The Ethiopian revolution, despite many successes in improving the quality of life for its people, has run into severe economic problems.
Whether in the north or south, urban or rural areas, Ethiopians are complaining about the economy.
Wages of civil servants have been frozen since the 1974 revolution despite an inflation rate averaging 15 percent a year. In the countryside, where many peasants and workers readily acknowledge improved income, health and schooling, others say they have only held even because of inflation.
Some of the problems are familiar throughout Africa: drought, distribution difficulties and soaring petroleum bills at the same time that export prices have fallen.
Others, however, are peculiar to Ethiopia: post-revolutionary chaos in the face of vast economic reorganization, increasing costs of wars and civil strife, and a decline in marketed agricultural production, partly as a result of a thoroughgoing land reform and government pricing policy.
The result has been a trade deficit of more than $250 million in 1980 with a higher figure expected for 1981. Reserves will not cover two months' imports and the resulting severe restrictions have caused shortages and hampered economic development.
Shortages of staples in the capital are common, resulting in a black market in some foods. There are also reports of occasional delays in payment of salaries to civil servants.
There have been few manifestations of discontent other than grumblings heard in conversations, particularly here in the capital.
A demonstration--by militiamen outside the military headquarters, seeking higher pay--and a go-slow by truck drivers who carry goods to and from the key port of Assab are the most significant known protests, staged despite the authoritarian rule.
"The problems started in a big way in September," a disgruntled civil servant here said. In the annual Revolution Day speech Sept. 12, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, leader of the military government, annoyed many Ethiopians, according to the official, because he "attacked the Americans and corruption but didn't say anything about the problems really bothering us--the economy, frozen salaries, etc."
Ethiopia's economic problems are rooted in centuries of feudalism and underdevelopment, resulting in "large numbers of people living at the margins of existence, frequently vulnerable to drought and starvation," according to Ethiopia's presentation last September to the U.N. conference in Paris on the least developed countries. "There is a low standard of nutrition, inadequate access to clean water, widespread disease, a high infant-mortality rate and a shortage of health services."
Per capita annual income is only $105 and most of that is earned by the 10 percent of the 32 million population living in urban areas. Ethiopia's entire national budget in 1980 was only $840 million. Many large American cities spend more. The current District of Columbia budget, for example, is $1.9 billion.
The land reform has resulted in the peasants being better fed but it has led to shortages in the cities. Since they now own their land, the peasants no longer have to pay half or more of their crop to their landlord as rent. Now they have more to eat but because the government has replaced many middlemen with marketing boards using low, fixed prices, the peasants have less incentive to produce beyond their needs.
U.N. officials estimate a 15 percent drop in food crops coming to market since the 1974 revolution. In that period, the population has increased by about 5 million.
As a result, city dwellers must stand in line to buy limited supplies of teff, the staple grain, at the legal price of about $25 for a 220-pound sack. Ample supplies are available on the black market for about $50.
Coffee accounts for about two-thirds of Ethiopia's foreign-exchange earnings, providing $300 million in 1980. The United States is the largest market for Ethiopian coffee, taking 38 percent of exports. Last year the price dropped by a third, exacerbating the country's balance-of-payments problems.
All other major exports, except hides and skins, have dropped since the revolution. Petroleum imports consume more than 40 percent of Ethiopia's total foreign exchange earnings.
To attack Ethiopia's economic problems, the government set up an organization with a name long enough to satisfy any bureaucrat: the National Revolutionary Development Campaign and Central Planning Supreme Council. With about a thousand employes, believed to include seven or eight Soviet advisers, it has a reputation among critics, as one put it, of being "remote and filled with useless bureaucrats."
Whatever the current difficulties, analysts say the government has tried to redress decades of neglect of the poor and the rural areas, where 90 percent of the people live. As a result, real income in the provinces is up but it is down in the cities, except among the poor. Salaries of the lowest-paid urban workers have been raised considerably.
"Any economic decision affects some positively and others negatively," said Canadian-educated Mersie Ljigu, head of planning and programming for the Supreme Council. "As long as it's good for the masses, it's good. That's how we operate and I believe it's right."
Madeline Wolde-Gabriel, 45, a laborer at the nationalized Asmara textile mills, offers an example of how the government policy affects the poor. She is a widow and supports four children.
An employe for 18 years, she now makes $1.50 a day, three times what she made before the takeover. Her hours are regulated and she can get health care and paid pregnancy leave--all unknown in the past.
Standing barefoot as she watches her two carding machines--previously she tended four--Wolde-Gabriel acknowledged the improvement in her working conditions and said she felt much freer to criticize than in the days of Italian private ownership.
"I would have been fired for saying these things," she said through a translator.
She is taken aback, however, when asked how often her family eats meat. Hardly ever, it turns out.
"It is good that the salary has increased," she said. "But prices are high and the needs of my family have increased. So my life is the same."