Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, answered your questions in a special edition of Talking Point.
Even before the tsunami brought destruction and tragedy to Asia, Africa was struggling to find answers to problems that have been growing for years.
Britain, which holds the EU and G8 presidencies this year, has called for massive aid for Africa. The chancellor says he wants a "Marshall Plan" for Africa, like that which rebuilt postwar Europe.
Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, last month appealed for international aid to feed seven million people currently facing chronic or acute food shortages.
The Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has vowed to tackle Ethiopia's food crisis, creating a "safety net" for millions who face starvation every year.
The prime minister has also announced a controversial plan to open talks with Eritrea five years after the end of the war which left thousands dead.
What do you think of Ethiopia's plans to deal with its food crisis? What do you think the impact of the Asian Tsunami will be on help to Africa? What impact can Tony Blair's Africa Commission - aimed at eradicating poverty on the continent - have?
Hello and welcome to Talking Point, I'm Mike Wooldridge.
You join me in Ethiopia, one of the countries watching whether the huge international response to the tsunami disaster in Asia will mean less funding for the considerable needs in Africa.
An appeal has just been launched here for food for more than 7 million people in 2005 and this year will be the test of a new scheme intended to reduce the vulnerability of Ethiopians living in drought-prone areas.
This will in many ways be a critical year for Africa and for the global initiatives to tackle poverty.
Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is a key member of Tony Blair's commission for Africa and he's our special guest today, with us to discuss the international and domestic issues you have raised. We're here in the prime minister's office.
In just a moment our first caller but this email from the Reverend Bernard Kelly in Pennsylvania, USA, is similar to a number that we've received: Do you think African countries will be somewhat overlooked in international response to the tsunami, and why?
On the line now from Nairobi in Kenya is Peter Wanyonyi. Your view Peter Wanyonyi about Africa and the tsunami?
Prime minister, surely you know you will be overlooked and you must know that this is due to political factors? People are willing to help if they see that a disaster is not instigated by bad governance. What do you prime minister think the commission in Africa is going to do to get rid of corruption, war and bad governance in Africa?
First of all I do not believe that the positive response to the tsunami disaster in Asia necessarily means there is less aid for Africa - it depends on the circumstances.
If people recognise that we have daily disasters of that type that are nothing to do with man-made disasters and that they need to respond adequately in the manner that they have done in Asia, there is room that we can capitalise on the positive outpouring of support and understanding for the sake of Africa.
Secondly, Ethiopia and Africa needs to improve governance as an end in itself, not as a means of coaxing additional assistance from the international community. Good governance is necessary for speedy economic development and we need speedy economic development - we need to combat corruption. I do not believe there is necessarily a connection between the two - aid and good governance and corruption.
Aid is given as a sort of human solidarity and in recognition of the need to help people in need. Now if those people in need happen to live under governments that are corrupt that does not mean they don't deserve the aid and so I do not believe there is an adequate argument for reducing development assistance to Africa because there are wars. There are wars because there is poverty, so you are in a vicious circle.
Peter Wanyonyi, are you convinced about that or do you feel that there should be some sort of link established, possibly some condition made?
I'm not convinced at all because the prime minister says that war in Africa is due to poverty - there are poor areas of the world that do not experience war. So I think that the war in Africa and its resultant poverty is as a result of bad governance and not the other way around and I think that Africa's leaders must really look at sorting out those problems before they look for debt relief and other acts of charity and aid from the West.
Peter Wanyonyi thank you for your point, I'm sure we'll come back to that later in the programme as well.
Another email on the tsunami is from Mike Oke in Canada. He says: Africa's been suffering from tsunamis of poverty, disease and illiteracy since time immemorial and the rest of the world has always shown little concern. The Asian tsunami is unlikely to change the situation.
Also an email from Emmanuel Wembenyui in Brisbane, Australia: The Asian tsunamis disaster has already shifted world attention from all other regions including Africa and Iraq. Even the two African countries - Somalia and Kenya - that were also hit by the tsunamis have been completely forgotten. No one seems to remember that there are crises in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It certainly does seem that from that that there are a lot of people who are concerned that it will have a negative effect.
I think what the tsunami has shown, contrary to received wisdom, is that the average person in the street in the developed countries cares about what happens to people at the other side of the globe. For me that is the basic lesson. If now the fleeting attention of the media and the political circles is focused on Asia, it wouldn't help Africa if there was a similar fleeting change in attention. What Africa needs is long-term partnership based on fundamental common interests. We should not be in the business of competing for immediate and fleeting attention.
Let's move on then to look in more detail at the question of aid for Africa and Ethiopia in particular. Our next caller is Kenna Fe G. Corneta, from the Philippines. You I understand are a high school student
Kenna Fe G Corneta:
Yes I am.
And your question please to prime minister, Meles Zenawi?
Kenna Fe G Corneta:
I would like to ask, what some other countries will do to help those unfortunate people suffering from hunger and how to improve their standard of living?
I would like also to ask, what are your plans for Ethiopia to help recover from crises such as food shortages? Do you think Ethiopia can be a progressive country after five years?
Well what the rest of the world can do for Ethiopia is obviously an important part of the occasion of addressing the problems of Ethiopia but not necessarily the most important one. The most important one is what we can do for ourselves. Once we have done what we can do for ourselves, what the international community does can help and there three areas where the help of the international community can be of enormous significance.
First, we need to cancel debt - that is happening but we need to move further with this.
Second, we should be given the opportunity to trade in a fair trading environment. The current global trading environment is completely unfair to Africa and to Ethiopia in particular. Those things that we can produce and sell in the international market we are prevented from doing so by all sorts of tariff and non-tariff barriers. So we need non-reciprocal access to the developed markets - that is key.
Thirdly we need more development assistance and better development assistance - both quality and quantity of assistance is important.
Now if these three things are created, if these three things are done, the external environment will have been conducive for us to make progress.
What we can do to improve our own condition: ultimately hunger in Ethiopia is a matter of poverty. So fighting poverty, increasing growth and promoting proper growth is a way forward.
Over the past decade or so, we have been growing at the rate of between 5 - 6% per year but that's not good enough. Economists tell us that if Africa and Ethiopia are to make a dent on poverty, the minimum level of growth we need is 7% or above - we have not achieved that.
Which is a tall order of course.
Which is a tall order and we have to do that.
On the line now also is Daniel Chirau from Melbourne, Australia. How do you feel about that as, if you like, an agenda for Ethiopia - perhaps particularly bearing in mind the experience of Zimbabwe, which I think is where you originally come from?
Yes I am originally from Zimbabwe. The first thing I would like to say is that I am happy that prime minister realises that the most important thing is what Ethiopia can do for itself. With the aid issue, the most important thing people need to realise is that continuous aid doesn't necessarily help the country but the most important thing is what the country can do for itself.
At the moment what most African countries need to realise is to educate the people. As the prime minister has said, there are three things that need to be improved in global trading community. But even if those things are improved at the moment, most African countries cannot do much because people are not yet educated enough to realise what they can do for themselves.
So the best thing is to educate people so that they can be self-sufficient and also to put incentives to encourage investment from both local and foreign companies. So the first thing will be to educate the people.
Do you agree with Daniel Chirau's point, education should have the top priority?
Absolutely I agree, education is clearly an important part of the solution and in the case of Ethiopia, when we took over, the primary school attendance rate was 17% - over the past decade we have built thousands of new schools and the primary school attendance rate now is 72%. It is not good enough, we have to do more, but I think we are moving in the right direction.
There is a long, long way to go though isn't there, particularly in the remoter areas?
One of the most important changes over the past decade has been that over 85% of the new schools that were built were built in the rural areas and that's why we have achieved such progress. But as I said, there is a long way to go.
Let me put this email to you from Khalfan Mohamed in Bloomington, Indiana, USA. He asks: Don't you think that we Africans are partly to blame for the current misery that Africa finds itself in? Isn't it time for the African leadership to acknowledge our mistakes now?
Would you acknowledge any mistakes on your part?
Absolutely, as I said earlier on, Ethiopia is not going to overcome poverty simply because of the largesse of the international community - that is not going to happen. We have to get things right here and that goes for all African countries.
What I objected to earlier on was this association on the part of the international community between aid and good governance in Africa. Good governance in Africa is a necessary thing for us, but to link it with aid - we hear people say, we are not going to support Africa, the development assistance to Africa is not coming because they are spending it unwisely. How many African leaders are accumulating resources outside of their country? There are some but most are not as corrupt as they are reputed to be and there are measures in place which could ensure transparency. So I tend to see this linkage between corruption and development assistance more as an easy excuse to do the right thing than a real stumbling block.
On strategies for development, Ofogu Azuka from Port Harcourt, Nigeria has a suggestion. In an email he says, I believe we Africans in Africa need to look beyond food aid and such aid and seek sustainable development through infrastructures like industries and reliable power supply to run these industries.
There are I think a number of people who would challenge you that Ethiopia has not done enough for itself to use its resources in terms of power and irrigation - that there are abundant resources to be able to do more - to power industries in particular. Would you accept that?
The point is we have to start where our comparative advantage would make the most difference. Our comparative advantage is in cheap labour. We do not have billions and billions of dollars stacked somewhere in the banks - that's why we're poor. What we have in abundance is labour.
You do not build big hydro-powered dams with labour only - you need money, you need resources. So what we have tried to do is focus on agriculture - promote agricultural growth as a means of kick-starting the process of industrialisation and instead of large scale irrigation schemes which require a lot of money, we have focused on micro-irrigation schemes which can be done using the abundant resource we have which is labour.
As we accumulate resources, then we can have large scale irrigation projects and hydro-powered dams. How fast we can go in this regard will depend on whether we accumulate adequate resources of our own or whether our resources are adequately augmented from outside.
Well Ethiopia is obviously a country that's highly dependent on agriculture for the foreseeable future and of course many Ethiopians are dependent for their livelihood on farming only very small plots indeed - if anything getting smaller and smaller.
Ayele Solomon is on the line from New York, USA to take up this particular issue with you.
Good afternoon. My question is dealing with the obvious problem of land fragmentation in small plots of land already in the highlands - it's about 1 hectare per family and that hectare is divided on average into four or five plots. As I'm sure the prime minister knows, that in the next 25 years or so the population will double. Since 1990 when the government came in, the population numbers have not gone down, if anything they've probably gone up. In a matter of two or three generations family members will be farming on plots not much larger than the size of a dining table, which is really not an exaggeration.
I want to know what government policies are in place in terms of the demand for food and land and also on the supply side - supply more land or supply more food. What market liberalisations, particularly land and other reforms, is the government making?
Well it's true that in the highlands there is a lot of land fragmentation and given the current levels of agricultural productivity, that is not sustainable.
