We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Local children selling traditional baskets, Axum, Tigray region, Ethiopia. Alamy Stock Photo

Opinion Ethiopia is suffering under the immoral debt burden imposed on it by rich countries

GOAL’s Billy Abimbilla addresses the crippling debt that his country is stuck with and the horrendous impact it’s having on the people there.

MY COUNTRY, ETHIOPIA, is widely recognised as the cradle of civilisation. It boasts incredible landmarks; is the only country in Africa that was never colonised; is a bedrock of many ethnicities; and is home to a rich cultural heritage.

With a population of over 120 million people, it is the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria and has one of the largest GDPs in Africa with over US$300 billion per year.

However, Ethiopia is ranked 144/160 on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Index which assesses where each country stands in relation to its achievement of the SDGs. Finland is ranked first (1/166), and South Sudan (166/166) is ranked last.

Crippling debt

A significant proportion of Ethiopia’s population suffers low living standards due to inadequate progress in achieving the SDGs. This is largely because it is plagued with a heavy debt burden which siphons national funds away from public programmes. Over 50% of Ethiopia’s GDP goes towards paying debt.

What’s more, because of our high debt, our ability to pay back our debts is seen as risky, which further increases the interest rates we must pay to lenders, creating a vicious cycle.

This situation heavily and adversely impacts Ethiopia’s ability to make significant progress in health and education to address issues such as an infant mortality rate of 29.5 deaths per 1,000 live births; a child mortality rate of 44 deaths per 1,000 live births; a shortage of schools, classrooms, instructional materials and qualified teachers.

According to government data, Ethiopia owes more than US$29 billion in external debts, mostly to the Bretton Woods Institutions (the IMF and the World Bank). This worsened in the last two years as a result of the conflict in Tigray which saw exports decline and external borrowing increase. This huge external debt represents an increasing and urgent challenge to the country’s economy and hence poses enormous difficulties in the ability of the country to improve the living standards of its population, which suffers from a range of challenges including conflict and the devastating impact of climate change such as floods, drought, disease and mass population displacements.

Climate change

Ethiopia’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and has a high vulnerability to climate-related shocks and stresses as the majority of its population is heavily reliant on natural resources for subsistence with limited adaptive capacity.

Conflict and climate change have further worsened the situation of subsistence farmers, pastoralists and agro-pastoralists who have lost their crops and entire animal stocks forcing them to migrate to internally displaced persons’ camps in search of food.

Most vulnerable people, especially subsistence families, are still trapped in food insecurity and poverty, sometimes not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

The new climatic threats require modifications in agricultural practices, and therefore Ethiopia’s food systems, need to become inclusive and sustainable to be able to meet the environmental, economic and social needs of the population now and into the future.

Ethiopia is one of the largest hosts of refugees and migrants in transition from Eritrea, South Sudan, Somalia and lately, Sudan. Until recently, up to 20 million people and 800,000 refugees were going hungry due to the suspension of food aid by USAID to vulnerable people in Ethiopia. The supply has only just been reinstated but there is a long road to walk to help all of these vulnerable people.

As a consequence of the suspension of food aid, child labour is on the increase as children had to go out in search of work at gold mines and agricultural fields. There are also instances of child neglect as caregivers go out to look for work or other means of livelihood. 

The perfect storm

The Republic of Ireland is one of the notable contributors to efforts to improve the economy of Ethiopia through its Official Development Assistance (ODA – in fact Ethiopia is the largest recipient of Irish aid), and the Embassy of Ireland in Ethiopia is supporting a number of Irish NGOs to implement programmes and projects to meet the SDG targets.

However, despite Ireland’s efforts, the war in Ukraine, the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic, increasing conflict and climate change have contributed to the emergence of severe food crises, rising inequality and severe setbacks in the achievement of the sustainable development.

I think Ireland could do more to support Ethiopia by using its pivotal position in global affairs and influence in the European Union, for example by advocating to bodies like USAID and the UN. The Republic of Ireland, with its increased quota at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and increased voting rights at the World Bank Group (WBG) is in a strong position to contribute to the easing of the debt burden on Ethiopia. Ireland is small, but it can be a global leader.

As a humanitarian worker, living in Ethiopia and working across most of its regions, I feel an enormous psychological and emotional stress to respond to the immediate and practical needs of vulnerable people affected by climate change and conflict, especially women and children.

It is extremely challenging to know that every day, many families go to bed without food or have their livelihoods decimated as a result of the heavy debt hanging over the country which results in the government being unable to provide for its citizens.

This situation questions the morality of rich countries and privileged global institutions that seek repayments from poor countries at the peril of poor women and children.

People are starving in the country not because there is not enough in the world to go around every person but because of the unfair and unjust global economic and political systems that do not recognise the dignity and value of others to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.

By extracting debt repayments from countries already in financial distress, the majority of their populations suffer from disproportionate amounts of health, education, food, shelter, water, and other basic human needs.

Billy Abimbilla is GOAL’s Country Director of Ethiopia. Billy joined GOAL’s Ethiopia Team from GOAL South Sudan and previously held roles with Oxfam, ChildFund USA, War Child and ActionAid. As a member of Coalition 2030, GOAL is working to hold the Irish Government to account for reaching our SDG targets at home, and on using our influence internationally to support other countries, such as Ethiopia, to do the same. An SDG Summit will take place at the UN this month, and has been coined by the UN Secretary General as the ‘rescue plan for the SDGs’.


Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel