Rent seeking in Ethiopia is a matter of either/or choice- Part-II

By Habtamu Alebachew

A certain government official at higher decision-making post has the right to travel abroad by representing one’s country and office. Foreign travel may not incur any cost for the official as expenses go to either the government or the host country and state institutions or individuals.

At times, it may bring additional benefits in foreign currency and other material advantages. However, if there is imbalance between the losses because of the absence of this official in office and at work against the concrete contributions he could make by the travel, then, rent seeking arises to the disadvantage of development.

This official might think that he/she was free from rent seeking behaviors as all requirements and procedures remain intact and respected but, in practice, one was a rent seeker when compared with the little contribution against poverty.

Equally, being loyal to office procedures and requirements without actually contributing anything for the improvements and changes of existing situations in a manner the demands of an educated Ethiopian incurs rent-seeking behavior if respecting procedures only guarantees additional advantages or rewards.

This is an act of rent seeking because it places procedures high above innovative contributions and sets them as ultimate goals justifying entitlements to benefits.

In short, benefits must go to actual and measurable contributions to development and
not for observing procedures per se, which many mediocre and incapable public officials and servants successfully meet very easily.

A certain government institution may have various legitimate priorities in its budget allocation and payments. Let us say training of personnel is the agreed priority and the widely felt demand of the office for its engagement in development activities.

However, the budget year expires before doing any thing to undertake the training and make payments for it for any convincing reason so that the Management decides to pay the money on other least prioritized purchases instead of surrendering the unused budget. This is unquestionably a rent seeking decision as it creates imbalance between the payment and the actual contributions of the unplanned purchase to development even though the officials did it in respect of the law in Ethiopia’s context.

This reminds one that there is difference between rent seeking behavior and public corruption. The causal and unstudied purchase still harms some groups in the society while it wrongly benefits some other groups by causing a windfall income for the latter, which is practically an act of rent collection.

B. Self-interest or public interest? Rural development professionals have their own self-interests to satisfy as much as public interests. They seek to qualify in higher levels of specialties; they seek to have families and private assets of their own; they also seek joining urban life through improvements of rank and job. All these are positive and rent-free motivations but only if served after registering a successful and measurable contribution to the development process based on household count.

Self-interest is never a crime per se; selfish interest is the rent-seeking extreme of self-interest where a professional blindly pursues the service of one’s advantages as legitimate without making concrete contribution to development, which is the pillar of public interest.

In Ethiopia’s context, there is state support for the promotion of public interest out of which equitable and just satisfaction of self-interest attains guarantee.

Contrarily, in the West, self interest is the pillar of their growth thinking and morality simply because liberalism is the primacy of the individual as the last functioning unit of the whole society, which the root of general welfare.

Of course, this is consistent with the capitalist stage of growth they have attained. Under present circumstances where individualism is only a spotted urban phenomenon in Ethiopia having no social potency, a demand for individualistic growth policies is a dangerous potential seat of a legalized rent seeking regime.

Individualistic taste at state and elite level in Ethiopia is a physiological ground basis for allowing self-interest to mature into rent seeking selfish interest that is the hatching corner of corruption. As many other societies elsewhere, the rent seeking regime in Ethiopia founds itself on strongly built social values of encouraging rent seeking behavior as a potential tendency to grow into actual corruption.