Brunswick Review The Resilience Issue

No Longer Live Aid Ethiopia

A terrible plane crash highlights a nation's progress.

On March 24, 2019, the world woke up to the unusual situation of hundreds of Africans seeming to agree with Donald Trump. A CNN headline about Ethiopian Airlines caused an explosion of African Twitterati sharing the US President’s view that the news broadcaster is “fake news.”

The headline? “Ethiopian Airlines was a world-class brand with a great safety record until the flight ET302 crash put its reputation in jeopardy.”

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The kickback was swift. People saw CNN blaming Ethiopian pilots rather than Boeing, the plane’s US manufacturer. One particular pushback received over 10,000 likes. The story itself was, in fact, a reasonably positive piece on the growth of Ethiopian Airlines from a third-tier joint venture with TWA to a significant global airline with 111 planes—for context, Air France’s fleet is 201 planes; Emirates’ is 268.

Ethiopian Airlines is a budget carrier, yet it has developed a reputation as the best commercially run African airline and increasingly a major regional hub player. Recently, Addis Ababa and Ethiopian Airlines overtook Dubai and Emirates as the premier long-haul transit into Africa.

CNN has invested heavily in producing positive stories about the continent, but had apparently failed to appreciate that people might see lingering bias and a patronizing attitude toward the continent in this particular story. Ethiopia itself is no longer Live Aid Ethiopia, but has had one of the most remarkable political and economic transformations of modern times.

Poverty declined from 45.5 percent in 2000 to 23.5 percent in 2016. GDP per capita has doubled since 2010 while per capita income has increased threefold. It is on track for middle-income status by 2025.

CNN and many other newspapers had been somewhat objective about the potential cause of the crash, especially given that the tragedy pitted the reliability and reputation of one of the world’s most powerful companies against a country that 15 years ago was among the five poorest countries in the world. But it is now not even among the 20 poorest. Ethiopia’s extraordinary political and economic trajectory over the past 15 years is a clear success story. Ironically, by bringing attention to the country, the scrutiny over the Ethiopian Airlines crash may have simply drawn more attention to Ethiopia’s success.

Ethiopia is facing some headwinds in consolidating its political and economic transformation, but if those prove as resilient as its reputation has become, it may indeed become Africa’s powerhouse in the next 20-30 years. Forecasts are that Ethiopia will eradicate poverty by 2029, with less than 3 percent of the population expected to be below the poverty line.

Itumeleng Mahabane is a Brunswick Partner in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Illustration: Fabio Consoli

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