Ethiopian News | Fortune Editor’s Note
The electoral campaign appears to be in full swing, although the excitement is yet to reach many voters. To its credit, the now weekly debates among the contesting parties, broadcast after they are recorded inside the studio of the national TV, have begun to spur voters’ interest, albeit limitedly.
An addition to these debates, is the presence of those from the All Ethiopian Unity Organisation (AEUO), whose leadership has been shunning the televised electoral showdowns on policies, in protest to the ruling party’s refusal to let them broadcast live.
Although AEUO’s leaders argued that live transmissions of the debates were part of the deal negotiated by the incumbent when the code of conduct among the parties was agreed, it seems that they finally came to see the loss of their glaring absence from the TV screens, hence their change of heart. They have now taken part in two successive debates, contributing in the discourse, and helping inform the alternatives offered by differing parties.
There have been five debates to date, including the latest conducted on Friday morning, March 26, 2010, on the parties’ respective policies on education. Two weeks ago, the contending parties waged their policy and ideological battles over the merits of their policies on health.
Both these issues fall in the category of social services. Ironically, such issues are to the advantage of any incumbent party as much as they are drawbacks to opposition parties. Not surprisingly, the debate, particularly on health policies, has sufficiently reflected this.
If there is any strength the Revolutionary Democrats have displayed in both policy and performance, it ought to be in the provisions of social services. By any parameter, they have impressive accomplishments over the years, particularly when compared to where they started from. Indeed, they have never been good at selling these achievements to the voting public. Their efforts entail endless narrations of dry, boring, and exhaustive piles of statistics, comparing and contrasting what they have accomplished with what their predecessors have not. Often, it is difficult to make a clear distinction of their campaign footages from what the national TV broadcasts as documentary programmes of the government’s successes.
Nonetheless, and truth to be told, this has been an administration with very ambitious programmes in the provision of social services in health, education and infrastructure buildings, and hence “encouraging achievements” as agreed by a donors’ meeting held about a year ago.
There is a widely agreed view in the health community that much of the diseases in Ethiopia occur due to preventable hygiene related problems. For instance, 80pc of morbidity in Ethiopia is due to preventable communicable and nutritional diseases, according to Population Action, an international NGO.
If any party in a governing role designs its health policy focused in prevention, it is only logical, and it does not necessarily mean that treatment is thrown out the window.
For an incumbent endowed with reasonably functioning party machinery as the one the Revolutionary Democrats seem to have, successfully implementing their health programmes is hardly unattainable. They are now to conclude, in 2010, their third five-year health sector development programme, which incorporates a health extension programme with 16 packages.
This requires in its major component the building of health posts across the country (15,000 in order to reach universal health coverage) and the training and deployment of 30,000 health extension workers. In both counts, the government they have been running has accomplished over 70pc of the building of the posts and over 60pc of the training of the health workers.
Doing this costs money, a lot at that.
Says Population Action; “Improving the general physical infrastructure and strengthening health systems are key to improving health and require major investments and much time.”
And this government is putting massive investments in these areas. During this fiscal year, the federal government allocated a budget of over 10.3 billion Br to finance the provisions of social services (health and education, the latter claiming over 90pc of it). This is an amount matched only by spending on infrastructure development and federal subsidies made to regional states. The latter have their own respective health and education expenditures from these subsidies.
This is not an isolated case. Since 2001, per capita public expenditure on health services has been growing by an annual average of eight per cent. The federal government was prepared to spend 47.6 billion Br to finance its third five-year health programme, covering 40pc of it from its own budget. This has helped the increase on per capita expenditure on absolute terms from 11.3 Br in 2001 to 21.6 Br seven years later.
To their credit, the investments the Revolutionary Democrats have chosen to make in the health sector have proven to have paid off. They helped the country reduce the gap on health workers to a population ratio of one to 7,800 in 2005, down to one in 4,369 two years later. The same remarkable achievements have been recorded in the expansion of fully immunised children from 30pc in 2001 to 53pc in 2007, as the case is similar in achieving a national TB treatment success rate that reached the international standard of 85pc. Remarkably, the incumbent has expanded the number of VCT service providing centres to close to two million.
It is really an uphill task to dismiss and discredit an incumbent with such a track record. And sadly, but not surprisingly, that is where those debating on behalf of the half dozen opposition parties failed to succeed.
Unlike previous debates on issues such as federalism as well as human rights, rule of law and good governance, those who stood to defend the position of the incumbent seem to have prevailed, enjoying both a policy upperhand and winning the debate.
The Revolutionary Democrats have put forward their senior cadres to make their case during the debate on health policy issues. One of them, Tewodros Adhanom (PhD), has performed remarkably well. In him, the Revolutionary Democrats have brought forward their human element, far from the now all too common army of cadres who often give the impression to voters that they are on scripts.
It is perhaps little surprising to see a politician trained as a physician and one who has been serving as a minister of health would have troubles not to recite all the above data at his fingertips. Nevertheless, and as it has been seen repeatedly in previous debates, it takes courageous politicians to admit wrongs and accept shortfalls, while at the same time emphasise accomplishments. Voters like such debaters, and it seems to why many voters like Tewodros, although they may still harbour doubts of the party he belongs too.
Many of the debaters from the various opposition parties appeared to have made the terrible mistake of attempting to present treatment as a policy alternative to that of the incumbent. But there is little merit in that, for the ruling party does not have a policy of discouraging it, but has only chosen to focus its resources and energy on disease prevention and control. Their spending of energy in anecdotal incidents, unrelated to the bigger picture as was seen, can only expose their shallowness in their policies of social services.
They could have focused on numbers, for instance, as briefly attempted by EDP’s Mushie Semu. He was trying to corner the Revolutionary Democrats over a half a billion Birr deficit in health financing, for instance. It was a good attempt, had he pursued this course a little more forcefully.
It was baffling though that political parties, many of whom claim to have drawn their support from the urban population as opposed to the incumbent, were seen failing to raise issues of resource allocation, budgeting and (a subject dear to many urbanities) universal health coverage. Indeed, the debate would have boiled down to money. Ethiopia’s minimum spending per head of four dollars for health is much lower than the 34 dollars the WHO Macroeconomic Commission says is sufficient to launch universal health coverage.
Nonetheless, opponent party debaters doing their homework of the numbers, and tabling to voters alternative policies such as offering universal health coverage, just to name one, would have put one of them higher and taller than both their peers and an all too powerful and resourceful incumbent. During the debates on social service provisions, it was clear the opposition faltered.