Human Right Watch released a 105-page report, titled ‘Development without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia’, on Tuesday. As usual, it takes on the Ethiopian government and the ruling party EPRDF and makes a wide-range of allegations.
The report needs to be read critically, though. HRW has a record of making unfounded statements and flawed reports, especially concerning Ethiopia, despite the organizational capacity of HRW and the media attention its report receives. It is to be recalled that it has made one of the most flawed and ill-advised Press Statement immediately after the polling day on may 23/’10. [Read - Hoping to share you my comment on the report, as soon as possible, I posted here the summary of the report and a link to download the full document.
Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Half of Ethiopia’s 85 million people live below the poverty line, and 10 to 20 percent rely on food aid every year. A large percentage of the population needs government assistance in the form of food, seeds, fertilizer, and cash support.
Ethiopia is also one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign development aid. It receives approximately US$3 billion in funds annually—more than a third of the country’s annual budget—from external donors, including the World Bank, the United States, the European Commission, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and Japan. Indeed, Ethiopia is today the world’s second-largest recipient of total external assistance, after Indonesia and excluding wartime Iraq and Afghanistan.
Foreign donors insist that their support underwrites much-needed agricultural growth, food security, and other putatively non-political programs. However, Human Rights Watch research shows that development aid flows through, and directly supports, a virtual one-party state with a deplorable human rights record. Ethiopia’s practices include jailing and silencing critics and media, enacting laws to undermine human rights activity, and hobbling the political opposition.
Led by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the government has used donor-supported programs, salaries, and training opportunities as political weapons to control the population, punish dissent, and undermine political opponents—both real and perceived. Local officials deny these people access to seeds and fertilizer, agricultural land, credit, food aid, and other resources for development.
Such politicization has a direct impact on the livelihoods of people for whom access to agricultural inputs is a matter of survival. It also contributes to a broader climate of fear, sending a potent message that basic survival depends on political loyalty to the state and the ruling party. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in December 2009, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi denied that there was a policy of using government services to discriminate against the opposition and punish dissent. Civil servants who were interviewed separately by Human Rights Watch contradicted him.
Ethiopia’s foreign donors are aware of this discrimination, but have done little to address the problem or tackle their own role in underwriting government repression. As a result, Ethiopia presents a case study of contradiction in aid policy. Donors acknowledge that aid is most effective when defined by accountability and transparency, and when programs are participatory. But development agencies have turned a blind eye to the Ethiopian government’s repression of civil and political rights, even though they recognize these rights to be central to sustainable socioeconomic development.
Donors defend the decision to support the government by pointing to Ethiopia’s stability—particularly when compared to neighboring Somalia—and by highlighting the country’s progress in meeting development indicators. Indeed, both the Ethiopian government and its principal donors contend that Ethiopia has made progress on economic development and in achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. (According to its own reports to the United Nations, Ethiopia is on track to achieve six out of eight goals by 2015, although other statistics are less optimistic.) Some donor officials also argue that broad economic progress outweighs individual political freedoms. Frequently, they also concede that existing monitoring programs are simply not able to track the political manipulation of donor-supported services.
The Ethiopian population pays a heavy price for this approach to development.
During a six-month investigation conducted between June and December 2009, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 200 people in 53 kebeles (villages or neighborhoods) and 27 woredas (districts) across three regions of Ethiopia, as well as in the capital, Addis Ababa. Drawing on interviews with donor officials and victims of human rights violations in Ethiopia’s rural areas, and analysis of donor and government programs and policies, Human Rights Watch researchers found that local officials in these different parts of the country discriminated against the government’s political opponents when distributing government services. The affected services, partly financed by Ethiopia’s largest donor programs, are the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program and the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP). Both are World Bank-led multi-donor initiatives.
For example, Human Rights Watch found evidence that money from the Protection of Basic Services program—which funnels $3 billion over three years into district government budgets for agriculture, roads, health, and education—is being used in some areas to encourage teachers and farmers to join the ruling party, even though these benefits should not be allocated according to political affiliation. The Productive Safety Net Programme—a cash-for-work program for vulnerable populations worth $2 billion over three years—is controlled by local officials who also can restrict its use to those who join the ruling party. Local officials even offered to “forgive” opposition members in need of food and give them access to the program if they wrote a letter of regret to the administration for aligning with the opposition. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s Public Sector Capacity Building Programme, which is used to train civil servants, is simultaneously a vehicle for government officials to indoctrinate trainees on the ruling party’s ideology, and to target opposition supporters in the name of weeding out under-performing staff.
The sensitivity of this issue, and of any independent reporting in Ethiopia, was demonstrated when Human Rights Watch tried to interview farmers from the northern Tigray region who alleged that they were not allowed to participate in the food-for-work program for
political reasons. When Ethiopian government officials learned about the meetings, the farmers were detained and the researcher deported. A foreign journalist who tried to interview the same farmers was also detained and threatened with deportation.
In early 2010, the Development Assistance Group (DAG), a consortium of 26 donor agencies, conducted its own investigation into its members’ mechanisms for detecting the politicization of aid. The resulting report found that donor programs were vulnerable to politicization by the Ethiopian government, but also stated that existing safeguards were working well. In an official response to Human Rights Watch, the DAG maintained that its programs were achieving results and that its monitoring mechanisms were sufficient.
Donor policy has been remarkably unaffected by Ethiopia’s deteriorating human rights situation or donors’ purported concerns over the “political capture” of their funds. In 2005, for example, donors suspended budget support due to electoral violence in which state security forces used excessive force against protestors, killing 200 and arresting over 30,000 people. The same year, the World Bank noted that donor assistance could be compromised if the Ethiopian government did not make progress on political governance. Yet within months, aid was flowing again and even increased under the newly conceived Protection of Basic Services program. Furthermore, a World Bank Country Assistance Strategy in 2008 proposed an imminent return to direct budget support—money with even fewer conditions attached—and presented the EPRDF’s undemocratic character as a technical challenge, rather than one of political will, that could be addressed by providing increased assistance.
Nor did donor policy significantly change toward Ethiopia following the flawed May 2010 general election in which the EPRDF won 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats after a long campaign of intimidating political opponents, restricting civil society and media, and linking government services and educational and job opportunities to support for the ruling party. As of January 2010, when Ethiopia’s new Charities and Societies Proclamation came into effect, it was illegal for human rights groups receiving more than 10 percent of their budget from international sources to operate within Ethiopia.
Donors’ unwillingness to seriously weigh the impact that their funding has on bolstering repressive structures and practices raises general concerns about donor policy toward Ethiopia, and underlines the importance of ensuring that development assistance fulfills long-term goals for the benefit of the population rather than donors’ political or security considerations.
These concerns also mean that donor strategy toward Ethiopia needs fundamental rethinking. In light of the government’s human rights violations, direct budget support to the government should not even be considered, and programs supported by international funds should be independently monitored. Credible audit institutions should examine aid to Ethiopia in the context of whether it contributes to political repression. External donors must also demand that Ethiopia does more than pay lip service to respecting fundamental human rights; they must be more vocal about the steps Ethiopia should take to ensure that its citizens enjoy the rights to which they are entitled under the country’s constitution and international human rights law.