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Where Are All the Ethiopian Forklift Drivers?

By Scott    About Voice Ethiopia

Imagine you need some help planting some flowers, but you have neither the tools nor the best idea of how to go about the process, as you have little experience with gardening and no hardware stores within miles of your home. You realize your friend has some experience with gardening and even has a small gardening shovel for the job. You invite him over, offering him a few dollars for the help and the opportunity to learn from him, and he eagerly accepts. Once he arrives at your house, you realize this is going to be a challenging endeavor. He only speaks to you a few words at a time, mostly communicating by grunts and hand motions. You ask him questions, but he doesn’t respond. You offer to help in physically digging holes with the shovel, but he refuses to show you how to use it. At the end of the day, he leaves. Your garden looks good, not great, and you’re worried that some of the methods he used were not of the highest quality. When you reflect on the day, you realize that instead of receiving advice, reasoning behind actions, and manual hands-on training, you uncomprehendingly watched someone perform mediocre, lasting work on your own land with no intention of passing along any knowledge or tools to help you with your future gardening needs.

While lengthy (and, admittedly, a bit dramatic), the above metaphor is an attempt to describe the current relationship between China and Ethiopia. A relationship I had the opportunity to witness on the ground in a short visit to the country.

While in the country I spoke with Ethiopian citizens, managers of philanthropic programs, and professionals in the field of international development. When the topic of Chinese investment in Ethiopia came to the forefront of discussion, most individuals (both foreign and Ethiopian) expressed displeasure with the way the investment is occurring. Most people did not express their beliefs as an indictment of China or Chinese business, but more as a frustration with the apparent void in transfers-of-knowledge occurring during these investments.

Many people gave the example of construction and heavy machinery: supposedly, Chinese workers in Ethiopia will refuse to let Ethiopians learn how to operate the tractors, pavers, and other construction vehicles used to build new roads and buildings within their own country.

After people made this point, I actively tried to find examples when driving through the streets of Addis Ababa. While there are many construction sites to see in the city, there are few locations where heavy machinery is being used. But, as was expressed in the sentiment of the people I spoke with, every time I saw a tractor or paver being driven, it was operated by a Chinese worker.

While a Chinese worker not allowing an Ethiopian worker to learn how to use heavy construction machinery is but one small factor in the country’s development, I believe it speaks volumes about the technical knowledge of which Ethiopians are being deprived. Unsteady relationships like these will have profound impacts once Chinese investment disappears or is decreased.

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