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UK's DFID attacked for effective aid to Ethiopia

Last week in the London Review of Books, Ben Rawlence asked “where does DFID’s money go?” In what is rather an unpleasant little piece he does appear to welcome the rise in DFID’s budget and the fact that the place of foreign aid in British politics appears assured, but he precedes this with the statement that “there has been a raft of scandals involving overpaid consultants, private equity firms and a lack of transparency at DFID last year”. He then asks where the money should go and rapidly dismisses most possible recipients. West African countries – too small; India, Nigeria and Kenya – too rich; Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique – small populations and seriously corrupt; the DRC – on turmoil; and Rwanda – aid suspended.

As for Ethiopia as a possible recipient, much to Rawlence’s horror when the UK Government recently reviewed its aid spending, Ethiopia came out top of the possibilities. Indeed, spending on Ethiopia will rise from £240 million in 2010-11 to £390 million in 2014-15. Rawlence identifies the attraction of Ethiopia as twofold. It is the second most populous state in Sub-Saharan Africa and has, he says, ‘the largest market’ of poor inhabitants. He even admits, reluctantly, that the government appears to get things done and “has made progress towards some of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals”. Actually it has made serious progress in all the MGDs and is likely to be one of only two or three countries to achieve all of them by 2015. Indeed, it appears to be a very positive success story.

But for Mr. Rawlence the increase in aid suggests Ethiopia has become oversubscribed. He claims after the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front won the ‘controversial’ 2005 elections, the donors became worried about “dictatorial tendencies” so they created a ‘Democratic Institutions Program’ to support the office of the ombudsman, a human rights commission and national elections board. It might be noted that all of these had been created earlier by this ‘dictatorial regime’ as he calls it. In 2010, very much the largest party and with several years of substantial economic growth (10% plus), the EPRDF on the basis of exception economic development over several years and faced by a divided and fractured opposition whom many electors blamed for not taking up their parliamentary and Addis Ababa Council seats in 2005, won another multi-party election.

Mr. Rawlence wasn’t pleased. The election merely provided another example of authoritarian rule. Indeed, Human Rights Watch wrote a report alleging that government services, funded by DFID through the donor funded Protecting Basic Services program, were being used as weapons to starve, intimidate or reward people into supporting the ruling party. Mr. Rawlence adds: “full disclosure: I wrote it”.

Full disclosure is hardly the right phrase. The evidence in the ‘report’ did not produce reliable evidence of any systematic misuse of aid as he claimed. The report was strongly criticized by DIFD, donors, embassies and NGOs working in the regions to which the claims refer. Nobody was prepared to back up the claims in the report. The report itself, typically, provided no details sufficient for the government or anyone else to investigate any specific allegations on the ground. As usual, the report and the claims it made were expected to be taken on trust. Given how often a situation seems to occur where all other bodies dispute the claims made, it has to be said this is becoming difficult.

Mr. Rawlence’s only response to the criticisms is typical. He says DFID failed to investigate and claimed the problem didn’t exist. Actually DFID did investigate, so did the UK embassy, so did other independent bodies. Nobody else could find the evidence for the claims – and that might be why they said there was no problem. Equally though, nobody denied, given the number of recipients, several million, that some individual cases of interference are likely to have occurred.

Mr. Rawlence goes on to refer to what he calls the “most audacious authoritarian move yet, the collectivization of 1.5 million people in model villages the better to provide them with the basic services PBS pays for.” The use of the word ‘collectivization’ is presumably deliberate and intended to give a false and misleading impression. Mr. Rawlence knows very well that the policy of villagization bears no relationship to ‘collectivization’. He claims, quoting a case in a UK court brought by one refugee in Kenya, there have been forced relocations, beatings, hunger and insecurity.

This time, Mr. Rawlence acknowledges that DFID have investigated the allegations though he dismisses these as unacceptable calling their investigation “a few staff twice to conduct brief surveys of the villagization program”. In fact there have been two substantial surveys by donors, in February 2011 and again in June August last year, as well as other checks on the progress of what has been identified by almost all those involved as a voluntary process.

In June last year, for example, DFID, USAID, the UN and Irish Aid, carried out a substantial investigation into the villagization process in Gambella Regional State where the project is expected to involve up to 45,000 households. As of mid 2012, some 30,000 households had moved and the report concluded that the first year’s operation seemed to have over-achieved targets though the second year had under-achieved.

The mission’s report noted clear improvements in conditions in the new villages since a previous visit in February 201, with water pumps had been installed and were working, homes had been made safe from flooding, schools provided and road access improved though it also felt more could still be done over health facilities in the new sites. The mission found no concern over food supplies, significantly perhaps some people continued to cultivate their original land and moved back and forth between new and old sites. The mission’s report specifically noted, as did the February 2011 mission, that it found no evidence of forced relocation or systematic human rights abuses. Certainly, a number of people interviewed said they didn’t want to move and there were some claims of unmet promises, but the mission found that communities that objected to moving had stayed.

It might also be added that both in February 2011 and in June 2012, the missions concluded that there was no indication of any previously settled land being used for commercial farming. All villages, with one exception, reported having continued access to their original land none of which had been affected. The June 2012 mission also found greatly increased knowledge of the mechanism for appeals and investigation of grievances, and that the communities visited had no problems raising issues of concern with officials.

In sum, the June 2012 mission, like that a year earlier, found nothing to substantiate those wilder flights of fancy of Mr. Rawlence which are based on claims by Gambella political figures now in exile or members and supporters of Eritrean-based Ethiopian opposition groups. Both missions certainly found that not everything worked as smoothly as it should, and there had been some hiccups. This is not surprising in a villagization program involving the voluntary resettlement of 45,000 households over a three year period and aiming to provide cost-effective service delivery to previously scattered populations, protection of vulnerable commun
ities from natural disasters and cross border attacks, the development of agriculture and the social transformation of previously marginalized communities. It is hardly surprising in light of the numbers involved that there have been some questions over details of the scale, speed and implementation capacity. But this is all a far cry from the sort of allegations peddled by Mr. Rawlence.

DFID doesn’t need us to defend it against these sorts of allegations, of course, but it is worth noting that DFID, which in Ethiopia works to meet the needs of the very poorest, and operates proven results-driven programmes that will bring healthcare, education and water to millions, has always made great efforts to prevent misuse of aid. It recently detailed its Anti-Corruption Strategy for Ethiopia which noted that the Independent Commission on Aid Impact which reviewed DFID’s approach to tackling corruption, found it had a good awareness of the risks. The World Bank’s report ‘Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia’ (2012) said there was low official tolerance for corruption and minimal policy level corruption. It also found petty corruption around service delivery to be less of an issue than in many other countries. In fact, fighting corruption in the public sector was one of the major themes the last Congress of the EPRDF and it is a major element in the Growth and Transformation Plan.

DFID Ethiopia manages one of the largest of DFID’s aid programmes, and over 80% of DFID Ethiopia’s budget is focused on Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets in Health, Education, Poverty and Vulnerability. Progress towards these is largely delivered through support to proven, nationwide government-led programmes, maximized through efforts to strengthen service delivery and accountability at local government level. DFID notes that there is “strong evidence” that this is the most effective way of delivering results in Ethiopia and obtaining value for money. DFID stresses it has a range of controls and measures to ensure positive results, including rigorous risk assessments and monitoring requirements for all projects and programs as well as regular internal and external audits to insure money is spent on the purposes for which it is intended. Recent additional measures include more detailed fraud and corruption risk assessments, enhanced pre-funding ‘due diligence’ checks, and specialized training for staff. DFID provides independent audits to cover procurement, field level supervision and verification.

All this surely ought to satisfy Mr. Rawlence, but regrettably he is only likely to dismiss it all airily on the usual basis that it simply ‘doesn’t agree’ with the ‘evidence’ he and Human Rights Watch produce.

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* Originally published on A Week in the Horn – February 8, 2013 issue, titled “DFID attacked for effective aid to Ethiopia”. Items from A Week in the Horn are re-published here with a permission to do so. You may republish it with attribution and no modification to its contents.

* To read Ben Rawlence’s  piece "Where does DFID’s money go?" – click here.

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