Opinion: How Asian values can transform Ethiopia’s labor force

PM Abiy Ahmed during his recent visit to Korea

Tsegab Kebebew, For Addis Standard

As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent official visits to Korea and Japan have demonstrated, Ethiopia and Asian countries have continued to strengthen their historic and longstanding relations. In the past couple of decades these historic ties have transformed into concrete result-oriented cooperative relations based on mutual benefit.  Asia is a crucial continent for Ethiopia to attract not only Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and related technology transfer, but also significant lessons in their socio-economic development.

As pundits point out this is the Asian century. Over the past four decades, Asians have gained the greatest share of total global economic growth– a trend driven by the rise of manufacturing in Asia. Billions of Asians growing up in the past two decades have experienced geopolitical stability, rapidly expanding prosperity and surging national pride. Asia has several of the world’s largest economies, most of the world’s foreign-exchange reserves, many of the largest banks and industrial and technology companies and most of the world’s biggest armies. Asia also accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s population. [i]

Much has been said about the incredible socio-economic transformation or the “miracle”’ that has been witnessed in Asia in the past 40 plus years. Much has also been said about the lessons that countries such as Ethiopia should take. Most of the discussion has been centered on their focus on export-oriented industrialization, state interventionism on markets and the strong state which ensured political stability for the thriving of economic growth. 

In this article, I wish to focus on the “Asian values” or the culture of these Asian countries which has been compatible with industrialization because it valued stability, hard work, discipline, and loyalty and respect towards authority figures.

Although the concept of Asian values seem to be unique to Asian countries, some of the values are shared with Ethiopians. The communal as opposed to individualistic traits of their societies, high importance given to filial piety, in particular the care given to aged parents, and high values attached to education are also seen as common traits amongst Ethiopians. Though it requires more research, I think we have not capitalized on these values, nor learnt new ones to transform our society, for instance, in the area of our work ethics and addressing the issue of low levels of productivity in Ethiopia. In a Policy Research Working Paper published by the World Bank in August 2019, Ethiopia’s competitiveness and attractiveness for investment is said to be affected by the low productivity of its firms in spite of its labor cost advantages.[ii]

According to the study’s conclusions, the prospects for further industrialization in Ethiopia seem to critically depend on achieving higher productivity. Poor management, particularly in the area of labor, is mentioned as a key factor that may be holding Ethiopian firms back. The study further suggests that there is scarce evidence on how labor management can be improved. It says, “to develop this evidence, we need systematic experimentation with different interventions targeting how workers are selected, trained, incentivized, and retained.”

Taking the conclusions as fair, I would humbly submit to look into the Asian experience for solutions. Not that the Asian experience is a remedy to all our ills but would give us different perspectives. Comparative studies have shown that productivity, for instance in light manufacturing, in countries such as China and Vietnam are as much as twice or three times as countries like Ethiopia. Beyond the economic aspects, I believe the weave that holds their social fabric, strong values in education and discipline need to be studied.

There are some quarters who explain the successes of Asian countries in relation to their value systems. “Asian Values”, which is generally conceived as a combination of education and self-cultivation, frugality and thrift, an ethic of hard work and labor, discipline, social harmony and group-responsibility – have played an important role in their socio-economic development.  They claim that these values, which show distinctive features of Confucianism (based on the teachings of the ancient Chinese philosopher), have played a role in influencing the cultural values which in turn has impacted their national psychology and identity. The traditional cultural values that influence the psyche of these nations include harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, and filial piety. [iii]

Now, whether there is a cause and effect relationship between culture and economic development has been debatable. There are those who say cultural transformations of these countries happened because of economic development, which created societies in which people have to behave in more disciplined, rational and cooperative ways than in agrarian societies.  There are others who argue that if anything culture is an outcome, rather than a cause of economic development.

Without going to the merits of both sides, what piques my interest is that these value systems have worked for these societies. Whether they come from Confucius or not, these values have ensured strict work ethics and regimens ensuring productivity. A recent post on twitter by a renowned Ethiopian leader in international finance admires the culture of ethics, rule of law and discipline in Japan and suggests its institutions, leadership and capacity as main reasons why Japan is the third largest economy.

These values can be learnt and I believe value systems and education go together. In addition to value systems, it is also important to note that investment in education and skills has played an important role in the success of these countries. It is said that Asians invest more resources in education — and the literacy rate in these countries is much higher (almost 100% in Korea) — than is the case in many other cultures.[iv]

Leadership is also a very important component when studying Asian societies. Strong leadership, sometimes authoritarian, has been able to define the futures of these countries. Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean academic and former diplomat, attributes the success of Singapore to many reasons, one of which is the culture of meritocracy that was cultivated by the city-state. [v]

I believe that leadership is required in Ethiopia to create a capable and efficient workforce. It is a fact that Ethiopia’s development plans in recent years have put heavy emphasis on education, and the country has actually come close to achieving its goal of universal primary education. However, quantity does not immediately translate to quality, nor does it substitute it. According to a study conducted a few years ago, the country has also invested heavily in technical and vocational training (TVET)—with the aim of producing “semi-skilled and relatively well-suited workers to the growing manufacturing and construction sectors”—increasing the number of TVET students from 5264 in 1999 to 271,389 in 2014. But again, quality seems to be a challenge whereby these programs still struggle to meet the skills needs of the market.  Often their students do not meet the standards of potential employers or fit the types of jobs employers are looking to fill.  Anecdotal evidence also suggests that there are deficiencies in self-motivation, discipline and team work, among others.[vi]

Merit-based recruitment, training and incentives are essential in changing qualitatively the landscape of the labor force. In the area of training, in particular, focus should not just be on technical skills alone. The Ethiopian labor force should be taught core values such as discipline, harmony, and social responsibility as part of work ethic. This could be done through focusing on training of soft skills.

 In addition to the hard skills (the tangible and technical skills), soft skills training should be included in the curriculum of the training institutions and industries. Soft skills commonly refer to the more intangible and non-technical abilities that are more aligned with the general disposition and personality of the workers. As such, soft skills relate to one’s attitudes and intuitions. Examples of soft skills are communication, teamwork, problem solving, self-motivation, ability to work under pressure and time management, negotiation and conflict resolution, etc.

Employers value soft skills because they enable people to function and thrive in teams and in organizations as a whole. A productive and healthy work environment depends on soft skills. After all, the workplace is an interpersonal space, where relationships must be built and fostered, perspectives must be exchanged, and occasionally conflicts must be resolved. In this regard, TVET institutions should look to partner with industries for cooperative training programs or apprenticeships with emphasis on soft skills.

In addition to training, adequate compensation, of course, is vital. Singapore ensured that officers were recruited and promoted by merit and were adequately paid. It is suggested that designing a civil service system based on merit which compensated employees well and built in provisions that reduced the dangers of corruption has been an essential step for the success of Asian economies.

The Asian way of doing things is spreading. The world is fascinated with how Asia developed at such a fast pace.  Officials, business people, journalists, scholars and students from all over the world, including Ethiopia, are traveling to various Asia countries to observe how to build large-scale, world-class infrastructure and futuristic cities. We need to continue to look to Asia to study on how to align our industries and universities, examine social policies that promote national solidarity and their values and culture that shaped their identities. AS

Editor’s Note: The writer is a staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the FDRE and can be reached at tsegabk@gmail.com


[i] See Parag Khanna, “ Welcome to the Asian century’’, Globe and Mail, February 2, 2019.

[ii] See Stefano Caria, ‘’Industrialization on a Knife’s Edge Productivity, Labor Costs and the Rise of Manufacturing in Ethiopia’’, The World Bank Group-Policy Research Working Paper 8980, August 2019.

[iii] See Zhang Lihua, ‘’China’s Traditional Cultural Values and National Identity’’, Carnegie-Tsingua Center for Global Policy, November 21, 2013.

[iv] See Dong Hyeon Jung, ‘’Asian Values: A pertinent Concept to Explain Economic Development of East Asia?’’, Comparative Civilizations Review, Vol. 51, No.51, Fall 2004.

[v] See Prashanth Parameswaran, ‘’10 Lessons From Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore’’, The Diplomat, March 24, 2015.

[vi]  See Christina Golubski, ‘’African Lions: Trends in Ethiopia’s Dynamic Labor Market’’, Brookings Institution, August 17, 2016.

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