By Fikrejesus Amahazion,
Without question, Africa is the world’s poorest continent.
African nations have consistently ranked lowest amongst nations of the world in terms of various socio-economic or development measures 1. These failures can be attributed to a wide-range of causes including historical factors, socio-political dynamics, ethnic based rivalries, internal mismanagement, and debilitating external meddling.
Over the decades, the international community, economists, and development professionals have offered a plethora of possible solutions, with many ending up as abject failures. Notably, recent times have seen natural resources reemerge as a proverbial magic pill [i] . With the African continent possessing an abundance of various natural reserves, it is believed that these resources, if managed appropriately within a well-planned and well-managed development programme, can help establish a strong platform for sustainable development. In addition, African resources have garnered awareness from the international community. Recent years have witnessed Chinese [ii] , Indian[iii] , and US [iv] focus on the continent and its resources.
For the Horn of Africa (HoA) region, the subject of natural resources has also assumed high importance, especially as the region continues to seek stability, progress, and general development. Oil has attracted interest in Somalia [v] and Somaliland [vi] , while it has long been a significant issue (amongst numerous others) in tensions between Sudan and South Sudan [vii].
Recent months have witnessed water (specifically the Nile River) gain prominence in the HoA [viii] , as friction between Egypt and Ethiopia can attest [ix]. Not to be overlooked, Eritrea has also received attention, being noted as “…likely sitting on massive oil and gas reserves…” and possessing all “…the geological features of a major hydrocarbon bonanza…”[x]
Furthermore, Eritrea’s nascent mining industry [xi] has been touted as a potential regional and global powerhouse [xii]. With much more known about the developmental policies of its regional and continental neighbors, Eritrea’s less recognized approaches merit closer scrutiny. Accordingly, this short piece provides an initial, and hopefully enlightening, glance, particularly considering Eritrea’s approach to both development and resources.
Dating back to its initial days of independence, Eritrea has been raptly aware of the need for a holistic, multi-level approach towards development, while being alert to the pitfalls of the resource curse [xiii]. Quite early on, Eritrea outlined that its ambitious development programme would focus on the following: rehabilitation and construction of infrastructure; raising agricultural productivity; promotion of private investment; investment in education, health and nutrition; promotion of exports; protection of the environment; and mobilization of communities for development [xiv]. The stagnation – if not outright regression in development – of many African countries with great natural endowments serve as clear, sobering lessons for any developing nation with natural resources (e.g. Mobutu Sese Seko in the former Zaire [xv]; and the unfortunate outcomes of the oil industry in Nigeria, particularly the Niger Delta [xvi]).
For Eritrea, this has meant that its own approach has been cautious, pragmatic, and one where the nation’s resources are categorized as only one variable within the larger equation towards holistic development, rather than a simple panacea. Eritrea’s Ambassador to the UN, Araya Desta, recently specified aspects of the Eritrean approach, largely championing sustainability, equality, and environmental friendliness. In a statement to the UN Security Council’s Thematic Open Debate on Conflict Prevention and Natural Resources (June 19, 2013), Desta noted that “[t]he cardinal principle of Eritrea’s mining policy [is that]…all mineral resources are a public property, and that the conservation and development of these resources must be ensured for Eritrea’s present and future generations.” [xvii]
Furthermore, Eritrea’s 2012 National Development Strategy spells out that Eritrea “…is aware that [its resources] are non-renewable…and they have the potential of being curses rather than blessings for societies. Focus on the mining sector often leads to ignoring more vital and sustainable sectors.” Finally, The Director General of the Dept. of Mines in the Eritrean Ministry of Energy and Mines, Alem Kibreab, has pointed out that “…the mining sector must be developed slowly and carefully to prevent…the resources curse.” [xviii]
While Eritrea’s policies and statements toward both development and resources have been articulated, any projection about the future utilization of resources will require consideration of Eritrea’s past developmental policies and record. Amongst the most tangible outcomes of Eritrean developmental efforts are its successes [xix] within health and education, especially in regards to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals [xx].
