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The same fierce spirit of independence which saw Eritrea through three decades of war is now being channelled into developing the country.

Eritrea has taken a fiercely independent and self-determining stance towards the non-Eritrean world. Woe betide any visiting foreigner who presumes to tell Eritreans how to manage their affairs. The temptation to open the doors to every donor, every economic maverick and every shyster was resisted and Eritrea has been selective in building its relationships and made its own decisions on its policy. Every foreign NGO except one has been asked to leave the country and several UN officials have been expelled in the last two years for behaviour or comments considered interfering.

Mr Haile Weldensae, now Minister for Foreign Affairs, remarked in 1997: "We do not have all the resources but we are the owners of our economy, we do not exclude outside support, but it must fit in with our programmes. Even experienced experts try to prescribe solutions for us, but they don't understand our situation. As recipients we must not be dependent on donors, nor do we need to be passive."

This is a welcome attitude in Africa, where too often it appears that outsiders call the tune for the country to dance to. Eritrea has resisted structural readjustment programmes which contain preconditions, and yet The World Bank praised Eritrea's independent development strategy and is opening a branch in Asmara. Eritrea stresses especially to its people the need to be hardworking and self-reliant.

One Western diplomat based in Asmara commented, "Eritrea is one of those we really believe will make it from poverty to sustainable development. We feel their policies are very sound including their policy on assistance. I have quite a free hand (from my own foreign office) because they believe that what is happening here is going right."

And the fruits of Eritrea's efforts are very visible to anyone visiting the country: construction of buildings everywhere, a mushrooming of small companies, shops, and restaurants, and most impressive of all the completion of a growing network of extremely good tarmaced roads.

A Zambian living in Eritrea told African Business, "We give the Eritreans a big tick for what they are doing. Their roads are marvellous. There is always an excuse in our country not to do it, but here they do it and they are a poor country compared with ours. I admire what they have done."

Some signs of progress are not so comfortable: a sometimes choking discoloured smog of unchecked emission fumes now hangs over Asmara, the capital, in the early mornings, as the explosion in the number of vehicles brings its own problems. Once a cyclist's haven, the poor bicycle has now been stigmatised in much the same way as it is in many other countries: roads are closed to cyclists, as the car lords it.

Although Eritrea has financed a lot itself it has been willing to accept loans for reconstruction. In 1997 the International Development Association (IDA), an affiliate of The World Bank, signed an agreement under which Eritrea will obtain $22.2m in loans for reconditioning the ports of Massawa and Assab; this tags on to an Italian loan of $21m to finance improvements in the two Eritrean ports (extension of wharfs, dredging, purchase of transhipment installation).

The African Development Bank (ADB) has approved a loan of $16m for the fishing sector, to raise living standards in fishing communities and increase foreign income through higher exports. The money is to be used to build jetties, access roads and cold storage facilities, provide training and improve credit systems.

A foreign banker working in Asmara commented: "This is the most credit-worthy country in the world. The Commercial Bank has only had five bad debts in six years. People are very, very strict about paying their debts and this bodes well for the future."

Every visitor to Eritrea also stresses the absence of corruption within government as being a very refreshing and agreeable atmosphere in which to work.

As well as these large loans, various countries are supporting Eritrea's reconstruction. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi have all provided assistance for infrastructure projects. The Italians provide large amounts of aid (though 70% of it is reported to be spent on military hardware) and the US department of defence is improving civilian facilities at Massawa's airport and hospital. The Korean presence is well-established, through its construction company, Keangnam Enterprises, which is doing the lion's share of construction in the country. The US now estimates its market share at about 2.7% (or 6% if grain is included) and businessmen trading with the US have established an American business council in Asmara.

Exports grew by 60-65% between 1994 and 1997 and following renovation of public enterprises the government is now in the process of privatising 39 of them.

Oil exploration is being carried out in the Red Sea by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation of Texas, and several mining companies, including Phelps Dodge, have got licenses for mineral exploration, including gold, copper, lead, zinc and nickel.

President Isaias Afwerki, interviewed at the time of the 6th anniversary of liberation, in May 1997, said: "The experiences of many other countries are there before us, and the most successful economic experiences were not based on natural resources, but rather on the human resource and on adopting correct policies free of all sorts of corruption. It is known that Eritrea attained its independence after a protracted struggle which continued for three decades, depending wholly on itself without the help of external forces. And now, with the same former spirit, Eritrea has embarked on development and national reconstruction. The initial indications after six years since liberation raise great hopes and expectations."
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Author:Street, Jennie
Publication:African Business
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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