Last Updated: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 | 10:05 AM ETComments0Recommend0
By Jennifer Clibbon, CBC News
The international watchdog Human Rights Watch has published a report today that is an embarrassing look at the way billions of dollars in well-intentioned international aid to Ethiopia is too often being used by the government there as “political weapons to control the population, punish dissent and undermine political opponents.”
The report, entitled Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia, is a damning investigation into the politicization of international aid money in an African country that has struggled with war and hunger over the past generation and which has, in many respects, made considerable progress moving away from those catastrophes.
As Bob Geldof, the Irish rock star and champion of Ethiopia pointed out recently in an editorial in the Globe and Mail, Ethiopia now has a rapidly growing economy, many more children in schools, a dramatic decline in malaria deaths, and progress in combating HIV/AIDS.
But even so, Ethiopia is still among the world’s poorest countries, and the second largest recipient of international aid. It receives a total of about $3 billion US every year from various donors including the World Bank, the United States, the European Commission, the U.K., Germany, Netherlands, Canada and Japan.
Canada is Ethiopia’s fourth largest donor, giving more than $152 million US in 2008, which was way up from the $59.58 million it gave in 2004.
What is happening to this aid money?
It is reaching Ethiopians, particularly the 10 to 20 per cent of the 85 million who still rely on food aid to survive. But Human Rights Watch accuses the current government of Ethiopia, the coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, of controlling the delivery of that aid to benefit its supporters and punish its opponents.
People push a cart packed with bags of maize in southern Ethiopia. (Jose Cendon/IFRC/Reuters)
Zenawi’s regime, it is generally recognized, has become over the years a repressive state that silences any critics and opposition. Human Rights Watch argues that this is having an impact on international aid. If you are part of the opposition, you are denied assistance.
The prime minister denies this policy, but Human Rights Watch researchers say they interviewed a wide range of people, including civil servants, who back up their allegations.
International donors are aware of the problem, but either downplay the scale of the problem or turn a blind eye for complex political reasons, says Human Rights Watch.
CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon interviewed Leslie Lefkow, senior researcher and Horn of Africa team leader at Human Rights Watch. She was one of the researchers of the report along with Ben Rawlence, the author, and a researcher in the Africa division.
CBC News: There have been other reports about the misuse of aid to Ethiopia in the past. How is this report different? What is its significance?
Leslie Lefkow: Previous reports dealt with the allegation that the TPLF (the Tigray People’s Liberation Front) diverted aid in the 1980s to buy weapons, during the war against the Mengistu regime. At that time the TPLF was a rebel group operating from northern Ethiopia and it worked with aid agencies to deliver food and humanitarian aid to civilians.
[Mengistu Haile Mariam’s brutal military junta ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991. Mengistu was overthrown in a civil war by the current Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, leader of the Marxist guerilla group, TPLF].
This report is different because our research looks at the ways in which the current Ethiopian government is using large-scale development aid programs to silence political opposition and dissent, often in subtle ways that aren’t obvious to observers.
Both the aim and the method of manipulation are different. This research is important because it’s the first time that there’s independent research that shows a pattern of government abuse of aid — that aid isn’t just a neutral factor, it’s contributing directly to repression.
CBC News: Could you summarize the main allegations in this report?
Lefkow: Our findings show how the Ethiopian state apparatus is used at village level to punish people viewed as critics and opposition by denying them access to seeds, tools, fertilizers, jobs — all the resources people need for their livelihoods.
More than 80 per cent of Ethiopians are rural farmers, and it’s village leaders and councils who control the lists of who should receive these resources.
Those village leaders are almost universally members of the ruling party; this is a fact which was cemented in the last two elections in 2008 and 2010, when the ruling party won more than 99 per cent of the seats.
The report also shows how the ruling party is totally intertwined with the government — there are no independent institutions or checks and balances.
Even non-governmental organizations have been decimated by a new law that bars them from doing work on human rights, and there are almost no independent media left, so there’s hardly anyone even to question what is happening.
CBC News: What is the evidence? How many interviews did you conduct and with what range of interviewees?
Lefkow: Human Rights Watch spent more than six months conducting the research for this report. We interviewed more than 200 people across a wide geographic and ethnic spectrum, in several states, over the course of several different trips to Ethiopia.
The geographic range shows that the abuses aren’t localized, they’re not just the product of a few rogue officials. This was very challenging research because it’s incredibly difficult to interview people in rural Ethiopia.
The government’s surveillance apparatus is extensive. It reaches into almost every household, so there’s a deep climate of fear. Even if one person has been punished in a rural village — by losing access to a food-for-work program, for instance — that’s enough to send a message to the whole community.
The report is not a comprehensive survey, that still needs to be done. But it shows that there is a serious problem that can’t be swept under the carpet.
CBC News: Could you summarize your recommendations to the donor countries and agencies?
Lefkow: Ethiopia is widely viewed as a success story for economic development and this report shows a much more sinister side of how development aid is being used in the country.
Donors currently give more than $3 billion a year to Ethiopia. Some of these programs are flagship programs, and many of them have good goals and do provide much-needed aid to people.
The problem is that although many donor officials privately admit that Ethiopia is becoming more repressive and authoritarian, we’re not seeing that recognition reflected in the way donors are engaging with the government.
We’re not seeing human rights even raised as a concern by all donors, much less any lucid questioning of how their programs are contributing to repression. Human Rights Watch is not calling for all aid to be suspended. We are calling for certain programs that purportedly support “democratization” to be suspended.
For example, there’s a multimillion-dollar program, the so-called Democratic Institutions Program, that is supposed to promote good governance and build the capacity of government institutions. We think these programs should be cut immediately, because they are only contributing to a repressive single-party state.
But other programs that support health, for instance, these are programs that should be reviewed and independently investigated, and the monitoring should be done much more strictly, but not cut.
CBC News: Describe the reaction to your report by the World Bank and donor countries.
Donors currently give more than $3 billion a year to Ethiopia. (Jose Cendon/IFRC/Reuters)
Lefkow: We sent a letter of our findings to the World Bank and donors months ago, and met with many of the agency officials in person.
The reaction was mixed. On the one hand, some donors did acknowledge the issues we were raising and the broader political environment. Some acknowledged that their monitoring wouldn’t even capture the kind of discrimination we were concerned about.
But there’s a tendency to wring their hands and to complain that it’s so difficult to deal with Ethiopia, and then do nothing. I think a lot of donor agencies have yet to recognize that “business as usual” isn’t good enough.
We have been raising concerns about the growing repression in Ethiopia for several years now, yet donor aid is rising all the time, it has doubled since 2004 despite donor concerns at that time about the “political capture” of donor funds.
We all saw that the May 2010 elections were a perfect illustration of just how problematic the environment has become. It’s time for donors to review their policies.
CBC News: Some have said that western donor countries have less leverage in Ethiopia that one might expect because of the presence of China as an alternative source of aid money. What do you think of this argument?
Lefkow: This is a threat that the Ethiopian government likes to dangle at donors, but I don’t think China is going to replace the funds that are given by the Western donors.
Much of Chinese aid goes into infrastructure and other kinds of projects. It’s not the kind of budget support that Western donors are giving, even if that budget support is going to regional governments rather than the central government.
CBC News: Can you explain how Ethiopia is of strategic importance to the West, and how does this perhaps inhibit criticism of suppression of dissent and indirectly lead to the misuse of aid money?
A woman sits on sacks of food in southern Ethiopia. Canada is Ethiopia’s fourth largest donor, giving more than $152 million US in 2008. (Jose Cendon/IFRC/Reuters)
Lefkow: Donors are very concerned about Sudan, about Somalia, and about the burgeoning terrorism threat in the region, and Ethiopia is considered an important strategic and security ally.
Ethiopia is also considered “stable,” so of course these other interests play into the donor dynamics. Development agencies have also invested hundreds of millions in Ethiopia, so there may not be much interest in rocking the boat.
All of these interests contribute to a pervasive timidity on the part of donors when it comes to criticizing Ethiopia. And Ethiopia has been very clever at scapegoating some of the smaller countries that have been critical. For example, some of the Scandinavian countries have had their diplomats expelled when they’ve tried to raise human rights issues.
The donors need to unite around a common set of benchmarks — changing the status quo will require some strategic and bold leadership on the part of some of the larger donors — like the United Kingdom and the United States.
CBC News: There is a concern that negative reporting about aid to Africa fuels the anti-aid camp, those who argue that aid is easily corrupted and often futile. What are your thoughts on this?
Lefkow: I don’t agree that all aid should be cut, and that’s certainly not what we’re calling for in this report. I think it’s possible to give aid in appropriate ways, with good monitoring and a lucid political understanding.
But donors need to set out their red lines for what is unacceptable. Right now they have already crossed too many. For instance, the new law regulating NGOS, this law essentially bans work on human rights and good governance — that should have been a red line.