Author:Street, Jennie

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...

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