“Green Legacy” is a major initiative being promoted by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government. Aiming to reverse an alarming rate of deforestation that is taking place throughout Ethiopia, Ahmed is aggressively pushing a goal of planting 4 billion trees within Ethiopia by encouraging every Ethiopian to plant 40 trees. Beyond addressing an escalating ecological crisis, Ahmed hopes to break the mark set by India by planting 200 million trees in one day.

Though this is a commendable start and a good way of galvanizing the broader public to partake in a national cause, when it comes to tackling the root causes of deforestation, Green Legacy misses the mark. The issue in Ethiopia is not the lack of new trees but the rate of agricultural attrition. Mismanagement, lack of planning and economic disparities between the haves and the have nots all play a part in the ongoing destruction of Ethiopia’s trees, rivers and natural resources as a whole.

When people lose agency and they don’t have a sense of ownership, they naturally become indifferent to the upkeep and wellness of their environment. Consider what happens to rental cars versus automobiles that are owned. Renters have almost zero vested interest in taking care of the cars they are leasing, they view their property as a commodity and treat it transactional means of transportation. Renters are therefore more apt to drive their cars recklessly and let it get dirty. Owners, on the other hand, take pride in their cars, are a lot more prudent with its upkeep and clean it regularly.

It becomes nearly impossible to develop a sustainable economy when Ethiopians are treated as fodder for foreign investors instead of being empowered to take care of themselves.

One of the root causes of Ethiopia’s economic and social problems is a paradigm of renter vs owner. When the vast majority of Ethiopians are jobless, when 90% plus of young Ethiopians are living in “multidimensional poverty” and when tens of millions are hopeless, they become renters in their own country. From this lake of desperation flows seas of social illnesses; violence, tribal frictions, illicit use of drugs, prostitution, the prevalence of depression and a brain drain that is witnessing Ethiopia’s best and brightest fleeing their homeland are all outflows of economic inequalities and social stratification.

The way to address this disease of deficits is not through photo ops and charity but by turning Ethiopians into owners and giving them agency. We’ve tried “economic development” that focused on building skyscrapers in Addis Abeba and courting foreign investors for more than two decades only to realize a continued decline in the standard of living of most Ethiopians. Skyrocketing inflation and massive corruption have delivered a record number of internally displaced people as people compete over smaller and smaller pieces of the economic pie.

It does not have to be this way, Ethiopia has too much land and natural resources for her people to be stuck in such a miserable state of financial insolvency. Instead of accepting “AID” that hands billions of dollars in high interest loans to bureaucrats and government agencies, a fraction of that money redirected to microfinancing would have a transformational effect upon society. The impetus should be to give resources to Ethiopians who have a keen minds and investing in communities by empowering farmers, shop keepers, engineers and tech startups so that we can be a nation of entrepreneurs instead of being the wards of donors.

Instead of trying to break India’s record by having a government sponsored tree planting drive, why not give Ethiopians half acres of land? The former is a temporary marketing scheme that will be here today and disappear tomorrow; the latter would give Ethiopians an incentive to take care of the land themselves without outside “assistance”. The role of government should not be to make citizens dependent but to empower people and get out of their way so that Ethiopians can provide for themselves.

Planting 4 billion trees in #Ethiopia is a lofty idea, a better solution would be to plant hope in Ethiopians by giving them an opportunity to succeed on their own. Click To Tweet