News / Africa

Price Controls Cause Chaos in Ethiopian Markets

Price controls on many staple food items ordered by Ethiopia's government early this month have reduced grocery bills for many low-income families. But now shopkeepers are upset and some basic items are disappearing from store shelves. Economists are concerned about the long-term effect of the government's price-fixing strategy.

Confusion has been the order of the day at shops and markets across the Ethiopian capital this month. The government surprised businesses on January 6, the Ethiopian Christmas Eve, by announcing price caps on such items as meat, bread, rice, sugar, powdered milk and cooking oil.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the caps were a response to price gouging by merchants taking advantage of global price hikes. He vowed to put a stop to what he called "market disorder.”

Consumers respond

The news was seen as a Christmas gift by many cash-strapped consumers, who had seen food prices jump after the government devalued the local currency, the Birr, by 17 percent in September.

In the first days after the price controls went into effect, Shenkut Teshome was among shoppers who rushed to markets to scoop up goods at newly lowered prices. He applauded government intervention as the only way to save impoverished Ethiopians from starvation.

"People are hoping they can buy with their salary a fair material at a fair price," said Shenkut. "[Prices] were exaggerated and people cannot afford to buy with their salary and live at the same time, paying rent, this and that. The main thing is that they have enough food for their children."

The price controls, however, have triggered chaos and tension in the local marketplace. Arguments, even occasional fistfights have been reported between irate shoppers and business operators as price controlled goods, such as cooking oil and oranges, have disappeared from shelves.

One customer at a local shop, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quipped that the net effect of the price controls is that nothing has changed. He said that earlier, goods on the shelves were too expensive to buy. Now the prices are lower, but the goods have disappeared.

Shopkeepers discouraged

Business owners said the past few weeks have been unbearable. Customers are unhappy, some products they bought before the price caps must be sold below cost, and neighborhood government representatives drop by several times a day to check that they are in compliance.

Shopkeepers contacted for this report all said they were afraid to give their names, but one who agreed to speak anonymously said she was ready to give up.

She said, "This is way too much for us. We are small traders. We don’t make much money. We get everything on credit, so when this stock is gone, we are closing up shop."

Government defends

Representatives of Ethiopia’s Trade Ministry did not respond to numerous interview requests for this report. But government officials have been quoted as saying price controls were needed because retailers had raised prices blaming global price increases and the devaluation, although such factors had had no influence on the availability of their products.

In addition, four economists not affiliated with the government, all of whom have previously spoken to VOA on the record, declined to be quoted this time, saying the subject was too sensitive. But all four privately predicted that price fixing would not help in solving Ethiopia’s deep-rooted economic problems.

Temesgen Zewdie, finance chairman of one of Ethiopia’s main opposition parties and a former Member of Parliament, called the price controls a step toward a Communist-style command economy.

In a free market economy, the preferred way of doing this is to increase the supply and increase competition," said Temesgen. "But the government did not do that. Instead they went directly to the producers and retailers, telling them to reduce prices and supply these products. These practices happen in Communist states, not in western democracies."

Critics warn

Retired opposition leader Bulcha Dimeksa is a former deputy finance minister and also a former World Bank director. He said history has proven time and again the folly of price controls.

"This government is doing exactly what all the classical dictators in the past have done and have failed," said Bulcha. "I do not understand how people do not learn. It does not work. Price control never worked. It will not work. It does not work. It may work for one month, but what’s that? The farmer is discouraged, the producer is discouraged, the retailer is discouraged."

Despite the uproar, government officials are hoping their experiment in price-fixing will help to curb inflation. Recently released figures show the inflation rate jumped from 10.2 percent in November to 14.5 percent last month.

Ethiopia is among the world’s poorest countries. The CIA World Factbook lists per capita purchasing power of $1,000 a year.

You May Like

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

1 Billion People Used Facebook on Single Day

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised the accomplishment in a posting on the social media site More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs