diaspora, an unprecedented amount which even exceeds the income earned from export and funds received from donors in the same year. This is firmly inline with the foreign policy of the country which states that “Cognizant of the key roles played by Ethiopian’s residing abroad, especially in the economic sector, the government should take the initiative in creating the most conducive environment for them to play a constructive role.” In spite of the result it may produce, it is fair to argue that taking the initiative to create conducive atmosphere for the Diaspora by itself is a success as what follows in part must depend upon the Diaspora.

In the economic field, as a country that labeled poverty as its number one enemy, it is hardly surprising that economic diplomacy became at the centerpiece of Ethiopia’s foreign policy. To show the priority given to securing economic benefit from foreign allies, the crafters of Ethiopian foreign policy goes to the extent of equating the ‘Foreign Service officer’ to the ‘development officer.’ Looking at the past year, it is clear that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made every effort to meet this objective. A number of Joint Business Fora were held, both in Ethiopia and in other countries, around 300 foreign investors started operations in the country, a significant number of grants and loans for major infrastructural developments were secured, and substantial technical support provided in different fields.

Overall, the efforts of the country to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, notably in halving poverty and attaining the requirements in the health and education goals, were internationally recognized. Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn received the South-South Award 2015 in recognition of Ethiopia’s achievement of the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty. This was buttressed by a number of internal infrastructural and other developments including the inauguration of the Addis Ababa Light Railway, the start of operations of the new railway from Djibouti to Addis Ababa and the beginning of power supplies from the Gilgel Gibe Dam. Additional infrastructural projects, linking Ethiopia to its neighbors, were inaugurated in the past year, and the culmination of all this underlined that some of the requirements of successful foreign policy were being achieved at home.

Turning to the bilateral level, the past year has been a busy one for the law makers and practitioners of the Ethiopian Foreign Policy. Here it suffices to mention some, but a few visits exchanged between Ethiopia and the rest of the world and the subsequent agreements signed.  In this regard, the past year has been exceptional in a way that leaders of the two great powers of the world, with different ideological outlook and starkly competing interests in Africa have made historic visits to Ethiopia. This attests that Ethiopia can no more placed at the margins of world politics as it seriously matters both for the West and East alike.

The visit of America’s president along with the visit of other heads of states and governments clearly shows that countries of the world have started to understand and support this country’s desire to develop and democratize. And it shows that over the past years Ethiopia has been effective in creating a supportive international environment to achieve the broader objectives of its Foreign policy.

As the Addis Ababa Agenda at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, Ethiopian Government’s input into both the Paris Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP21) and the agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals at the UN General Assembly attests Ethiopia’s role in the International political arena is of course increasing.

Moreover, in 2015 a myriad of cooperation agreements have been signed with many countries. Perhaps the most important is the Declaration of Principles signed by the President El-Sisi of Egypt, President Al-Bashir of Sudan and Prime Minister Hailemariam, to underline their decision to resolve any differences through dialogue and consultation. Although this had specific reference to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, it drastically reduced Ethiopia’s vulnerability emanating from issues revolving around the Nile in parallel with utilizing its natural resource. Moreover, it underlined Ethiopia’s approach to foreign policy, a policy that stipulates that “[Ethiopia] should give priority to solving problems through cooperation, clarification and patience, while avoiding arrogance and inadvertently harming its interest”.

Regionally, despite being in the hostile region of the Horn, Ethiopia clearly stated that peaceful coexistence and good neighborliness are at the core of its relations with the neighboring countries. Accordingly, Ethiopia succeeded in strengthening its ties with the countries of the region with the notable exception of Eritrea and worked towards developing a peaceful relationship with the people of those countries. This was also emphasized by Ethiopia’s involvement, as chair, in the IGAD process to bring peace to South Sudan though the progress has been slow. Ethiopia’s activity in the AU Mission in Somalia’s growing successes against Al-Shabaab, and its continued participation in UN peace keeping operations are also other cases in point.

Of course, no foreign policy aims can ever be 100% implemented, Ethiopia’s case is no exception. But the question remains: if we can draw lessons from what happens and make the necessary adjustments in areas where success was not achieved, or we tend to repeat the same mistake over and over again? This is the main question to be asked when trying to evaluate our foreign policy performance and here, it can be fairly argued that the past year has been a largely successful year for the practitioners of Ethiopian Foreign Policy.

But, being vulnerable both internally and externally, Ethiopia should punch above its weight to meet the objectives stated in the policy and this of course requires a coordinated effort both from the government and the people. Working towards minimizing the causes of the country’s vulnerability i.e., poverty, backwardness and good governance is crucial as failing to do so ‘will make the country prone not only to internal dangers but to external ones as well’.

This article is originally posted at the reporter on January 2016.  (


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