Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Texture of Bureaucracy

This post is a follow-up to my "Expectations, Revisited" post, available here:
The animate machine of the self-sufficient bureaucracy works toward establishing that ‘shell of bondage’ of which Weber spoke
            J├╝rgen Habermas, A Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 2

I was asked recently if I could provide a window on what it is like to work within the current government of Ethiopia, as this could be of some interest to various parties. Providing a direct account of my experience would violate the terms of my contract (as well as tax both my powers of memory and my ability to make the narrative at all interesting).

I was, however, recently reading one of the few English language books widely available in Addis (this is due to the limited size of the market, and not explicit censorship) and came across a passage that might be of interest.

The book is called Agony in the Grand Palace, and is written by Dr. Aberra Jembere, a mid-to-senior level bureaucrat in the government of Emperor Haile Selassie who was among those detained when the Marxist dictatorship regime of the Derg took power in 1974.

The passage describes Dr. Aberra’s participation in the government’s response to a 1973 famine which ultimately was among the destabilizing events that allowed the Derg to seize power. The description of the gears and workings of the Ethiopian government, and how decisions are made within it, still rings true to my ears today. This might be considered dispiriting, as the form of the later imperial government could perhaps be summarized as semi-constitutional feudalism.

It should be noted that Dr. Aberra, who clearly suffered greatly on behalf of his country under the Derg, presents this as his only comment on the 1973 famine—establishing that he fully carried out his personal bureaucratic duties is his point of focus, not trying to establish what went wrong, how severe the impact was, or how it could have gone better.

Without further delay, here is the somewhat lengthy account (with a few comments of my own at the end): 

In view of the fact that I was the representative of the Prime Minister in the Parliament, on November 8, 1973, some members of the Chamber of Deputies elected from Wollo approached me in my office with a petition to be submitted to the Prime Minister requesting a tax pardon for their people, because of the hardship they were facing. They asked me to present them to the Prime Minister. I immediately tried to contact the Prime Minister but was told that he was with a visitor. Consequently I was not able to satisfy the parliamentarians’ request for the time being. Nevertheless, I told them that I would present their petition to the Prime Minister as soon as the visitor had left, and would request an appointment for them. The parliamentarians agreed and left. As soon as the vistior had left, I presented the parliamentarians’ petition to the Prime Minister with a further explanation that the petitioners had come to discuss the issue with him. The Prime Minister immediately telephoned Ato Getahun Tesemma, the Minister of Interior, told him that the emperor would be visiting Wollo soon, that he would be sending him the petition of the parliamentarians from Wollo and that he and the Minister of Finance should study the issue of a tax pardon and submit their recommendation as soon as possible. The Prime Minister also instructed me to tell the parliamentarians of the measures just taken. 
I tarried for a while in the Prime Minister’s office and in the Private Secretary’s office. On my way back to my own office later, I met Ato Getahun heading for the Prime Minister’s office. I gave the Minister the parliamentarians’ petition right there by hand, explaining to him that it was the document to which the Prime Minister had referred during their earlier telephone conversation. 
According to the instruction, Ato Getahun studied the issue of a tax pardon with Ato Mammo Tadesse, the Minister of Finance, and prepared a document to be read as a proclamation when the emperor went to Wollo. During the second week of November, the emperor visisted Wollo and the said proclamation was read to the people. The proclamation was also published in the newspapers. 
At another time, a few parliamentarians from Wollo met me at the entrance of the parliament building and told me that people who had been displaced from Wollo and who were on their way to Shoa had been prevented from crossing the River Jarra and were, consequently, being subjected to a great deal of suffering. In the presence of the parliamentarians, I telephoned the Ministry of the Interior, but was told that the Minister was out of the country on official business. I then contacted the next-ranking official, Ato Legesse Bezu, Minister of State, and after explaining what the parliamentarians had said, asked him if he could see the representatives to discuss the matter with them and to find solutions to it as soon as possible. I told the parliamentarians that the Minister of State was willing to see them that same afternoon. I also assured them that I would be present at the meeting to expedite the matter. 
At the appointed time, I went to the Ministry of Interior and listened to the parliamentarians describing the refugees’ problem to the Minister of State. The Minister of State, on his part, said that according to the information he had received by telephone that same morning nobdy had been prevented from crossing from Wollo to Shoa. Furthermore, he told the parliamentarians that Dejazmach Solomon Abraha, the Enderassia (Viceroy) of Wollo, had assured him that there was no famine in Wollo. The Deputies disputed the information allegedly given by the Enderassie and described with bitterness the suffering that had come upon their people. Ato Legesse asked to be given one week within which he would send a team that would investigate the situation and report to him. The deputies agreed and departed, to return at an appointed time. 
A few days later, the issue of the Wollo famine came before the Chamber of Deputies. After the petition of the deputies from Wollo was heard, the Parliament decided to obtain information from officials of relevant government agencies. Thus, I wrote to the Ministers of Interior and of Community Development and Social Affairs, asking them to send officials who could provide information on the drought situation in Wollo. On the appointed date, Ato Mulatu Debebe, the Minister of Community Development and Social Affairs, and Ato Legesse Bezu, Minister of State of the Ministry of Interior, came to the Parliament and answered questions before a session of the Chamber of Deputies. I was present during the hearing. 
It was at this time that Ato Legesse Bezu reported to the Chamber that on the basis of the request from the deputies he had sent a team under the leadership of Kegnzmach Mammo Wolde Senbet to Wollo to investigate the matter and that the team had reported by telegram that many people were hungry and that emergency food should be sent immediately. It was also at this time that Ato Mulatu Debebe assured the Chamber that the necessary supplies would be sent immediately. The Chamber of Deputies on its part, after discussing the matter at length, decided that the necessary aid be sent immediately. 
I was able to pick from this account at least seven themes that I’d claim ought to still be issues of concerns for the Ethiopian administration:
1)    A lack of regular, timely information-sharing and reliable sources to adjudicate between conflicting reports.
2)    A lack of impetus to identify and contextualize the root cause when issues arise, as opposed to those symptoms which happen to be most apparent, and an accompanying arbitrary specification of which solutions are on the table (which may not be of the appropriate magnitude to address the root problem).
3)    A lack of clarity on which domains of the bureaucracy have authority over which issues.
4)    Conflicting evidence and factual beliefs between the regional and national governments, as well as conflicting objectives.
5)    A need to respect everyone’s place in the system, including many whose ostensible importance coupled with positions in the reporting structure means they can block but not approve.*
6)    A reliance on the ongoing personal participation of senior decision-makers who are often over-scheduled/out-of-country/unavailable, but who lack staff support to help them prioritize or return to key issues in these times.
7)    A lack of attention paid to follow-up in order to verify that once the right decision is made, it is implemented as such.

This is not to acknowledge that there have not been ongoing, well-meaning, and well-funded (thanks, World Bank) attempts to develop a more functional government bureaucracy in Ethiopia. But, you know, sometimes change is hard.

*Note that the position of “Minister of State” or “State Minister” is basically equivalent to what we might call a “Deputy Minister,” but makes that position sound more important by obscuring the reporting structure. I had thought that this could be an illustrating characteristic of the Ethiopian power structure until I learned that Britain, at the least, does this in a very similar way—there, for instance, the Minister of Health would be a deputy to the Secretary of Health. Perhaps such a title structure should instead be considered just a charming quirk of some governments.

No comments: