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How Bad is Eritrea?

Two decades ago, as Eritrea’s decades long war for independence was nearing its close, Thomas Keneally, the noted Australian novelist wrote about Eritrea, “you are a threat of a good example!” Have Eritrea’s efforts reversed so sharply?

Everyone has heard of Eritrea’s neighbors – Sudan and Ethiopia. Sudan is now as fractured as the former Yugoslavia, worse still war looms between the recently divorced North and South over territory and oil. Ethiopia, by who Eritrea was occupied for thirty years, is still struggling to feed its population, and worse yet our generous aid has paid for its military adventures in Somalia and ethnic cleansing on its eastern frontier. So Eritrea is in a rough neighborhood, dwarfed by all but one of its neighbors (Djibouti is Eritrea’s other neighbor, little more than a city-state), Sudan nearly 10 times more populous and Ethiopia 20 times more populous than Eritrea.

Is Eritrea really as bad as its neighbors? Eritrea certainly has its own problems, most based in the current occupation of Eritrea by Ethiopia, that it needs to deal with and which its leaders readily admit. These range from frustrated economic growth, corruption and limited opportunities. If these were the only achievements of the Eritrean people over the past twenty years of independence however, Eritrea would surely be considered one of the worst countries in the world, but of course this is only one part of the picture.

Young people are the future of every country and investment in their education is seen as a proxy for investment in the economy as a whole. Overall Eritrea’s literacy rate is 67% which is similar to that in India, however in the crucial 15-24 demographic, Eritrea’s literacy rate is estimated at nearly 89%,1 a literacy rate close to Turkey2 and South Africa (if an adult literacy rate).3 If Eritrea can maintain and press on with these improvements Eritrea could soon join the 99% club, occupied almost exclusively by the modern economies.

Similar investments are seen by the people of Eritrea in healthcare. Again, as a proxy for such investments we can look at infant mortality rates. At independence Eritrea’s rate of infant mortality was 13.6% while after two decades of training doctors, nurses and midwives and building hospitals, nursing schools and a medical school Eritrea has cut this by more than 2/3 to 4.2%. This number, although still startlingly high, again puts Eritrea not in the company of its neighbors but the far more developed economies such as India4 and South Africa.5 Again, Eritrea has a long way to go but its progress in healthcare is certainly impressive.

If for all these gains why are young people still leaving? For most, it is a simple question of opportunity, one the Eritrean people struggle with everyday. As described earlier, Eritrea is much smaller than Ethiopia, but given the continued occupation of Eritrean towns by the Ethiopian army, Eritrea has needed to match the Ethiopian military. Consequently, young Eritreans who have come up for military service after high school are stationed at the border for years.

But if Ethiopia can barely feed half of its burgeoning population, how can it maintain a military so large as to fortify its border with Eritrea, quell internal rebellions and engage in military adventures in Somalia? Our nation alone provides over a quarter billion dollars in aid to Ethiopia every year. Some of this aid provided for humvees that were used by Ethiopia to kill election protestors just a few years ago. On the other hand, Eritrea has shirked aid as much as possible, pledging “trade and partnership not aid.”

So how bad is Eritrea? It seems that the Eritrean people have been doing all that they could to improve their circumstances, but this has been frustrated by regional struggles. We have the power to help, not through the system of aid that has failed for half a century, but by conditioning our assistance to other countries on their making peace with their neighbors.


  1. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/eritrea_statistics.html 

  2. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/Turkey_statistics.html 

  3. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/southafrica_statistics.html 

  4. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/india_statistics.html 

  5. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/southafrica_statistics.html 

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  • DarkChild 99

    wonderful article! Eritrea has alot of problems, but we are in a “tough spot” , hopefully the  situation in the horn of africa will stabilise and the border conflict with ethiopia will stop

  • tes

    Good job Merhawi!!

  • Sam B

    Merhawi,
    Great Job!

  • Pingback: How Bad is Eritrea? | .:TesfaNews:.()

  • hiyaway

    what a lazy analysis?…..for Heaven’s sake, this is the best you could do, boiling down Eritrea’s problems to this?…why is it always about outside forces and nothing about the possible contribution of its internal political make up?

    • merhawie

      Hey, thanks for your input. I don’t think my brief analysis actually suggests that internal issues are not partially at cause nor do I suggest that outside interference is the exclusive cause. For one, these are extreme statements and rarely borne out by evidence, more importantly however, those points really aren’t the point of the question. The point was Eritreans are moving forward, slowly but surely, evidenced by the linked to data, surely Eritreans have a way to go, but the objectives clear, our resolve hardened and we will march forward together.

    • NewVisitor

      Hiyaway:

      Setting aside your dismissive and simplistic reading of Merhawi’s post, I have a question for you.  In your opinion, has it been internal forces or outsiders that have caused the most damage to Eritrea in the last ten years?  By damage, I mean all the measurable harm that have been visited on Eritreans and the nation itself.  

      I’ll be more than willing to answer my own question once I hear yours.  I want to get a good understanding of the time frame you’ll use as well as the events and policies you’ll take into account as you attempt to measure which actors have caused Eritreans harm.

      In the interest of furthering the discussion, please be as detailed and as specific in your answer as possible.  

      Thank you.

    • Mer

      hiyayaya

      If you speak to a professional that writes the article above based on facts; believe that the internal political make up of even 
      America is now getting to become in shambles because republicans like you are complaining  about the fact that a Black man who is intelligent is making things happen!! Like you; you just can’t stand a black man that have worked hard to get Eritrea where it is at and are racist at the core of your heart!! If u supposedly think internal make up politically is peaceful now a days, you are oblivious to reality.   you so much crave the colonizer to rule and enslave you. You hate that rules and regulations are coming from the best God appointed man for Eritrea!!
      Wake up dude!!! if you already out of the country, you will see realities of the dreamland you dream of America 

  • Thams

     Very impressive literacy rate. It reminds me of a quote by Cesar Chavez: “Once
    social justice begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the
    person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who
    feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.
    We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” ~ Cesar Chavez

  • Samgoulet91

    Whoever did this analysis, I thank you as I am sure the great majority of Eritreans and peaceloving East Africans do. Some with backward sentiments that have little to do with their love for the country or the people, and much to do with their hatred / arrogance may attempt to discourage individuals such as yourself as achievements by the government certainly does not serve their agenda; they got both the means and the end wrong. They lose the big big picture that individuals will all perish sooner or later, and that they need to think for the country and our future as a people.   I will end with what one of my highschool teacher back in Asmera had told us one day when some students were disturbing the class. “An empty can makes more noise than one that’s full when it slams against a hard surface.” This is to mean that it is those with hollow brain than make so much noise when others are working hard to build a country. So proud to be a member of this great nation and is people less some medharharti!

  • Girmay363

    It is really a great analysis based on facts and evidence.Eritrea is really a small nation that believes on its human resource not on material resources.According to my undertanding the nation is doing too much to up grade the quality of its people.Every eritrean has a feeling of eritreanism and wishes good things for eritrea,is proud of his nation and his people.But i wonder when i see some persons who feel extremist Eritrean and they tend to marginalise other  person with constructive ideas.We can’t deny the realiy and we shoud talk based on fact. To realize our  outcome we shoudn’t insult metaphorize our people  as empty can.i say those who say something like this are the ones who are empty.We are in need of dignity,democrasy and economic change!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Habtila2009

        Hey please, don’t just jump on the haters and/or praisers bandwagon yet. I would not totally give credit to the achievement of the country solely on the policies and idiology of the GOE, in order to execute policies and procedures you must have finance and finance is hard to come as the government appears to be isolated some how, so therefore, i am so proud that the country is blessed in so many natural resourses that no matter what policy the GEO follows whether to squander the resourses or to use it in proper way, our people will never go hungry like our southern neighbours.

  • Med1ogbe

    Med
    This is short and sweet to understand Eritrea & it’s Peopl in nutshell.
    Good job, keep on writing more in depth next time.

  • Lemalm

    I told you “ade welida tmken”!
    If you don’t know what this mean, ask “wedi sheKa” 🙂

    Senay

  • Nakfa

    . What a incomplete article is this!  It doesn’t correspondent to the reality what
    is in the ground. Who is going to believe you next time!  The plight of young Eritreans — Warsay and Yikealo —
    inside Eritrea and outside is the most hidden story from Issaias Afewerki’s
    media. Eritrea is number one. Number one in producing the largest number of
    political refugees per capital, more than Nigeria, the most populous nation in
    Africa and more than China, the most populous nation in this planet.

    How many Nigerian or Chinese refugees had you
    seen? What about Eritrean refugees? Many of us including the UNHCR have stopped
    counting the Eritrean refugees.
    Do you know that there are many Eritrean refugees
    in jail in Indonesia, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Namibia, Brazil, Colombia,
    Belize, Panama, Ecuador..
    There isn’t a single African nation that has these
    many prisoners at home and outside. Yet, I didn’t include the many other
    Eritreans sold to slavery in the Sinai Peninsula. What do you think this
    facts.

    • merhawie

      Thanks for your reply! As I mentioned in another one of the comments that was posted, I think you either missed the point of the article, or did not read it. The article was a commentary about the improvements in the circumstance of Eritrea and Eritreans during the measured period. It also mentions some of the frustrations that have been encountered. I also disagree profoundly with your premise, the stories about young Eritreans leaving the country is in fact not hidden and quite public, a simple search only will find roughly a 4 to 1 proportion of stories critical of Eritrea, and not one mentions any of the measurements that I have mentioned.

      • Red Sea Beauty

        Thanks for rhis positive post. So much negativity written about eritrea- this is refreshing:-)

  • Do89

    Wenderful wright-up.Eritrea is  the good image for all Africans and  proud nation .As Eritrean citzen I always feel well when my beloved country to see to great step up for her people.
      
            Aariam Aaron

  • Haile

    Basically your article looks not bad on the way it was written but you look also fixated to compare everything to Ethiopia. Can you stand alone the situation of the Eritrean youths during this 20 years, just the age group of 10 – 20  at the time of the so called independence year (1991)? Are they able to get enough education? are they able to form families of their own families? and so on

    • merhawie

      I don’t think its accurate to suggest that I compared Eritrea to Ethiopia alone. If you look above you will see that I also compared Eritrea to Sudan, Djibouti, South Africa, India, Turkey. The times I refer to Ethiopia are mostly in the context of the Occupation and how that has caused Eritrea to maintain a large standing army. As far as those who just entering the school system at the time of independence, the mentioned literacy rates at those age groups are reported above as well, showing massive strides in stamping it out (in fact I would argue that was one of the main points of my piece). As an aside, I would also like to mention that I do not believe that there can ever be “enough” education, learning is a life long experience, one can only have what is necessary, but never can it be “enough.” Finally, family formation is an important metric, and that is something that needs to be worked on. First by looking at the context then finding ways to mitigate those challenges.

  • Intrigued

    Its great to see statistics but what do the facts on the ground look like? Does the education that a young Eritrean receives translate into career opportunities? Is the government justified in restricting media and information? Its very common for a government (especially in developing countries) to use external entities as scapegoats for the lack of domestic progression; can the same be said for the slow developing economy of Eritrea? I hate to be a Debby-downer but the article seemed to downplay and frame Eritrea’s problems in the context of the region. We, as Eritreans, are arguably the proudest nation in the world! That said, it would be illogical to base our success on the simplified failures of others. I appreciate your responses but I get the sense that your simplistic attempt to down-play the Eritrean problems is a reason for the predominate negative sentiments. It made it seem like a skewed comparison when, I think, you were attempting to highlight the positives of our great country. 

    Btw, those question I posed were genuine questions. I’ve never been to Eritrea and all I know is the limited information that I read and hear.

    • merhawie

      Thanks for your concern! The first of your concerns that I need to respond to is the contention that I gloss over Eritrea’s problems. Those problems are not discussed in depth here for two reasons: 1) they are sufficiently discussed elsewhere ad nauseum and 2) the function of this piece was to discuss rarely talked about achievements in Eritrea. Furthermore, in paragraph 3 I clearly state that there certainly are problems in Eritrea, in fact, the worst of these are admitted by Eritreans.

      Additionally I do not think it is possible to discuss a country’s achievements without context. It is for that purpose I discussed our neighbors achievements while comparing Eritrea’s achievements to middle-income countries like Turkey, India and South Africa. So to your second concern, yes, I certainly did place Eritrea’s achievements in context.

      Finally, if you have never been to Eritrea I hope that you will go soon! Visiting the varied historical sites in Eritrea impacts you in indescribable ways and visiting the villages to see the change over the past twenty years is wonderful.

      Thanks again for your input!

    • merhawie

      Thanks for your concern! The first of your concerns that I need to respond to is the contention that I gloss over Eritrea’s problems. Those problems are not discussed in depth here for two reasons: 1) they are sufficiently discussed elsewhere ad nauseum and 2) the function of this piece was to discuss rarely talked about achievements in Eritrea. Furthermore, in paragraph 3 I clearly state that there certainly are problems in Eritrea, in fact, the worst of these are admitted by Eritreans.

      Additionally I do not think it is possible to discuss a country’s achievements without context. It is for that purpose I discussed our neighbors achievements while comparing Eritrea’s achievements to middle-income countries like Turkey, India and South Africa. So to your second concern, yes, I certainly did place Eritrea’s achievements in context.

      Finally, if you have never been to Eritrea I hope that you will go soon! Visiting the varied historical sites in Eritrea impacts you in indescribable ways and visiting the villages to see the change over the past twenty years is wonderful.

      Thanks again for your input!

    • merhawie

      Thanks for your concern! The first of your concerns that I need to respond to is the contention that I gloss over Eritrea’s problems. Those problems are not discussed in depth here for two reasons: 1) they are sufficiently discussed elsewhere ad nauseum and 2) the function of this piece was to discuss rarely talked about achievements in Eritrea. Furthermore, in paragraph 3 I clearly state that there certainly are problems in Eritrea, in fact, the worst of these are admitted by Eritreans.

      Additionally I do not think it is possible to discuss a country’s achievements without context. It is for that purpose I discussed our neighbors achievements while comparing Eritrea’s achievements to middle-income countries like Turkey, India and South Africa. So to your second concern, yes, I certainly did place Eritrea’s achievements in context.

      Finally, if you have never been to Eritrea I hope that you will go soon! Visiting the varied historical sites in Eritrea impacts you in indescribable ways and visiting the villages to see the change over the past twenty years is wonderful.

      Thanks again for your input!

  • Abrahaley Kessete

    Great Job and great analysis Merhawi!!!!!!!