The Report Card On Eritrea’s Turtle Economy

What is the role of governments? That is: when should a government’s coercive power be used? The answer is on a continuum: on the one side is a classic libertarian view which argues that the only time a government’s coercive power should be used is to protect the private property of citizens (Locke) and/or to protect them from one another since man’s nature, absent a collective agreement, is to live a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” (Hobbes) On the other side is the view (Lenin) that a vanguard party should have total coercive power to transition a proletariat-led revolution from socialism to communism (Marx.)  All the Maos, Ho Chi Minhs, Mengistus, Meleses and Isaiases of the world have done is to tinker with Marxism-Leninsm to give it a local flavor: we don’t have a proletariat, but we have lots of peasants, so we will just replace “peasants” for “proletariat” in our revolution.  In this long continuum between Locke (individualism) and Lenin (vanguard-led collectivism), there have been countless varieties and experiments and, by the time Eritrea came into existence, it was still looking East for its model: the Asian Tigers. That is: an authoritarian government with a strong hand in the national economy and its development policy. The question then is: is the Asian Tiger model the right one for Eritrea?  And, assuming it is, has the Eritrean government delivered results?  And, if it hasn’t, why hasn’t it?

Berhane Woldu, who writes for Capital Eritrea, says that the Eritrean government is, indeed, showing results. (Eritrea’s Unhurried Development, March 23, 2013.) Berhane argues that many of the complaints Eritreans make about the phase of development in Eritrea are based on their observation of Asmara but it they were to venture out to rural Eritrea, they would witness the development.  Within the Eritrean context, argues Berhane,  “freedom translates into having supply of clean water, electricity; being able to live in a decent home and having a good job, to be able to send our children to school and have accessible health care for all covering the whole country regardless of how remote or inaccessible the area may be.”  He goes on to say that in the first decade after independence the Eritrean government had invested “over a billion US dollars on infrastructure, power plant, roads, dams and social services (schools, hospitals, clean water electrification)” and that, as a result, Eritrea “was registering 7 to 10 % growth” but after the 1998 war, it had a huge trade deficit because there was no foreign investment and huge resources were diverted to national defense.  Nonetheless, goes on Berhane, the government’s focus on four sectors– agriculture, infrastructure, health, and education—is paying off. And the government, he points out, has done this without relying on foreign aid. After itemizing the amount spent on building roads, hospitals and schools and the prioritization of irrigation-based agriculture, animal husbandry, honey farms, Berhane asserts that food sufficiency has been achieved; export based economy is being built; six colleges and a university are enrolling thousands of students, and the achievements in healthcare have been remarkable:

“Access to health care is available in an area of 10 kilometers radius. 75% of the population lives in an area of 5 kilometers from a health center. HIV/AIDS is the lowest in Sub-Sahara Africa 96% of children receive the necessary vaccination. 95% of the urban and 78% of the rural area now have clean water. Eritrea in the last 15 years have eradicated communicable and non-communicable diseases i.e. Malaria, Polio, Small pox and many other. Has lowered infant mortality rate and is providing good health services in all corners of the country.Eritrea’s health expectancy stands at 65 years old the highest in Africa.”

Berhane Woldu’s defense of the Eritrean government is quite a relief: it is at least based on data and not the usual “take three Hadnetna! pills and call me in the morning”  emotional blackmail.

But even if we were to accept his definition of freedom within Eritrea’s context, there are a few problems with Berhane Woldu’s article.

First, there are no sources for his data. Given that he is defending the performance of a secretive government which doesn’t even publish its annual budget, his paper may be a good advocacy piece, but if it is going to be debated, the information has to be sourced. For example, when Berhane says that Eritrea’s economy “was registering 7 to 10% growth”, I have heard this oral report from many government officials in 1998, 1999, 2000 (I am pretty sure I have taken it at face value and written about it, too), but none has bothered to refer to a published report by any number of reporting authorities—IMF, World Bank, etc. Berhane has the burden of proof of showing that Eritrea’s economy grew 7-10% every year from 1991 to 1997 and I do not think he can carry that burden.

Second, there are assertions made that are simply not factual. When Berhane says “Eritrea’s health expectancy stands at 65 years old the highest in Africa”, I presume he means Eritrea’s life expectancy. If so, the information provided by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)  just recently contradicts his information. For one thing, Eritrea’s life expectancy is 62 and not 65. For another, Berhane probably means that the number is “highest in sub-Saharan Africa” because Egypt (73.5), Algeria (73.4), Tunisia (74.7) and Libya (75) all have higher life expectancies than Eritrea. But even if he were to qualify it by saying that Eritrea’s life expectancy is “the highest in sub-Saharan Africa”, he would be wrong because Madagascar at 66.9 and Gabon at 63.1 exceed Eritrea’s life expectancy. Similarly, when Berhane says that Eritrea’s development is less reliant on foreign development assistance than others, his assertion is not based on facts but the usual government sloganeering. In point of fact (as will be shown in the table below), foreign development assistance accounts for 7.7% of Eritrea’s Gross National Income whereas it is 5.5% of the average Low Human Development (poor) country.

Third, the author does not have a useful benchmark when talking about investments. For example, when he says that the Eritrean government invested “over a billion US dollars” (source?) in education, hospitals, roads, etc, he has no point of reference: what is a billion US dollars as a percentage GDP? And, does that compare favorably to that of similarly situated countries?

Fourth, there is a great deal of data missing in his report. If we are going to have an honest debate, it is important that we list the entire data and then give credit where credit is due and place blame where it belongs. Let’s list the entire data first, then have an analysis and drill down into the data and  have an honest debate.

The Complete Data

The UN issues many reports and the one that most authoritarians love—because it has nothing to say about elections, human rights, free press, etc—is the Human Development Index (HDI). This is the same source that government boosters use when they are talking about how the government has eradicated malaria, measles and dramatically reduced infant morality rates. If one is going to use a source to make a point, isn’t it fair that the same source be used to make a counterpoint?

The UN divides the world into four categories: Very High Human Development, High Human Development, Medium Human Development and Low Human Development (LHD). The idea is to enable readers to do an apple-to-apple comparison: is the country showing improvements year-over-year? How does the country compare to other countries in the same category?

Let’s review the data together. In the table below, the first column is the item being measured; the second column shows the data for Eritrea; the third shows the data for the average of all low-development countries, and the last is the reference of what page number a reader can find the data in the United Nation’s Human Development Index Report 2012. ( Where no direct comparison can be made (number of engineering graduates, HIV prevalence, for example), I have not included the data.   The UN does not always us the same base year but there is consistency in the years being compared. (2010 Eritrea vs 2010 LHDC, for example.)



Average of Low Human Development Countries


Index 2012




Index 2010, 2011

0.342, 0.346

0.461, 0.464


Life Expectancy



p. 158

Mean Years of Schooling




Expected years of schooling




GNI per capita




Maternal mortality ratio



p. 170

Adolescent fertility rate



p. 170

Female seats in national parliament



p. 170

Labor force participation – Female



p. 170

Labor force participation – male



p. 170




p. 177

General government consumption expenditure as % of GDP



p. 177

Health as % of GDP



p. 177

Education as % of GDP



p. 177

Military as % of GDP



p. 177

Debt service as % of GDP



p. 177

DTP immunization



p. 181

Measles immunization



p. 181

Underweight children



p. 181

Infant mortality rate per 100,000



p. 181

Under 5 years old mortality per 100,000



p. 181

Malaria mortality per 100,000



p. 181

Cardiovascular death from 1,000 death incidents



p. 181

Physicians per 1,000



p. 181

Adult literacy rate (> 15 population)




Primary education rate



p. 185

Secondary education rate



p. 185

Tertiary rate



p. 185

Primary school dropout rate



p. 185

Employment rate



p. 189

Homicide rate (per 100,000)



p. 189

Foreign Direct Investment Net inflows



p. 197

Dev Assistance as % of GNI



p. 197

Total reserves minus gold as % of GDP



p. 197

International inbound tourism in thousands



p. 197

Personal computers (per 1,000)



p. 201

Internet users (per 1,000)



p. 201

Fixed/mobile phone subscribers (per 1,000)



p. 201

Population living in degraded land



p. 201

Drilling Into The Data

Now, let’s group all the favorable data and unfavorable data and see if we can reach any conclusions.

Favorable: Eritrea’s life expectancy, maternal mortality ratio, adolescent fertility rate, labor force participation, debt-service, DTP/measles immunization, infant morality rate, adult mortality rate, death from malaria and cardiovascular disease, adult literacy, primary school dropout rate, employment rate, foreign direct investment inflows are all better than the average low human development country.

Unfavorable: Eritrea’s mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, GNI per capita, GDP per capita, government consumption as % of GDP, health as % of GDP, education as % of GDP, military as % of GDP, physician to population ratio, underweight children ratio, primary education, secondary education, tertiary education, homicide rate, development assistance as % of GNI, total reserves as % of GDP, international inbound tourism, personal computers ratio, Internet use ratio, fixed/mobile phone ratio and percentage of population living in degraded land are all worse than the average low human development country.

First, the easy part.  Budgets reflect government’s priorities. One can see clearly from the above that the government’s expenditure on schools and hospitals is not as impressive as Berhane makes it sound by citing absolute values. The real question is what is the percentage allocated to schools and hospitals from the annual budget? And how does it compare with the other poor countries? It is nothing to brag about: it is lower than what the poorest countries spend.

In the field of education, the data is alarming. Eritrea’s education (at the primary, secondary, tertiary), its mean years of schooling, its expected years of schooling is below that of the average least developed country in the world. This is because the budget allocated to the military is 15 times that of the average least developed country in the world. One may say that Eritrea has no choice but to do that—but the last country to keep saying that for an unsustainable period was the Soviet Union and it is not a country anymore.

In fact, if one looks at the good data by discounting the absurdities (yes, apparently, we have women parliamentarians who are just as invisible as their male counterparts) one can see a clear pattern: almost all the good data is something that can come about in a command economy and top-down militaristic society. Do we even need to comment on the high “employment rate” in a nation with endless conscription? If one were to superimpose the data of Eritrea over that of Cuba, it would show the same projectile. The military—including the US military—is quite good at mobilizing resources and people to contain diseases and build infrastructure. On the other hand, military governments and police states tend to create societies with high homicide rates and—perhaps surprisingly to those who always say Eritrea is a “very safe” country—the homicide rate in Eritrea is higher than that of the average poor country.  Police states are also obsessive about controlling information which is why Eritrea’s computer ownership, phone ownership, Internet access is below that of the average poor country. Lastly, police states are incapable of improving the national economy because they are reluctant to allow a class of people they do not control–businessmen, entrepreneurs, investors—to create an independent power structure. This is specially so in Eritrea when you have a government that sees every businessman as a mark: a potential swindle.

Credit Where Credit Is Not Due

I am sure you have heard of the joke which was made at the expense of a Diaspora-grown Eritrean who visited Eritrea. He came back to Europe to talk about all the “developments” that the government is responsible for, and he was particularly impressed by this huge cathedral which it built in the middle of the city—the  “Cathedrale” built  in 1923.

Similarly, whenever the supporters of the Eritrean government cite statistics to show that “we have come a long way, baby”, there is a tendency to exaggerate not just the accomplishments since 1991, but how bad things were in 1991. The common phrase used by the Eritrean president (dutifully repeated by Berhane in his article) was that Eritrea started from a “zero economy” or “less than zero” in 1991. “Less than zero” is what Congo was after Mobutu left: people at each other’s throats, no infrastructure, and what little infrastructure there was, completely demolished by the long civil war. This was not the case in Eritrea in 1991. Whatever its other crimes (and it had plenty), the Derg did not destroy Asmara; and all the infrastructure built by the Italians was mostly in place and functional—some of it is in worse disrepair now, actually, than it was in 1991. And in 1991—this is something of both tangible and intangible value—there were tens of thousands of Diaspora Eritreans eager and willing to come home with their money, their education and, most importantly, their goodwill towards the government. It is self-serving and highly inaccurate to say that Eritrea started out with “less than zero” at independence.

Now, if one is going to give credit to the Eritrean government based on statistics, then, it is important to show that the government either (a) vastly accelerated something good which was happening or (b) dramatically reversed something bad that was happening. Can this be shown in Eritrea?

When one places data in context—looking at trend lines—then the government’s achievements are less impressive than they appear at first glance. Let’s take the celebrated case of low infant mortality rate in Eritrea. This is something that the government trots out as its ultimate trump card because, we are told, Eritrea started from “less than zero.”  But, it so happens that this is one of the most well-documented statistics and one can find the infant mortality rates for Eritrea going back to at least 1955.

The UN uses five-year averages to calculate its infant mortality rates. That is, it issues an average for 1975-80, 1980-1985, 1985-1990, etc. What the data for Eritrea shows is that between 1955 to 1990 (the years before Eritrean independence), the five year averages of infant mortality rate changed from 176 to 104.48.  That is, Eritrea’s infant mortality rate in 1990 stood at 60% of what it was in 1955. Between 1990 to 2010, Eritrea’s infant mortality rate in 5-year averages changed from 89.79 to 53.88.  That is, Eritrea’s infant mortality rate in 2010 stood at 59% of what it was in 1990. In other words, although the government has reduced the numbers (the absolute value), the rate of decrease has not been any better than Eritrea’s performance when it had “less than zero” infrastructure or institutions. To put it even more bluntly, Isaias Afwerki’s performance in this regard is almost identical to the performance of Haile Selasse and Mengistu Hailemariam. We don’t know which causes we can rule in for Eritrea’s good numbers,  but one thing we can rule out is the claim that the responsible party for the change is the government of Isaias Afwerki.

Waiting for an African Lee Kuwan Yew

If you are wondering how Isaias Afwerki became a totalitarian, we should remember that there were many Eritreans—even now, there are many—who believe that until Eritrea gets on firm footing, it does not need political pluralism and elections: it needs a “strong leader” who will focus laser-like on the development of Eritrea.  They do not see any contradiction at all in calling for authoritarianism in Eritrea while living in the freedom of the West because, to them, this is like pointing out  that it snows in Europe and it rains in Eritrea.  So, they will say, what’s your point?

From Berhane’s definition of what freedom means from an Eritrean perspective, it is clear that he is not a big fan of political pluralism, free press, an independent justice system, in Eritrea just yet.  Those who think that new countries need a strong leader until they get on their feet have always admired Singapore’s Lee Kuwan Yew. They see in Isaias Afwerki Eritrea’s answer to Lee Kuwan Yew because of one superficial thing Lee Kuwan Yew shared with Isaias Afwerki: a reputation for bluntness. For example, this is what Lee Kuwan Yew told The Economist a month after Eritrea’s independence:

The Philippines had democracy from the word go in 1945. They never got going; it was too chaotic. It became a parlour game-who takes power, then who gets what spoils. Or take India and Ceylon. For the first three elections after independence, they went through the mechanics of democracy. But the lack of discipline made growth slow and sluggish.

Sounds like something Isaias Afwerki would say about Nigeria. Or South Africa. Or Egypt. Or Ethiopia. Or Kenya. Or…

The difference: 22 years into his leadership, Lee Kuwan Yew had transformed Singapore. He could afford to badmouth the Philipines and India because he had dramatically improved his people’s quality of life.  But just because he can badmouth his neighbors, Isaias Afwerki is not Lee Kuwan Yew. He has had 22 years of running the country and he has not taken the country one step forward. The only thing Isaias has run so far is his mouth—and the prison system for anybody who opens his mouth against him.  It can’t get any more dramatic than this: 22 years after independence, Eritrea’s GDP per capita is 1/3 that of the average poor African country.  Lee Kuwan Yew was an Asian Tiger. All we have is an Eritrean Turtle—not only does he move painfully slow, he has a tendency to withdraw into his shell at the first sign of a threat and just plain stop moving.

Clearly, the model that Isaias Afwerki is following—that of the authoritarian leader who shouldn’t be interrupted by the “chaos” and “power obsession” of multi-party states—is not working. Rather than encouraging the government to show transparency in its budget, and in all monetary and fiscal policies, but,  instead, to collude with it and to selectively pick data without sourcing it, without benchmarking it, without comparing it with the data for countries that Isaias Afwerki regularly ridicules does not serve the Eritrean people. Please don’t feed the beast. We don’t have the time to be unhurried—we have a lot of catching up to do and first on our to do list should be to demand that Isaias Afwerki find a job more suitable to his skills, whatever those are. Because, clearly, anybody else can run the country to the ground, as he has. The turtle has been flipped over, and it refuses help to right-size itself—while mistaking its leg movements for meaningful action. Don’t applaud a flipped-over turtle: it can’t hear you, anyway.


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