By Fana Gebresenbet, Biruk Terrefe and Tom Lavers

In 1991, Ethiopia had 370MW of installed electric power and 4% grid connectivity, one of the lowest rates in the world. In the 27 years of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) rule, both of these increased ten-fold. This working paper engages with the particular politico-economic conditions that enabled these successes, but also contributed to significant limitations in the energy sector up until 2019.

Balancing relations between political and bureaucratic elite

As the literature on late industrialization illustrates, intra-elite cohesion and centralisation of decision-making power within the hands of a few politicians and advisors enables productive investments in the power generation sector. Despite shifting ideological justifications ranging from Socialism/Marxism to developmentalism, the EPRDF has treated the electricity sector as a crucial input of its industrialisation strategy, and as such pursued ambitious goals with zeal.

Political will and determination, although necessary, are not sufficient for an effective electricity sector, given the highly technical inputs required. The negative implications of an incapable technocracy are evident, but the literature has neglected the interaction between the political elite and technocracy. In effect, state capacity was assumed to mechanically follow elite cohesion.

The Ethiopian experience highlights the delicate balance in the relations between the political and technocratic elite for an effective decision-making and implementation process in the electricity sector. Ideally, politicians would prioritise technical expertise in decision making, while maintaining control of strategic vision, oversight and political support of the sector. This would preclude the risk of technocrats attempting to engineer society towards a scientific order, while at the same time providing a degree of autonomy to balance political ambitions and technical feasibility.

Subordinating technocrats to political decisions

In Ethiopia’s case, the balance tilted in favour of a handful of political elites, who made key planning and implementation decisions, including with respect to dam sites and their generation capacity; thereby undermining and bypassing technocrats. Centralisation of power within the self-claimed vanguard party was not used to empower the technocracy, but to cajole technocrats to deliver intentionally overambitious and implausible generation capacity targets set by the political elite, particularly over the past decade. At the root of such planning was the unfounded claim that demand increased by 17 % annually.

Moreover, the political elites were more interested in headline-grabbing installed capacity—the maximum electricity that can be produced at a single point in time—rather than energy generation capacity—the amount of electricity which could be produced in a year. As a result, the EPRDF’s ideologues focused resources on a series of increasingly large-scale dams to ‘overwhelm’ this expected demand.

The cost of marginalising technocrats

Yet a series of increasingly implausible targets for installed capacity meant that sectoral masterplans essentially became statements of ambition, unfit for forecasting and planning tasks. On top of this, the political elite failed to invest in the equally (if not more) important aspects of maintenance of generation plants, as well as transmission and distribution. Due to a lack of maintenance, many dams function under their capacity, while decades of underinvestment in transmission and distribution increased inefficiency and limited access. These issues generally explain the load shedding problems the country continued to face despite significant increases in generation.

The end result was that by the second half of the 2010s, Ethiopian Electric Power—the state power company—was one of the most indebted state agencies in the country and the electricity sector made a significant contribution to Ethiopia’s growing debt burden. In spite of the progress made, the electricity sector has yet to reach the five-year targets set in 2010, regular power cuts continue and the new government has turned to liberalisation of the sector in the pursuit of further expansion—as will be discussed in a follow up paper.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors featured and does not represent the views of FutureDAMS as a whole.

Image: Rod Waddington on Flickr (CC 2.0)

Powering development: the political economy of electricity generation in the EPRDF’s Ethiopia

FutureDAMS webinar

Tom Lavers, Biruk Terrefe and Fana Gebresenbet present their research, which highlights the importance of power relations between politicians and the bureaucracy, the political interests of the ruling party and the dominant ideas shaping politics and the electricity sector.

22nd June, 14:00 UK / 16:00  EAT

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