2022 High School Essay Contest Winning Essay

Competition and Coaction in Ethiopia: U.S. and Chinese Partnerships for International Stabilization


Katherine Lam: 2022 Essay Contest Winner

In October 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to “justice,… accountability, and transparency” in Ethiopia (Ahmed). Abiy’s ascent was expected to end two decades of corruption, human rights abuses, and ethnonationalist conflict that had beset the Horn of Africa, including disputes between Ethiopia and its former territory Eritrea (Sen). However, despite Ethiopia’s strides toward peace and a more democratic, inclusive government, factionalism had redivided the country by November 2019, and war soon erupted between Abiy’s government, the separatist Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and each side’s respective allies (Hudson). Ethiopia's ensuing cycle of unrest, poverty, and further instability drew ongoing attention from both the US Foreign Service and Chinese aid programs, which have simultaneously striven to stabilize Ethiopia through a combination of humanitarian aid, economic renewal, and sociopolitical reinforcement (Sen). The resulting US-Ethiopian, Chinese-Ethiopian, and US-Chinese partnerships—and their successes in stabilizing Ethiopia despite active conflict—highlight the vitality of multilateral cooperation and communication during foreign peacebuilding efforts.

Ethiopia’s crisis embodied issues that had plagued it long before the Tigray War: deeply-rooted social issues, such as ethnic marginalization; inadequate infrastructure and responses to emergencies like famines; and vulnerability to unpredictable political shifts, including Ethiopia’s increasing division into terrorist and factionalist footholds (“UN Leadership in Ethiopia”). By March 2022, Ethiopia–already one of the world’s poorest countries–had over 2.5 million internally displaced persons, over 900,000 of whom became casualties of violent conflict or famine-like conditions (Dahir and Walsh). Furthermore, Ethiopia had heavily integrated its economy into global commerce throughout the twenty-first century, and its crisis jeopardized its ability to provide products like oilseeds to more developed states (Hudson). Consequently, when war broke out, Ethiopia–a major trading partner of both the US and China–rapidly transformed into a focal point of multilateral interaction, with both global superpowers contributing to infrastructural restoration, humanitarian aid, and the management and mitigation of unrest (Sen). To organize and enhance concurrent peacebuilding efforts, the American foreign service has consistently employed local-, regional-, and department-level partnerships with Ethiopian and Chinese entities (Shinn 58).

US-Ethiopian partnerships especially highlight the role of efficient international collaboration. To revitalize Ethiopians’ economy and long-term personal security, US peacebuilders frequently establish connections with Ethiopia’s administrative and educational institutions. For example, by integrating the Ministry of Finance, Jobs Creation Commission, and Ethiopian Investment Commission, USAID’s Market Systems for Growth project not only provides immediate funding for prospective enterprises but also promotes continued economic diversification through investment, private-sector stakeholding, and financial education for Ethiopian youth (“Economic Growth and Trade–Ethiopia”). Meanwhile, to address Ethiopia’s war-exacerbated food shortages, the US Peace Corps (under the Department of State) not only distributes emergency food supplies but also partners with 250 schools and NGOs to teach farmers more productive, reliable techniques (“Peace Corps in Ethiopia”). Together, these projects ensure that while Ethiopians do receive immediate aid, they will also develop long-term independence from American assistance.

In addition to rebuilding Ethiopia’s economic capacity, the US stabilizes Ethiopia’s political climate by invoking both citizen interactions and higher-level diplomacy. Amidst intensifying ethnonationalism, the US has offered to provide administrative assistance and mediate ceasefire dialogues for Abiy’s government. However, the US also strives to prevent long-term radicalization of Ethiopians by educating citizens about decisionmaking, security strategies, and self-advocacy. For example, the USIP’s Women Preventing Violent Extremism program educates “ordinary” women about extremism and facilitates coordination among female leaders in the Horn of Africa (“Women Preventing Violent Extremism (WPVE)”). Such programs deter future political fragmentation in Ethiopia by enhancing political awareness, social cohesion, and solidarity among both general citizens and higher powers.