Now if we were to compare land fragmentation in Ethiopia with many Asian countries - Korea, Taiwan, China - land is even more fragmented there. On average we have between a hectare and half a hectare per household here - in many Asian countries they have less than a third of a hectare.
So in the short run the key issue is productivity of agriculture - by improving the productivity of agriculture we can feed ourselves the way the Chinese and the others are feeding themselves.
In the long run we have to shift manpower from agriculture to industry and trade and agricultural growth promotes industry more than anything else. We are focusing on agriculture not as an end in itself but as a means of accelerating industrial and commercial development which would then siphon off manpower from the rural areas and which would then limit land fragmentation. I do not see any other way of limiting land fragmentation.
Ayele Soloman do you see any other way?
I agree with the prime minister however the industrial sector, the manufacturing sector, has to grow in parallel, recognised a couple of decades ago by leading economists. However, to grow in the industrial manufacturing sector, the fundamental framework - the organs of government are not there to support it.
Just recently a group of business leaders met and via a video conference presented all their complaints to the World Bank - taxation issues, issues of market liberalisation - with labour in Kenya - there are several internet service providers, but there is only one which is run by the government in Ethiopia. It took me one year to get a cell phone in Ethiopia. Those structures are not in place.
And speaking of transparency, would the Prime Minister support the same level of transparency in the taxation system, the way that all private businesses are treated, the same level of transparency that he is calling for in international aid within government? I think that it is crucial for the manufacturing sector to grow along with agricultural sector.
I was recently in Asia and it is true some parts of Asia have small plots of land but there have good support structures and also there's a much smaller percentage of the population actually farming, so it makes a big difference in that respect and there are large scale farms that can supply food, it is not just exclusively smallholders.
So the charge there is that you're not doing enough to support those who want to develop both agriculture and industry - you want to invest in it.
I would obviously contest that. But the point is, last year the World Bank carried out a thorough review of the investment environment in many countries and they came up with the findings and this finding makes it abundantly clear that Ethiopia's investment environment is one of the most improved. Now that does not mean it is the most perfect - there is some way to go forward and we are trying to address all of those things.
We have lack of adequate infrastructure - we are trying to address it; there are bureaucratic hurdles - we have been simplifying them; there is a need for more transparency across the board - these are the issues that we've been tackling. Obviously Rome was not built in one day but we have to speed up things and we are cognizant of that challenge.
Obviously the crops that are grown on the land is one issue but the ownership of the land itself is of course another and a controversial one here. Now your government calls itself essentially the custodian of the land on behalf of the Ethiopian people and it claims that that is in the best interests of farmers. As you well know among donors and indeed among Ethiopians there are those who would disagree with the government on that.
Let me put to you this email from Beniyam Tefera, Addis Ababa. He says: I heard so many politician and economist saying that the basic cause of continuous famine in Ethiopia is the land policy. Do you agree with that? We know that in Ethiopia, a country the size of France and Spain combined, it has only 15% of its land cultivated by 85% of the population. Don't you think this in itself is a basic problem? Why doesn't your government encourage private farming by distributing the rest of the land which has no use at all to educated Ethiopians, Ethiopians in Diaspora, local and foreign investors etc for free instead of it being useless?
Now that's one suggestion with the land but it addresses that key issue of land ownership. Why do you not agree that land should be put into private hands?
Let me give you a few facts, first there may be controversy about the land policy amongst Ethiopians in the urban areas or amongst donors - there is no controversy about the land issue in Ethiopia amongst the farmers.
All independent studies carried out on land ownership systems in Ethiopia amongst the Ethiopian farmers come out clearly indicating there is an overwhelming majority of the farmers in Ethiopia who want to keep the current policy - that's the first point.
Secondly, what is the land ownership system in Ethiopia? The land ownership system in Ethiopia allows the Ethiopian farmer to have indefinite use-right of the land, which means you can pass it on by way of inheritance through his children. He can rent it, he can farm it - he cannot sell it - that's the only limitation.
Now economists tell me that the key thing here is security of tenure not the ownership system - the security of tenure. The Ethiopian farmer has security of tenure even if he cannot sell it, it doesn't mean he can't farm it himself indefinitely.
So I do not agree at all with the allegation that the problem in Ethiopia is the land ownership system. The problem in Ethiopia is agricultural productivity and that has to be tackled.
But let me just put to you another email it is again from Addis Ababa, from Abesha who asks: How do you develop self sufficiency when there are no incentives for the farmer or any other citizen to cultivate the land? As an Ethiopian I am frustrated to see that we have incapacitated ourselves through layers and layers of impossibilities instead of working towards possibilities.
That question of whether ownership could prove to be a bigger incentive for people to invest on their own land - to perhaps plant trees, to do irrigation projects of their own that would make that land more cultivatable.
The issue here is not whether the farmer has incentive to invest on his land because he has indefinite use-right and nobody has a right to take it away from him. What he is being prevented from doing is selling his land. I do not know how selling his land provides an incentive when an indefinite right to use his land does not provide adequate incentive. It doesn't make sense to me. The incentive for the farmer has always been there, the problem is the support institutions - the marketing institutions.
I'll give you one example. We have one bumper crop one year and prices collapse, the inflation rate in Ethiopia becomes minus 6; we have drought the next year, the prices go up, the farmer when he produces surplus has nowhere to sell - the marketing system does not function. We have to create a marketing system domestically and we have to open up markets. The extension service in Ethiopia is weak - the availability of imports is inadequate. These are the things that need to be addressed to improve agricultural productivity.
