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.