On Sept. 21, 2011, BBC Newsnight program aired a segment, which was supposed to be a follow-up to the one Newsnignt aired last August on allegations of political distortions of aid.

The August story was said to be a product of a ‘joint undercover investigation’ conducted by the Newsnight program of BBC and another recently launched British media, named ‘The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)’. While Newsnight presented the story in video, TBIJ published the story it in 12 articles, on the same day, apparently for maximum effect.

Both Newsnight and TBIJ had been severely criticized for the lack of objectivity, factual discrepancies and methodological flaws by Ethiopian and foreign commentators.

Indeed, the story broadcasted on Newsnight was refuted by a investigative report (video) conducted by Ethiopianfirst.com. On the other hand, all the 12 stories published by TBIJ had been thoroughly reviewed and discredited in a research conducted by Danielberhane’s Blog.

Yet, BBC Newsnight and its partner TBIJ (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism) were not tempted to review the criticisms, let alone retract it.

Well, it is common for a journalist to be defensive of his work, while refraining from further blunders.

But that is not what happened with BBC and TBIJ. Instead, they took it even further.

The Sept. 21 BBC Newsnight’s program

The 15 minutes program BBC Newnight’s aired on Sept. 21 was for most part a rehash of the segment it aired on August. Not only the contents, but also the very film itself was repeated.

There were two additions, however.

The first is an interview of British Secretary of State for Development Aid, Andrew Mitchell with Newsnight’s presenter Jeremy Paxman. Not only Michell refuted Newsnight’s allegations, but the attempt to spin the interview earned Newsnight another debacle. (See the text of the interview here and the foiled spin here ).

Newsnight cited two leaked US Embassy Cables, published by Wikileaks, claiming that they corroborate the allegations Newsnight made on its August program.

But that was a crude misrepresentation no self-respecting journalist would attempt, even less one from the BBC.

Let’s briefly see the two Cables.

The first Cable

Newsnight cited a US Embassy Cable as saying:

… consistent reports of hangings of civilians, branding people, gang rape, arbitrary detentions and killings, forced conscription, and denial of access to food and water resources. These, combined with consistent reports from elsewhere in the region over the past few months, paint a picture of the horror inflicted on the civilian population as part of Ethiopia’s counter-insurgency against the Ogaden National Liberation Front(ONLF).

The quote above is taken from from the first paragraph of a Dec. 2007 Cable. The full paragraph reads:

In a series of private discussions on the margins of a December 1-2 pastoralist conference held in Ethiopia’s Somali region (reftel), reliable senior Ogadeni elders reported to Deputy Political Counselor and USAID Officer (EmbOffs) a disturbing pattern of widespread, systemic human rights abuses by Ethiopian Government (GoE) and Ethiopian military (ENDF) forces in the Ogaden. Elders from four of the five Ogaden zones told consistent reports of hangings of civilians, branding people, gang rape, arbitrary detentions and killings, forced conscription, and denial of access to food and water resources. These, combined with consistent reports from elsewhere in the region over the past few months, paint a picture of the horror inflicted on the civilian population as part of Ethiopia’s counter-insurgency against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).

You may wish to ask whether a single US Embassy Cable based on four individuals interviewed is a conclusive evidence. Let’s save that discussion for another day.

You may also question how far the writer of the Cable efforted to ascertain the reliability of the individuals, since it claims the ‘elders’ came from ‘from four of the five Ogaden zones.’ Mark you, Ogaden is the name of a clan not a Zone, nor a district.

At any rate, the Cable contains the following insightful statements:

* ‘The elders said that much of their information was dated because they were in exile or hiding in cities in the Ogaden, events having occurred between January and September 2007.  They insisted conditions in the Ogaden have not improved.  It was very difficult to elicit specific names, times and dates of incidents of human rights abuses.’

[Notice that: the ‘elders’ were not providing a first-hand information and/or nor was it current. Even worse, they provided neither names, nor dates. Yet, of course, they got ‘reliable’ stories.]

* ‘The elders did not express any fear of terrorism or extremism in their areas but, rather, clearly saw the GoE and the ENDF as a real threat to their safety.’

[Notice that: this is just six months after ONLF killed about 70 unarmed Chinese and Ethiopian oil workers. Indeed, how could they fear ONLF, which is fighting to liberate them from ‘colonialism’]

* ‘When asked what effects the ENDF tactics have had on Ogadenis’ attitudes toward the GoE, one Korahe elder said frankly "our only option now is separation." Other elders were less willing to be so blunt.’

* ‘Federal Member of Parliament and Chair of parliament’s pastoralist subcommittee confirmed to UK EmbOff that: 1) the GoE uses untrained and under-equipped militia to engage the ONLF; 2) the ONLF’s support base appears to have increased, with some fluctuations in numbers; and 3) overzealous local ENDF leaders appear to exceed their authority.’

* ‘Ethiopia’s National Security Advisor Abay Tsehaye is firmly in charge at the top, he does not ‘micro-manage’ about tactics on the ground.’

Even the Cable, which is obviously biased towards taking the allegations at face value, concluded:

‘While it is certainly possible, and probably quite likely, that senior Ethiopian government officials have not sanctioned or may not even be aware of such tactics deployed, the overwhelming consistency in specific details conveyed by disparate individuals from far flung regions of the Ogaden across a period of several months leaves little doubt that the Ethiopian military has, and continues to, engage in wanton human rights abuses.’

At any rate, this was on the year 2007.

In 2008, the Federal government launched an official investigation and issued a detailed report concerning all allegations of abuse. In deed, a few military officers were also Court marshaled.

All these somewhat skipped  BBC Nesnight’s attention, except for a very misleading phrases taken from the first paragraph of the Cable.

The second Cable

Newsnight also took the following quote from another Cable:

Recent allegations of the politicization of foreign assistance in Ethiopia, including humanitarian food aid, are consistent with reports by non-governmental organizations, opposition political parties, the media, and members of the international donor community.

Again that was cherry-picked from the first paragraph of a Nov. 2009 Cable. The full paragraph reads:

Recent allegations of the politicization of foreign assistance in Ethiopia, including humanitarian food aid, are consistent with reports by non-governmental organizations, opposition political parties, the media, and members of the international donor community.  The manipulation of humanitarian assistance for political benefit by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since 2005 should be viewed in the context of broader efforts to utilize government resources to ensure EPRDF’s political and electoral supremacy.  U.S. foreign assistance is less vulnerable than many countries’ aid because the USG insists on maintaining a large measure of control over the mechanics of aid distribution.  Post strongly endorses the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) as the most effective and most closely monitored assistance program of its kind and urges other donors to adopt PSNP-type anti-manipulation safeguards.  Although USAID is confident that PSNP funds are being directed to legitimate beneficiaries, EPRDF members may well be receiving priority.  Efforts to monitor food distribution are aimed at making sure vulnerable people are fed and cannot be expanded to include investigation of political pressures applied to those people without jeopardizing that primary mission.

In fact, the Cable even more strongly contradicts, rather than support, Newsnight’s allegations.

Remember Newsnight’s original claims, in its August program, were:

A joint undercover investigation by BBC Newsnight and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has uncovered evidence that the Ethiopian government is using billions of dollars of development aid as a tool for political oppression.
Posing as tourists the team of journalists travelled to the southern region of Ethiopia.
There they found villages where whole communities are starving, having allegedly been denied basic food, seed and fertilizer for failing to support Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

However, the Cable dismisses the claims as follows:

As reports of patronage have increased since 2005, Post [the Embassy] has become keenly aware that foreign assistance, including U.S. humanitarian assistance, is vulnerable to politicization.  Direct budget support, which the USG does not provide but is favored by many donors, is the most vulnerable form of assistance.  As an example, Post has received numerous reports of graft and politicization of donor support provided through the Provision of Basic Services (PBS) program, which provides block grants to regional governments and is coordinated by the World Bank. 
PSNP, to which the U.S. is a major contributor, is a highly monitored program operated by the GoE and NGOs with donor support that provides cash and food to more than seven million Ethiopians in exchange for labor, in a graduated system designed to move families toward food security.  While PSNP has been the object of allegations of politicization leveled by the opposition and has received recent media coverage, PSNP has easily the best safeguards in this regard among all assistance programs in Ethiopia.  These safeguards include semiannual "Joint Review of Implementation and Support" missions, quarterly financial audits, targeting studies, Rapid Response Team field visits, regular beneficiary benefit transfer reports, and an appeals system.  The strong support PSNP receives from the donor community is a result of these safeguards and the fact that PSNP is more closely monitored than other programs.

In recognition of the vulnerability of foreign assistance to politicization, USAID and other PSNP donors have examined transparency in PSNP selection of beneficiaries and distribution of assistance, and agreed upon a framework to ensure accountability and investigate allegations of corruption and politicization.  An independent study conducted in 2008 showed that 85% of PSNP participants believe the selection process is fair, and a recent USAID Fiduciary Risk Study revealed no evidence of direct political interference.  Although the forthcoming HRW [Human Rights Watch] report reportedly cites examples of PSNP-related corruption in times of extreme food insecurity, when some monitoring safequards are relaxed in order to expedite distribution, USAID is confident that PSNP resources are not directed to unqualified (i.e., food secure) families as a result of political connections. 

USAID’s recent Fiduciary Risk Study confirmed that families known to local officials (who are usually EPRDF members) are more likely to receive PSNP support.  It is also possible that opposition party members hide their political sentiments in an attempt to avoid repercussions, that they are afraid to voice their concerns to donor monitors, or that politicization is simply not overt.  While Post is confident that local officials are not checking voter ID cards when selecting beneficiaries, for example, party affiliation is well known in remote areas and may subtly influence decisions.

The Cable concludes:

The politicization of humanitarian assistance, including both emergency relief food and distributions made through structured programs such as PSNP, is merely one example of the GoE’s utilization of government resources to strengthen support for the ruling party, and should be viewed in the context of all EPRDF preparations for the 2010 elections. While U.S. humanitarian assistance is less vulnerable to GoE manipulation because it is provided through neutral NGOs and structured programs, all assistance is vulnerable. PSNP, which has received much scrutiny of late, is an easy target because of its high visibility, but it is in fact less susceptible to politicization than most aid.

The Cable clearly dismisses allegation on political distortions in the safety-net [PSNP] and relief programs.

Of course, the Cable seems to hint that the PBS, which is not funded by United States is vulnerable. I am not sure how much weight I would give to a US cable comment about a European funded program. But that is not relevant here.

(PBS) Protection of Basic Services is a program mainly intended to assist service delivery institutional capacity in roads, health, education, water, and agricultural extension sectors, matching every two dollars of government spending with one dollar from donors.

And, its relation with Newsnight’s allegations is remote, if any.

Moreover, both UK’s Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell and The Department for International Development(DFID) dismissed the allegations. DFID made Newsnight read the following statement on its Friday September 23, broadcast:

The Department for International Development has confirmed that, as Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell made clear on Wednesday’s programme, DFID officials in Ethiopia did make regular field visits to look into the allegations of aid distortion.

Those field visits — and dozens of similar visits by other donor agencies — made clear that there was no systemic distortion for political reasons in the distribution of aid.

Having observed the flagrant deceits in Newsnight’s August and September programs, one can not help to wonder what they got in store for October.



1. Reflections on BBC and TBIJ Media Onslaught – (in this blog) a detailed analysis of all the stories posted by BBC’s partner ‘the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’ on the issue at the time.

2. Ethiopiafirst.com ‘s investigative of BBC Newsnight’s allegations – Video (link))


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