Let's turn to another issue, clearly an important one for those who have called us and sent in emails ahead of this programme and it's the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and the fallout from the war between the two countries that of course has left tens of thousands of dead between 1998 and 2000.
Now towards the end of last year you said that in principle Ethiopia would accept the ruling of the boundary commission that was set up to look into the territorial dispute, but you also said you want fresh dialogue on how to actually implement that ruling.
Now it seems to many people that's there been if anything a new level of rhetoric between the two countries after you said that. You've also faced demonstrations in the streets here in Addis Ababa - you've been accused of selling out.
On the line now is Tsegazeab Gerezgiher Geramariam from Los Angeles, USA. You, I gather, are from Eritrea, what's the question that you want to put to the prime minister on this issue?
Tsegazeab Gerezgiher Geramariam:
Thank you for this opportunity to put a question to the prime minister of Ethiopia. My question to you, sir, do you see that any genuine peace has been achieved under your leadership? If the answer is yes to my question and then do you see there any chance of the two countries going towards normalisation? Do you see that any peace is achievable under your leadership?
Well I think it will be futile for me to try to argue this issue on the basis of motives. The easiest thing for me to do is to say, do we have a stake in peace as Ethiopians and do the Eritreans have a stake in peace as Eritreans? And the answer is obviously yes. We could have all sorts of misgivings about each other at an individual level or even people to people level but that's beside the point - there is a higher issue here - that of peace, so that we get the opportunity to tackle an even bigger problem - that of poverty.
So we have to normalise things because that's the only way forward and as you might have noticed my five point plan includes, among other things, the need to start dialogue with the view to normalise relations. We do not have to like each other; I don't have to like the president of Eritrea to have normal relations; he doesn't have to like me or Ethiopians to normalise. But we have to normalise and there is no other way around it.
Tsegazeab Gerezgiher Geramariam, how do you see the prospects yourself?
Tsegazeab Gerezgiher Geramariam:
Well I see it as a little bit of a rhetorical matter. I see some kind of political gains in this topic again and again - I see no action on the ground. I see a lot of dishonest steps.
I think we should probably go back to the EC which is probably on the grounds to withdraw troops from contested areas and to see if there are steps to be taken here on the ground and not just talk.
Prime Minister that question of the contested areas is obviously still at the heart of it. Can I just get one thing clear, do you now accept Badme, the town that was really at the heart of all this, in essence what the war was fought over, do you now accept that as part of Eritrea or not - as the commission ruled?
I think the premise is wrong. We did not have a demarcated boundary between 1991 and 1997. We had near perfect relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1991 and 1997. The boundary issue became a problem when our economic and political ties became a problem. So even if we're to have a perfect resolution to the boundary issue, unless we address the root causes - the economic and political relationship issues - we're not going to have sustainable peace. And the only way we can have sustainable peace is if we talk to each other with a view to addressing our differences. I do not see any other way.
Because Eritrea argues that the time for talking is over if you like. Let me ask that question again, do you accept, as the boundary commission ruled, that Badme is in Eritrean territory - is Eritrean?
Well as I'm sure you will have noticed from my five point plan, we accept the decision of the boundary commission in principle. When it comes to implementation we feel that it is necessary that we make adjustments here and there with a view to coming up with a boundary that both sides can live with.
But is that among the adjustments that you would still want to make?
It would not be possible for me to negotiate this issue in public on television but the point is there has to be some give and take, there has to be some adjustment on the basis of the boundary commission decision.
And what you're saying is for you that is still up for negotiation - that's not finally resolved?
Yes, we have to address all of these issues together.
We have an issue from Bereket in Asmara, Eritrea who asks: Why did you expel peaceful and innocent Eritreans from Ethiopia? Do you consider that that expulsion was rightful and a lawful? Do you have plans to compensate those who've been expelled?
Well I think legally this issue has been addressed by the claims commission in Geneva. While the claims commission does say that there were mistakes on our part on the implementation of the decision, the commission however recognised that we had every right to do it, there was a security problem involved. The Eritrean government was trying to mobilise the Eritrean Diaspora in Ethiopia as an instrument of its war and it was doing so publicly and openly. Now whether excesses as far as implementation were concerned I think there were and we have made amends to correct that.
Another email, this one from Ayele in Melbourne, Australia who asks: Shouldn't the people who live in those disputed territories (between Ethiopia and Eritrea) have a say, whether they want to be Eritreans or Ethiopians?
Well indeed that's exactly what I was told happened after the end of the First World War when the Austrians and the Slovenians were having their borders demarcated. The lawyers came up with an impractical boundary and the farmers on both sides decided they would make adjustments to make sure that their land is on their side of the boundary and made adjustments and the governments accepted those practical adjustments. That could be one way forward but it will not necessarily be the only way forward.
Let me bring another caller on this issue. Alexander Mulugheta from Saskatoon in Saskatewan Canada. Your question please for prime minister, Meles Zenawi.
I was in Eritrea this summer and it is obvious that the people don't have - at least the Eritreans - don't have any hard feelings against the Ethiopians really but that it seems to be a governmental thing.
So I would like know what type of adjustments you need to discuss with the Eritrean government? From my understanding the UN commission was supposed to be final and binding, what they decided would have be it and then the UN would have drawn up the border. But right now, from my understanding, you only agree in principle but I don't understand what that means - what kind of things do you need to discuss?
Let me start by fully agreeing with him that the Eritreans do not have hard feelings as far as the Ethiopian people are concerned and the Ethiopians do not have hard feelings as far as the Eritrean people are concerned.
Now the boundary commission, among other things, says that its own decision has what it calls anomalies and impracticalities. It also says that it cannot correct these anomalies and impracticalities because the mandate it was given doesn't allow it to do so.
The decision of the boundary commission does not preclude dialogue on the part of the two sides to help it address those anomalies and impracticalities - and I'm quoting here. What we are suggesting to the Eritrean government is that we give the boundary commission such a mandate to adjust the anomalies and impracticalities.
What does accepting the decision in principle mean? It means that we accept that the decision is final and binding but that that implementation does not necessarily mean implementation as is - there's always room for adjustment in implementation, even the boundary commission itself does not preclude it and international practice requires it.
Let's turn now to the domestic and political situation here in Ethiopia. There will be elections this year in May and that's prompted a call from Teddy Dagmawi in Tel Aviv, Israel. Your question please to prime minister, Meles Zenawi.
Prime minister, you have led your party (TPLF) party for at least 15 years and you have been leading Ethiopia for 14 years. My question is, when will you give up your place for the new generation? Do you think nobody can replace you or do you think no one can lead Ethiopia if you leave office? Also how many years do you want to remain in office in the future?
Well the beauty of the democratic system is that these decisions are not made by me or any incumbent leader in any country. Those decisions are made by the people. Whenever the people want to hire a new prime minister, they do so, that's why we have elections. Whether I like it or not, that's a secondary issue.
Do you expect to win the elections?
That's a decision the Ethiopian people will have to make.
But I suppose the question that Teddy Dagmawi made was, how long should somebody stay in office. Was that really what you were asking?
Yes, that's the question.
If that's the question, then as long as the people want him to stay.
Let me also bring on the line Seid from Addis Ababa here in Ethiopia. Your question to the prime minister?
I'd like to ask the prime minister, as an Ethiopian, I believe that one of the country's major problems is the political instability. What do you think of the forthcoming election in the absence of some major political organisation like OLF in relation to the political stability of the country? Secondly, if countries like Ethiopia cannot solve their political differences how can they fight poverty?
Well the thing that has to be done is to allow every political opinion to express itself openly and publicly and to contest elections. That applies to every Ethiopian, whether he is a member of the Oromo Liberation Front or not. Now if some group wants to change the political state of Ethiopia by military means then they are beyond the pale, as it were.
So the way forward is for people who have a particular point of view to come forward and express their opinion and contest elections. If the OLF wants to pursue its political objectives peacefully and as you probably know, the OLF wants to have a separate state for the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia, that is allowed by the constitution of Ethiopian. If an ethnic group in Ethiopia want to secede and establish a new state, the constitution allows it to do so. So there's a peaceful way of doing so. All they have to do is follow the peaceful path. And as to whether people can combat poverty adequately without stability, that obviously is not the case. We need stability to combat poverty adequately. But I think domestically, we have adequate stability.
But on the issue of whether people can really voice their opinions in the way they would wish to. We have this email from MK here in Addis Ababa who asks: I can see that you're good a diplomacy, especially dealing with Westerners. What's your problem in discussions and sharing ideas with the local people? You simply throw your ideas onto the public for a forceful acceptance.
Well obviously my compatriot has not been watching Ethiopian tv recently because for the past three months we have had one debate after the other between the governing party and the opposition parties on how to move forward. These are debates - this is not the ruling party throwing ideas at the people - these are debates, real debates and it is only through debates that we can come up with workable solutions. So I really don't accept that premise.
On the question of the media, let me bring in on the line from Kampala in Uganda, Ahmed Kateregga Musaazi who is president of the Uganda Journalists Association. Now I think you want to ask a question about the media freedom here in Ethiopia?
Ahmed Kateregga Musaazi:
We are very proud of Ethiopia as the headquarters of the Africa Union but it is very notorious when it comes to fundamental freedoms, especially media freedoms. How far has it gone with initiating media reforms?
Obviously the gentleman has made up his mind so I do not know if he knows that there are over 80 private magazines and newspapers and magazines published in Addis Ababa every week. I cannot say that we have not had problems with the media but I am definitely sure that the right of free speech is adequately protected in Ethiopia.
But there certainly have been those in the opposition who feel that they've not already got and not likely to get over the elections, the sort of access that they would want particularly to the state media, aren't there?
Well as I said, over the past two or three months, almost every weekend we have had hours - hours of debate between the governing party and the opposition parties on public media and we have put in place a mechanism of sharing access to the media with the opposition. I believe they are compatible with the share that they have been given because they have been given more of a share than the governing party.
Let's move on to the Africa Commission, which, as I was saying at the beginning, you are a key member of that and bring in on the line Yonathan Seleshi from Los Angeles, USA. Your question to prime minister, Meles Zenawi about the commission and its work and its goals.
I am a student at the University of California, Los Angeles. My family is Ethiopian. I like to ask you a question with regards to the commission for Africa. With the West's history of exploitation in Africa up to today, how much do you think that the Africans can treat Western governments' promises of development aid and support as sincere? And how much do you think that the recent outpouring of support for Africa with the Blair Commission and other western-oriented support and other positive recent outpourings towards Africa maybe spurred by the West's actions in Iraq? And how do you feel that that is contributing to the recent outpourings in the desire to help Africa?