Relatively unacknowledged internationally, Eritrea has quietly proceeded to become one of the few countries that is on pace to achieve most of the UN Millennium Development Goals (UN MDG). [xxi] Tremendous successes have been recorded in terms of the following: AID/HIV control and reduction [xxii]; drastic malaria decline [xxiii], which have been described as the biggest breakthrough in malaria mortality prevention in history [xxiv]; maternal mortality [xxv]; child mortality [xxvi], which was largely the result of a 99% immunization coverage rate [xxvii] that has been internationally recognized [xxviii]; improvements in gender equality [xxix]; expansions [xxx] and promotion of education [xxxi]; and steady progress in environmental sustainability [xxxii].
While challenges undoubtedly remain in several UN MDG areas, including hunger [xxxiii], Eritrea’s continued national developmental efforts have witnessed “…access to clean drinking water in rural and urban communities in Eritrea improve to a total of 85%, [xxxiv]” progress in developing [xxxv] the fishing [xxxvi] sector , and a growing focus on agricultural production to support food security [xxxviii].
The vast majority of these developments are the fruit of national development initiatives, unique rural village and community programs [xxxix], and the Warsai Yikealo development campaign. The Warsai Yikealo campaign involves the participation of the National Defence Force in various development projects, such as irrigation and the construction of micro-dams and wells, and the concept has received interest and promotion from notable international scholars. [xl]
It is within this broader developmental context that Eritrea’s natural resources may prove useful; not only to accrue foreign capital and strengthen the economy, but also to promote continued overall development. Despite infrastructural destruction and heavy costs due to the war with Ethiopia, which continues to flout international law and illegally occupy sovereign Eritrean territory [xli], Eritrea’s economy grew by 8.7% in 2011 and approximately 5.5% in 2012, and is anticipated to improve by 7% in 2013 and 6.5% in 2014 [xlii]. With an appropriate utilization of resources within the larger national development strategy, Eritrea’s mining sector could play a beneficial role moving forward.
While examples of the dangers of the resource curse and mismanagement are readily found across the developing world, Eritrea’s leadership has long reiterated that its resources will be utilized for the benefit of current and future generations. In addition, Eritrea will remain committed to providing a comprehensive “…environment for growth…” based on enhancing human capital and infrastructure, with the ultimate aim of improving the quality of life for the people. [xliii]”
In regard to fears of resource mismanagement, the African Development Bank Group has noted Eritrea’s “…relatively low levels of corruption.” Additionally, former US Congressman and law professor, Tom Campbell, has described Eritrea’s “…reputation for honesty and low levels of corruption” [xliv] as being one reason (among others) to believe in Eritrea’s investment potential [xlv]. Finally, the Pool Nielson EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid mentions that Eritrea’s “corruption free culture” remains its biggest asset. [xlvi]
Overall, Eritrea has witnessed several tangible developmental outcomes, especially within the socio-economic, health, and educational sectors, and the country’s natural resources hold the potential to augment these outcomes. At the same time, Eritrea is unquestionably faced with tremendous developmental concerns within a broad range of sectors. Challenges such as food security and poverty are immediate areas the country continues to focus on, while the prolonged illegal occupation of Eritrean land by Ethiopia [xlvii] represents an unnecessary and harmful distraction from broader development goals. Moving forward, the international community should remain constructively involved in and supportive of Eritrea’s developmental efforts, while also promoting the respect of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
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 For example, consider: the UN’s HDI and scholarly works by Hernandez-Cata, Schwab and Lopez-Claros 2004; Logie and Benatar 1997; and Sachs, McArthur, Schmidt-Traub, Kruk, Bahadur, Faye, and McCord 2004.
[xv] Thomas, C. 1999. “International Debt Forgiveness and Global Poverty Reduction.” Fordham Urban Law Journal. 27 (5): 1711-24.
[xvi] Okonta, I. and O. Douglas. 2001. Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books.
[xlv] Campbell, Tom. 2002. How Law and Economic Development Fit Together: The Role of Research in Nation-Building, University of Asmara.