27 September 2000 - The Price of Isolation

In northern Ethiopia, 8,000 feet above sea level, sits what has to be one of the world’s most incredible sights, certainly the eighth Wonder of the World. In my tours of the globe, few marvels compare.

Within the city of Lalibela are 12 churches hewn from burnt-orange volcanic rock, each intricately carved with windows and doors and fully sculpted interiors. Some reach four stories in height. A river called Jordan flows between the churches, and there’s even a Mount of Olives planted nearby.

Lalibela has become a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. According to legend, 12th-century Ethiopian King Lalibela had a dream in which God ordered him to build a holy city to duplicate Jerusalem since Ethiopia was cut off from the Holy City by its Muslim neighbors. The story goes that angels aided the king in constructing the churches. As we stood looking at the incredible craftsmanship, dwarfed and consumed by its magnitude, I did not doubt the story.

Had this wonder been anywhere else in the world, I’m sure a line of tourists would be waiting to get even closer to the churches, and maybe a vendor at a ticket booth would be charging as many birrs, the local currency, as people were willing to pay. That’s what I saw at the Great Wall in China and at the Taj Mahal in India.

At Lalibela, I was able to walk right into one of the churches. I sat down inside and had a chat, heavy with hand gestures and smiles, with an old priest. I even looked over a sacred biblical text written in Ge-ez, an ancient Ethiopian language. Words can’t describe the feeling of wandering through this 800-year-old treasure. It’s as if I had walked into the Vatican and asked the pope if I could peruse his scriptures.

Then again, many experiences are like that in Ethiopia, a place where everything feels pure, undiscovered, untouched. It’s one of the most unusual countries I’ve visited on my trip and certainly unlike any African nation to which I’ve ever been.

Isolated on the horn of Africa’s northeastern coast, Ethiopia has a mountainous and lush terrain. Despite the arid picture held by most Westerners, Ethiopia is covered in grasslands and rain forests. Called the Ceiling of Africa, two thirds of the country sits on a plateau, between 6,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level. Throughout history, this rugged terrain shielded Ethiopia against outside influence. In fact, Ethiopia is one of only two countries in Africa that have never been truly colonized. Italians took control of the country in 1936 under Mussolini, but the British forced them out in 1941. Both Haile Selassie, the emperor who ruled intermittently from 1930 to 1974, and the socialist government that ruled until 1991 had little interest in inviting foreign influence of any kind. Earlier the country actually banned foreigners beginning about 1640 and few even visited for the next 200 years.

Not surprisingly, such isolation has had a profound effect on the country’s evolution, helping this ancient culture survive the test of time. Amharic, a Semitic language, is Ethiopia’s official language, but roughly 70 different other languages and 200 dialects are spoken. The country has its own alphabet, one of only 13 in the world and its own calendar. Ethiopia’s breed of Christianity, cut off for centuries from foreign influences, evolved into its own distinct form.

As we drove north through the grasslands, we passed through many villages where no one had ever seen outsiders. The open markets were primitive. People sold hand-made cooking utensils and molded containers used to store and eat food. Camels arrived from the desert carrying loads of salt, which is still used as a measure of value in Ethiopia, just as it was in ancient times. Women wore coins bearing the name of Empress Maria Theresa, of the 18th-century Austrian empire. These coins had been used as stores of value and for trading for 200 years.

The downside of isolation has been a stagnant economy. Ethiopia ranks among the five poorest countries in the world; the average Ethiopian lives on just a little more than 25 cents a day. No manufacturing base ever developed so its economy is depends on agriculture, which accounts for half of Ethiopia’s GDP and 90 percent of its exports. Coffee is the staple of Ethiopia’s agri-economy, contributing a full 10 percent to its GDP. Other exports include live animals, hides, and oil seeds. Little has been done to exploit the country’s proven mining reserves, such as platinum, nickel, iron ore, copper, potash, and even gold.

The country’s infrastructure is a shambles. The Italians built bridges and roads during their brief tenure, but that was more than 60 years ago, and today most of these roads have fallen apart. My wife, Paige, and I spent 10 hours covering a 72-mile stretch of road. The only roads that have been built or repaired of late are those used to facilitate the fighting on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, where a bloody dispute over territory has been brewing on and off since 1998.

We saw little evidence of Ethiopia’s drought, one of very few stories about this country to regularly make the world news. We obviously couldn’t cover the whole country, but we saw water everywhere we went. In fact, in one town we found an immense storage tower that was leaking water by the gallon.

Ethiopia has good reason to promote a tale of woe: Its population of 64 million – the third largest in Africa – has become hopelessly reliant on aid. We saw untold acres of arable land that lay fallow. No one wants to grow crops for food because everyone is aware they can get them for free at the monthly food distribution. A whole generation of Ethiopians is growing up with little or no knowledge off farming because they have never had to work at it.

Even worse for those who do farm are their neighbors who who often pick up food at the distribution centers and then sell it cheaply on the open market. We saw men carrying off bags of wheat, delivered from world hunger organizations and national relief outfits, and then selling it at a nearby village market. No farmer can compete with someone who has no costs or upkeep. It’s just another example of the IMF and the World Bank doing more harm than good. Such groups often unwittingly create a cycle of dependency that can ultimately cripple an economy and a culture.

We met one man who ran an orphanage. When we visited him, orphaned children were everywhere. It was truly depressing. But when we returned later, uninvited, the children were gone. The orphanage vanished. The entire operation was a front to get Westerners like myself and non governmental (NGO) organizations to funnel more and more aid and money into certain people’s pockets. It’s a common problem in Africa, and it benefits no one – not the country that gives the money nor the country that receives it.

In 1992, the government launched a new, free-market-oriented policy with reforms designed to stabilize the economy and point Ethiopia in the right direction. The government seems serious about reform. Industries have been privatized. Trade laws are being liberalized. The new constitution (ratified in 1994) allows any of Ethiopia’s nine different regions to secede and become independent at any time. This is quite a stroke of genius on the part of the Ethiopian government. The past 200 years have been a period of empire building and the creation of nation states. But look at the results of such growth: civil wars in Yugoslavia, the break up of the Soviet Empire. The Ethiopian model seems like a plan that all countries should consider.

At the moment, cleaning up the bureaucracy and encouraging foreign investment dominates discussion. In 1999, the government signed a $1.4 billion joint venture to develop an enormous natural gas field in the Somali Regional State. The government is trying to lure the best and brightest back to Ethiopia to get involved with the rebirth of this vital country. One government executive told me if I had a good idea for a business he could have it approved in a week.

Still, certain types of businesses face odd restrictions. For instance, I can open a bank in Addis Ababa, but I am not allowed to own a barbershop. I can start my own telephone company, but I can’t be a tailor. This is clearly a holdover from the communists, who didn’t like anyone but locals working in many trades.

Opportunities certainly exist for entrepreneurs. The Ethiopian economy needs just about everything. Labor is incredibly cheap. Unlike other places in Africa where you need the approval of at least 10 different committees before you can make money, the Ethiopian government vows to make the process easier. In fact, the government has set up a kind of one-stop shopping service for foreigners who want to invest.

Investors from the U.S., however, have few ways to invest, at least not right now. There is no stock market. The only Ethiopia funds are charitable ones, created by foreign aid outfits and NGO’s.

Such is the price of Ethiopia’s isolation: It is so detached from the economies of the modern world that it still has years, perhaps decades, to go before it comes close to the level of economic development in neighboring African countries. Such protectionism has allowed a pure and unique culture to survive for centuries. That’s certainly valuable, particularly for those who have the opportunity to visit this extraordinary place. But for those looking to invest, Ethiopia remains an anachronism in today’s modern economies, like a museum exhibit about a time long forgotten.