The walia is a species of ibex found only in northern Ethiopia. Some 40 years ago, with fewer than 200 left, the walia was in danger of extinction. It remains an endangered species, but through conservation measures, numbers are increasing. Things are getting better. The development of the walia’s home country – Ethiopia – is even most robust. As leaders from around the world gather in Cape Town, South Africa, for the World Economic Forum on Africa, they will be talking not about the wali but about countries like Ethiopia, and comparing notes on the challenges and opportunities they represent.

I left Ethiopia in the late 1980s as the country was gripped by a civil war. I returned one year ago as the representative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation based in Addis Ababa. The progress the country is making is evident. The number of children dying in Ethiopia has been reduced by over 60% between the time I left the country and today, with the situation continuing to improve. As Bill Gates noted in his Annual Letter this year, “Today, Ethiopia has more than 15,000 health posts delivering primary health care to the farthest reaches of this rural county of 85 million.”  Using the Millennium Development Goals as a measure, Ethiopia is on its way to meeting most of them by 2015.

The country’s economic growth has also been impressive. In the last decade or so, Ethiopia’s growth has been among the strongest in the world, partially due to better policies, increased productivity and an increase of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI); private equity players are also increasingly active in Addis, while local entrepreneurs are expanding their operations.

In addition to this, the biggest change I have witnessed since my return may very well be that government, donors, the private sector and the public in general have realised that growth and prosperity can be achieved if the right policies and implementation strategy are put in place. The country is no longer paralyzed by the complexity of challenges. This mental shift from “we can’t” to “we can” has dared a nation to dream big; to become food secure in a few years’ time, to build the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, and a new, robust, electrified railway system of 4,744 kilometers, to create light manufacturing industrial zones. Also, the significant improvements in the outcomes in the health and education sectors are critical to building a prosperous nation.

Ethiopia now knows it does not have to reinvent the wheel in its quest for prosperity. Looking to countries like India, Malaysia, China, Brazil, Turkey and others, Ethiopia can find successful models of newly industrialized economies that sustain impressive GDP growth over decades. Ethiopia is well positioned to escape the poverty  trap. But it won’t be easy. Fundamental challenges to infrastructure, human and financial capital and the market need to be carefully addressed.

If we can bring the walia back from near-extinction, we certainly can build on the immense progress this nation has made and improve the health and lives of all people living in Ethiopia.

Author: Haddis Tadesse, Country Representative, Ethiopia, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 

Image: Traffic flows down a main street in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoy