Meles Zenawi : An Extraordinary Legacy on Environment and Development

Professor-Nicholas-Stern-1
Photo: Professor Nicholas Stern

By Professor Nicholas Stern

Editor’s Note: Lord Stern, H.E. Gordon Brown, and other UK renowned politicians and leaders paid tribute at the Meles Zenawi memorial held in London. Read this news and watch the video by clicking here.

Ethiopia: Meles Zenawi – a Man With Lasting Legacies

It is one year since the death of Meles Zenawi, one of the world’s and Africa’s most remarkable leaders.

Meles Zenawi left college at the age of 19 in 1975 to fight against the Derg; after 16 years that brutal military regime was overcome and he led Ethiopia, first as President, then as Prime Minister, for two decades.

In that time primary school enrolment went from one-third for girls and 50 percent for boys to 100 percent. Under-five mortality fell by 60 percent, compared to sub-Saharan Africa’s 40 percent.

If Ethiopia’s growth of GDP had been at the same rate as for sub-Saharan Africa (which was itself accelerating at that time), Ethiopian incomes would have been one-third lower than now. These are remarkable development achievements.

He was also an outstanding figure for Africa as a whole. He led for the African Union on many issues and his analytical force, wisdom and intelligence were greatly valued in the councils of the world, at the UN, G20, G7/8 and elsewhere.

Meles was also a tough man, in a tough place, ready to take difficult decisions.

Neighbouring countries were unstable and difficult. His own country is extraordinarily varied in its cultures, languages and religions, and in its environment and development.

Ethiopia, for all its progress, remained poor and vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and climate. In this difficult regional, developmental and political environment, he saw democracy as “work in progress” and it is clear that there was a long way to go.

At the same time, we should recognise how far it had come relative to a brutal military regime, preceded by an incompetent imperial administration.

On climate and environment and their relationship with development, he was visionary, determined and practical.

It was Meles who, in the run up to the Copenhagen UNFCCC conference of December 2009, insisted on and obtained the promise of $100 billion per annum from developed to developing countries.

He saw the deep inequities in the facts that the rich countries had become rich on high-carbon growth and the poor countries were hit earliest and hardest on climate change.

Yet at the same time, he argued (in Africa Day at the Durban UNFCCC conference in December 2011) that “it is not justice to foul the planet because others have fouled it in the past”.

He saw, as with so many other things, that Africa and the developing countries should take their future development, and their environment, in their own hands.

He proposed Ethiopia’s Climate-Resilient Green Economic Strategy (CRGE): he had a vision of Ethiopia being both a middle-income country and carbon-neutral by the second half of the next decade, and had concrete plans for getting there.

He saw how to contain Ethiopia’s double-digit growth rate and de-carbonise at the same time. He saw how degraded land could be restored to great productivity and how forests could be preserved and enhanced by the work of, and in the interests of, local communities.

His ideas on environment and development are still embedded in Ethiopia’s plans for the future.

Across Ethiopia people in the weredas and kebeles are expressing these ideas through the planting of trees and gardens.

His legacy on how to combine poverty reduction on all its dimensions with environmental and climate responsibility carries lessons for us all.

Personally I had the privilege of working with him for more than a decade, as Chief Economist of the World Bank: writing the report of the Commission for Africa, of which he was a key driving force; working together in the run-up to Copenhagen 2009 and at the conference; on the UN Secretary-General’s Group on Climate Financing in 2010; and, more recently, on ideas for a BRICS-led infrastructure development bank.

He was an outstandingly gifted, intelligent and committed man; that very rare person, a great mind and a great leader.

He was extraordinary and is irreplaceable. But what can and should, and I believe will, continue is his remarkable and practical vision of how to combine development on the one hand and environment and climate responsibility on the other.

Indeed, he saw so clearly that if we fail on one, we fail on the other, and far from being competitive, they support each other.

His lessons and legacy on environment and development provide fundamental guidance for Ethiopia, Africa and the world.

The author, Professor Nicholas Stern (Lord Stern of Brentford) is Chair of the Grantham Research Institute. He was was adviser to the UK Government on the Economics of Climate Change and Development from 2005-2007, where he was Head of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, published in 2006. He was also Chief Economist and Senior Vice President at the World Bank from 2000-2003.


“The international Meles Zenawi Foundation (MZF), will launch today at a ceremony attended by world leaders in the newly established Meles Zenawi Memorial Park. The MZF will support scholarly studies into the late PM’s life and works, taking forward his lifelong commitment to peace, justice, climate-resilient economic development and encouraging the study of progressive politics & economics in an appropriate living environment. The 100-hectare Park, high above Addis Ababa, will include a state-of-the-art Eco-Library and Research Centre, designed by world-renowned architects, with lodgings for students within the Park. The Foundation will provide educational programmes with grants and awards for outstanding scholarship in the domains of economic and social development, environmental protection, peace, federalism and democracy.”