So your question is about the motives of the commission as much as anything else?
I think here again a discussion about motives is not a very productive way of approaching it. What I think is more productive is interests. I believe it is in the interest of the West - whatever it might have done in the past - I believe it is in the interest of the West, of the developed countries, to fight poverty in Africa - it is in their interest to do so. I believe it is also a matter of common human decency and solidarity to do so. These are the two reasons and I believe the commission reflects these two reasons.
What's your own bottom line, if you like, for the commission of Africa? By what will you judge its success or its failure?
By what it does in terms of the three things that I raised earlier on - quantity and quality of development assistance; debt reduction; non-reciprocal access to developed country markets.
Let me bring on the line James from Cambridge in England. You have a question to Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.
Good afternoon, again Ethiopia is relying on donations from wealthy countries to help feed its poor. Would the prime minister prefer rich countries to reduce trade tariffs and other economic barriers such as agricultural subsidies to make Ethiopia's exports more competitive, thereby allowing Ethiopia's economy to grow strong enough to meet its basic needs?
Absolutely, I completely agree with that. Providing non-reciprocal access to developed country markets is if anything the most important thing that the developed countries can do to promote Africa's development.
Let me put to you an email we've had from Uganda from Owen Kibenge in Kampala, who says: During the Christmas holidays I visited my grandmother, 400 kilometres west of Kampala. My grandmother is looking after 8 orphans, some living with Aids. She said to me, I'm overstretched and old and I need help to look after these children. I have one cow left that's producing 2 litres of milk for all of us.
The reality of the issue is that such initiatives as the Blair Commission do not trickle down to our grandmothers in Africa, they stagnate at the Sheraton workshop level due to bureaucracy and corruption in projects, line ministries and NGOs. What is this Blair Commission going to do that's different?
First hopefully it is going to provide non-reciprocal trade access and so his mother's milk will have the opportunity of being exported. Second, it is going to cancel debt - hopefully cancel debt completely - therefore his mother's taxes will not have to go to pay for the state. Thirdly, it is going to improve not just the quantity but also the quality of development assistance, which means transparency on both sides of the equation - transparency on the part of the donors and transparency on the part of the recipients. So if the commission succeeds in having its way the results will definitely trickle to grandmothers such the one he mentioned.
One of the things you're doing in Ethiopia as the commission moves towards producing its report is introducing this food safety net which is designed to end the chronic precariousness of livelihood for many Ethiopians. What's the key element in that that's different and on what do you base your confidence that this might work as a new strategy?
One of the pillars of this programme is that the recipients of food aid should not get food aid in return for nothing - that creates dependency. The recipients of this food aid would get assistance in return for their investment on their land. They invest in water harvesting programmes, they invest in environmental programmes and they work on rural roads, schools and clinics. So they work for the assistance they get with a view to over time making them self-sufficient, that's the principle behind our safety-net programme.
Is there though do you think a risk that some people might simply fall through the net? As we've seen for ourselves those are perhaps some of the people who are most destitute who are being told that they can stay in their areas, yes but they won't receive anything - they themselves are not considered productive enough. The only alternative for them is to resettle elsewhere and of course that's been a very controversial scheme in the past.
These are two separate things - resettlement is a slightly different programme. It is part of our food security programme. The safety-net programme is a means of providing assistance - food aid - on the basis of a very different philosophy, which is that those who can work for it should work for it so that over time they do not have to depend on food aid and aid dependency has been a problem in Ethiopia after 20 years of food aid. So that's intended to address the dependency syndrome as it were.
Resettlement is on element of our food security programme. Now where we have chronic food insecurity is in areas where we have extreme land fragmentation - very high levels of degradation and with current levels of technology these villages are carrying more than their carrying capacity. There is a lot of fertile land in the low lands of Ethiopia which is not being utilised. We are encouraging people to move from the degraded areas to those fertile lands on a voluntary basis to achieve food security.
But would you accept that you still have a real problem convincing many people that they should move - that it is to their advantage to do so, not least because of the track record of this scheme, the history of it in a previous government indeed as well as in more recent years?
Resettlement programmes have not had in the past a good reputation and therefore we hesitated before even starting the process. What happened was that people were resettling on their own and doing it in a slightly destructive manner because it was not organised, they were felling down trees all over the place and this was creating ethnic tension in some areas. So we simply followed the farmers and said if you wish to resettle we together with you can do it in a manner which is not destructive. Those who do not want to resettle and those who cannot work for their food aid will be provided food aid nonetheless.
Let me bring on the line Yitebarek, from Kuala Lampur, Malaysia.
In your earlier visit to the United States, you were asked a question regarding what Ethiopia would achieve in 10 year's time and you answered that in 10 year's time you hoped Ethiopia would be able to feed itself. At that time I thought it was not a big enough ambition but now I realise you were very realistic. Now I'd like to ask you what is your vision or hope for Ethiopia in 10 year's time?
I very much hope that we will achieve food self-sufficiency by the 10 years that I hoped we would achieve food self-sufficiency - we still have a few years to go and there are indications that we might achieve that hopefully by 2007 we may not need food aid.
Do you really think that's a realistic goal - people are sceptical aren't they?
People are sceptical and they have every right to be sceptical. But over the past two years, agricultural growth in this country has been in double digit figures and we believe we can maintain that and if we can't maintain in a year or two there is no reason why we should not grow enough food to feed ourselves.