However, the US is not the only country partnering with Ethiopia to promote stability. With 13.7 billion USD invested in infrastructure alone, Chinese foreign aid aims to “bolster [Ethiopia’s] stability by first… renewing its economic capacity,” a strategy lauded by Ethiopia’s government for its military non-interventionism (Sany and Sheehy). For instance, China's state-run Export-Import Bank and Development Bank have funded over 1,000 projects in Addis Ababa and Hawassa, from hydroelectric generators that provide sustainable power to manganese mine infrastructure that offer regular employment. Through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China also finances larger projects like the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway and telecommunications infrastructure, paving the way for more efficient commercial activity (Pant and Saha 85). By addressing Ethiopia’s widespread poverty, unemployment, and inability to address citizens’ basic needs, Chinese-Ethiopian partnerships have effectively cemented China as the global counterpart to US aid (Shinn 60).

While simultaneous US and Chinese involvement in Ethiopia invites competition, it also raises opportunities for mutual benefit. Consequently, strategic US-Chinese cooperation in Ethiopia has occurred on numerous occasions, especially at the corporate level (Hudson; Conteh-Morgan 42). For instance, BRI constructors regularly utilize US power supplies to develop new territories, and the US International Development Finance Corporation contracts Chinese rails and laborers for building initiatives (“China's Impact on Conflict Dynamics”). Additionally, Chinese and American companies must communicate frequently to prevent projects from interfering or overlapping, even without a formal centralized control (Conteh-Morgan 45).

US-Chinese cooperation also occurs at regional and supranational scales. For instance, since working with the African Union to establish the African Center for Disease Control in 2017, the American and Chinese CDCs have collaborated to train municipal epidemiologists against diseases like Ebola, and jointly-run clinics and immunization programs–which have become increasingly prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic–have operated in Ethiopia since 2018 (Aboaf). Likewise, although the Amhara Youth Life Skill training program (which assists over 13,000 youth in sectors including English and finance) nominally operates under the UN and Ethiopia’s Bureau of Women, Children, and Youth, the US and China supply almost ninety percent of its management, labor, and funding (“UN in Ethiopia”). Although these tacit US-Chinese cooperations are far from international alliances, they exemplify how successful association between the two superpowers enhances Ethiopia’s infrastructural, intellectual, and financial capital, thus securing Ethiopia’s future self-sufficiency.

Lastly, collaboration with and between the US and China has significant implications for Ethiopia’s development. The US and China frequently emphasize different aspects of development (e.g., security and education for the US, infrastructure and financing for China), so Ethiopia’s “multifaceted engagement” with both countries offers Ethiopia a broader range of improvement than the aid of either alone (Shinn 67). Furthermore, combined US and Chinese support promotes more even development across Ethiopia: for instance, while Chinese-constructed power plants concentrate around urban cores like Addis Ababa, US initiatives like Power Africa expand utilities in poorer rural areas, reducing Ethiopia’s sharp rural-urban development gap (“Ethiopia: Power Africa Fact Sheet”). Finally, with Ethiopians declaring that they “don’t have to and don’t want to choose” between China and the US, the superpowers’ collaboration has been instrumental in relieving the fear that Ethiopians–and Africans in general–are simply “proxy” pawns in a larger geopolitical agenda (Hudson). Collectively, these factors have all encouraged international efforts to extend beyond superficial remediation and provide a framework for lasting growth.

Although conflicts persist in Ethiopia, US and Chinese partnerships for long-term development have greatly accelerated Ethiopia’s transition to a more peaceful, cohesive society. Where poverty and rampant unemployment once fostered civil unrest, jointly-established infrastructure and private investment now provide a foundation for sustained economic growth. Female empowerment and the education of youth prepare Ethiopia’s labor force and insulate Ethiopia against political volatility; and complementary US and Chinese operations spearhead even development, rather than competing to exploit Ethiopia’s landscape. Ultimately, due to the very instability that plagues Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s ongoing development now epitomizes how international cooperation–not competition–amplifies foreign peacebuilding efforts, even in conflict-affected countries.

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