That doesn't mean we will have enough money to feed every Ethiopian, it will no longer be an issue of food availability in the country, it will be an issue of availability of resources for the government to provide safety-net programmes for the poor who cannot feed themselves and that will be a problem that will stay with us for some time because even in developed countries there are people who cannot feed themselves and who get welfare benefits from governments.
But I think we can achieve food self-sufficiency within the 10 year period that I thought we should do so. In another 10 year's time therefore achieving food self-sufficiency will not be an ambitious objective, we should move beyond that. In 10 year's time we should be in a position to fully achieve the minimum development goals in Ethiopia and I think we can do that.
Finally on a very different issue altogether. Bob Marley's widow has said today that she would like to have his body exhumed in Jamaica and brought to Ethiopia for reburial. Is that something that you would agree would be a good thing to do?
That's a decision that the family has to make. If they want him buried in Ethiopia they are welcome but we are not insisting that they do so. If they don't want him here, that's up to them.
But if they want him to be buried here, they have every reason to do so in view of the spiritual connections between the Rastafarians in Ethiopia, they have every right to do so.
Do you think it would be particularly timely because you're just coming up to events that commemorate him aren't you?
Yes but I think this is a family matter and I don't think it is the business of government to tell families where they should bury their loved ones. What governments should do is make what their rights are and as far as the Ethiopian government is concerned, if the family of Bob Marley wants Bob Marley to be buried here, they are welcome to do so.
Well I'm afraid we have run out of time. My thanks to our guest Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia.
The following comments reflect the balance of comments received so far:
What is the Ethiopian government doing to protect academic freedom and to improve the quality of education in Ethiopian higher education institutions? Why is your government reluctant to create a conducive environment for teaching and research in academic institutions?
Kumlachew D. Chekol, Ann Arbor, USA
The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as many civil and border wars in Africa are indeed having a negative impact on development. What can you as Prime Minister offer the Eritrean and Ethiopian people to solve their differences and move forward with peace?
Daniel Aynalem Baheta, Kyoto, Japan
A large number of young people are flowing to South Africa to look for a better future. How are you going to handle this situation?
Why are the elections in the Ogaden region not taking place at the same time as those in the rest of the country? Are you concerned that a free and fair election in Ogaden will result in the victory for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has the support of the majority of the population?
Mr Koshin, Jijiga, Ethiopia
What are the plans to environmental protection in Ethiopia in the coming decades? Will Ethiopia be in the forefront of environmental protection in the next 20 years and what do you propose to do? Will the country plant more trees in the arid areas so that there is enough fire wood for the people?
James Shields, Henrietta, NY, USA
Ethiopia needs to give the people of the Ogaden province independence. The Ethiopian government has done NOTHING to help the impoverished people of this region and they have struggled for more than a century for independence.
Sali, Ohio, United States
I frequently hear on International media like the BBC that Africa is suffering from a brain drain. Mr Prime Minister, what is your government doing to alleviate this challenge which is the cause of many problems including famine in our country?
Tesfaye, Wroclaw, Poland
What is your country's main aim for 2005?
Neil Ryding, Warrington
Do you think your government is doing enough on educating its citizens about HIV awareness?
It's been now over 13 years since you held power, Mr President. Are we better off now than 13 years ago? Could you tell us your accomplishments so far for the betterment of the Ethiopian people? We are still begging food aid, when it is going to end?
Hewan, AA, Ethiopia
You have been in power for the last 14 years. The previous regime that ruled Ethiopia has been in power for 17 years before being thrown down by your party. Since your term is not limited by the constitution, how long do you plan to be on power? Do you think it will be constructive for the country to be ruled by one single party and prime Minster for such a long time?
Tihut Demisse, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Deforestation and land erosion seems to be a problem in Ethiopia. Many of the poor farmers still use the practice of burning fields and such to produce a richer soil. Is there any thought of educating the farmers to use practices such as no-till farming or crop rotation techniques, which will help prevent erosion of the soil, and limit the need for burning?
Patrick, Ohio, USA
What personally inspires you to believe that the current land policy is conducive to positive growth? Why do you reject private ownership of land? What incentive does the private investor have if the government can come and claim it later - almost at will?
Sam, Louisville, KY, USA
Although Ethiopian government accepts food aid almost annually, why is your government reluctant when it comes to importing GM seeds for farmers to practice a better and 21st century agriculture that might partially alleviate the food crisis in the country. My second question is why will the Ethiopian government not give farmers the right to own land instead of state ownership which has led the country into more corruption which in turn discouraged investors from investing in the country?
Tariku, Virginia, USA
How practical is it to expect the work of the commission to affect the daily lives of Africans?
Othello B. Garblah, Abijan-Ivory Coast
My prayers are with you all in Africa. How can a group of high school students help you in your effort to help our suffering African brothers and sisters?
Cheree Davis, Baltimore, MD United States of America
Does the Prime Minister think that vital aid will be diverted from Ethiopia and other African nations because of the Asian tsunami?
Chris, Cambridge UK
I would like to first appreciate the government's relentless effort to improve the lives of Ethiopians. One has to just stop anywhere in Ethiopia and look around to see how difficult, almost impossible it is to solve this country's problem. Now to my question - I am a businesswoman. I started business inspired by the government's incentives and encouraging activities. But since two years ago, the taxation system is killing our spirits. Unless the government introduces new tax relief or cuts, the business community is terrorized by the numerous taxes imposed on the business person and the consumer, and also the conduct of collecting taxes by the authorities. Can we see some improvement on this?
Hirut Tekle, A.A., Ethiopia
Ethiopia doesn't need more aid from the international community, but needs to focus on community development by investing in education, farming and basic infrastructure building. Mismanagement, corruption and improper planning are major problems that the country faces.
Mursal Kamas, Canada
Ethiopia's food shortage crisis has been a challenge for decades, our staple grain is "teff" which takes about 6 months to harvest. Are there any initiatives to encourage farmers to harvest other cereals that can grow in a shorter period of time and are comparatively rich in nutritional content so that we can reduce the food shortage crisis?
Yitatek Yitbarek, Addis, Ethiopia
It has been said that Ethiopia's land and agricultural policy is one of the main reasons for the country's current food crises. What measures would your government take to alter your land and agricultural policy?
Yalem Wondifraw, Antwerpen, Belgium
Please clarify your recent acceptance of the EEBC ruling in 'principle', when you have been derogatory of the decision itself. What exactly do you envision the next steps to be? And how do you answer Eritrea's concern that if they move away from the Algiers framework, and engage in as you call it 'give and take', it would only result in fruitless endless bickering.
Ali, Boston, USA
I went back to Ethiopia to visit family and friends after 17 years in the US. I have seen tremendous changes in the country, all of them for the better. My question is, what can I and other Ethiopian-Americans do to help contribute to the growth of the country's economy and self-efficiency effort?
Yisacc Demoz, Los Angeles, CA
I believe the primary source of socio-economic problems in Ethiopia is instability and the war with Eritrea which has been waged for decades. If this is the case, why has the prime minister now failed to accept the recent Boundary Commission ruling of a final and binding decision and remained an obstacle to peace?
Famine in Ethiopia and in other African nations is something that can be avoided by curbing drought. Have you thought about ways to make this possible? Have you ever thought about proposing to donors that they should help build irrigation systems instead of giving liquid cash that might easily be spent for personal gains by dishonest politicians?
S. Gassama, Houston, USA
I have a lot of Ethiopian friends whom I met at my university and they have told me that your government has not done enough to feed its citizens, mainly due to corruption and ethnic differences, especially the Oromo people who constitute the majority ethnic group. Ethiopia receives millions in aid and I wanted to know where is that money going?
Abdisamad Adan, Minnesota, USA
What is the Ethiopian prime minister doing to educate Ethiopians about HIV and Aids since the number of those infected is rising at an alarming rate in this country?
Do you think Eritrea is willing to be a good neighbour to Ethiopia now and in the near future?
How does Africa intend to put its progress towards achieving the Millennium goals for drinking water supply and wastewater disposal back on track? What is the key assistance from the developed world that Africa requires to meet those goals?
Martin Littlemore, Dorking, UK
I have visited Ethiopia several times and consider it a fantastic country, not without problems, but a wonderful place with wonderful people. In the near future I would like to take the opportunity to move to and set up a business in the country, but it is very difficult for a foreigner to do this. Does the Ethiopian government have any plans to cut the amount of bureaucracy for investment and immigration from non-Ethiopians?
Ian Jones, Reading, UK
Ethiopia is enjoying almost an entire debt cancellation from its creditors, mostly developed countries. Surely, there is a better way of spending the money that was originally meant to be paid to creditor countries. What changes does PM Meles see coming through as a result of this?
Tsedale Lemma, Addis Ababa
For centuries the West has exploited and robbed Africa, even to this day, of her resources and dignity. Do you feel that Africa can trust the West to fulfil its promises of developmental aid? Do you feel that the creation of the Commission for Africa may have been spurred by the need of the likes of Tony Blair to change his and the West's image generally?
Yonathan Seleshi, Los Angeles, CA, USA
As we know education is one of the best ways to empower people to succeed. What, if any, plans have you made for a nationwide educational system for all children? Also do you plan to set up a programme to educate adults in various fields such as agriculture and small business?
Tracie Armendariz, Carlsbad, NM, USA
Uganda has shown that one of the most effective ways for the government to help poor people is to provide basic health and education services free of charge. Do you think that other African countries should follow this approach?
Rob Yates, Kampala Uganda
My question to the distinguished guest is what measures are being taken in Ethiopia to eliminate issues like Aids, poverty, illiteracy and other social issues? Could he also provide some positive steps that have been taken by his government in the past few years and also the role Ethiopia has played at global level?
Asim Khan, London
Why is Ethiopia unable to feed its population? What is the real problem that the country cannot develop its rivers and fertile land in order to feed its growing population? Why is the prime minister and his government not asking the rich countries (G8) for development assistance instead of food aid? How long is it going to take for Ethiopia to be self-sufficient?
Haile, Virginia, USA
I lived in Ogaden for 15 years. My interpretation of the hunger and starvation that continue to haunt the Sub-Saharan region isn't drought or natural disaster, but political failure. How can we step towards development when the number one thing we civilians fear is death and injustice served to us by our own governments?
Ahmed, Minneapolis, USA
The main problem of Ethiopia is its leaders never face the truth. If the country is to eradicate poverty, its leaders have to face reality which means to try a genuine solution with their neighbours.
Benyam Tesfu, San Francisco, USA
Over Christmas I was in Ethiopia and let me start by saying that the capital seems to have made great strides in just a year, but I notice that many of the children in the countryside still don't go to sch