Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter, titled ‘Ethiopia: Letter Regarding UK Development Assistance’, to UK’s Secretary of State for Development Aid, Andrew Mitchell, last Friday. Written by Jan Egeland, Deputy Executive Director and Europe Director of Human Rights Watch, the letter is directly addressed to Secretary Andrew Mitchell who is in charge of Department for International Development (DFID) .

The letter begins saying:Jan Egeland - Human Rights Watch’s deputy executive director of Europe

’I write in response to your September 21, 2011 appearance on BBC’s Newsnight programme in which you discussed Britain’s development aid to Ethiopia and allegations of the misuse of that assistance for political purposes.’

That is the interview with BBC Newsnight’s presenter Jeremy Paxman, in which Andrew Michell emphatically dismissed allegations of systemic political distortion of British aid in Ethiopia saying: ‘my investigators are the officials who are based in Ethiopia and run the British development programme there. And they investigated these allegations – and as I say they discovered that there was no systemic misuse of food support’.

The letter then states:

‘Human Rights Watch welcomes your (Michell’s) statement to Jeremy Paxman that, "These allegations need to be investigated and the British government will press for them to be so in an open and independent way." This is indeed what should happen. However, your Department has so far failed to conduct a serious investigation into existing allegations of aid manipulation, although this material was first shared with you in late 2009.’

Actually, Andrew Michel was interviewed to address the allegations broadcasted last August on Newsnight as ‘new revelations’. Observers quickly noted that there was nothing new in those allegations rather simply recycled from Human Rights Watch’s reports. Except for a few items added to sensationalize the story. In fact, Newsnight prepared that segment in collaboration with a new British outlet, named ‘the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)’. TBIJ can be said a cousin of Human Rights Watch, as it is established and operating by a £ 2 million Pound Sterling donation from an NGO which as well dishes out hundred thousands of Pounds to Human Rights Watch.

Unsurprisingly, Human Right Watch’s letter didn’t bother to cite Newsnight’s ‘new revelations’. As, there was none. Rather, the letter directly refers the original source of the allegations. That is, a sort of study Human Right Watch conducted in its 2009 visit to Ethiopia, which served as the basis of the reports the organization issued concerning Ethiopia.

The first of those was a report, titled ‘One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure‘, published in March 2010, just three months before Ethiopia’s national elections.

However, shortly after Human Right Watch published the report, the allegations were refuted by a study report, titled ‘Aid Management and Utilisation in Ethiopia: A study in response to allegations of distortion in donor-supported development programmes’, published in July 2010, by the Development Assistance Group (DAG), the grouping of 26 donor countries and organizations. Though the donors group, DAG, launched the study prior to the release of Human Right Watch report, the timing of the publication was a slap on HRW’s face. At least, it seems, Human Right Watch took it that way.

Yet, Human Right Watch rehashed its March 2010 report and published it under a new title, ‘Development without Freedom’, in Oct. 2010. Indeed, the later report itself explicitly admits it is based on a study conducted for the former.

Let’s continue reading the letter:

‘Human Rights Watch raised allegations of the political manipulation of development and humanitarian aid with British officials in Ethiopia in October 2009. Our report "Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia," published in October 2010, detailed political manipulation by Ethiopian authorities affecting nearly all elements of donor assistance to Ethiopia, including emergency humanitarian food aid and long-term development assistance in the form of training, infrastructure support, agricultural assistance, support to education, the civil service, and democracy promotion.’

Indeed, Human Right Watch’s Oct. 2010 report made several allegations of ‘political manipulation by Ethiopian authorities’, which were essentially similar to those made in its March 2010 report.

One of the few additions in the October report, however, was a direct and unequivocal attack on DFID (UK’s Department for International Development) officials in Addis Ababa, claiming that ‘they see these positive signs and signals that no one else can see’ and referring to them as ‘believers in the [ruling party] EPRDF project’. (‘The EPRDF project’ is indicated elsewhere in the report as: ‘they believe in Ethiopia’s right to develop. They have a long-term plan for this country and they think they are the only ones who can implement it’).

Incredulously, the report labels DFID officials as ‘PBS zealots’. PBS, or Protection of Basic Services, is a program that assists service delivery in roads, health, education, water, and agricultural extension sectors, matching every two dollars of government spending with one dollar from donors. Yet, Human Rights Watch didn’t mean it as a compliment rather to discredit the UK officials.

At the time, singling out those officials for attack seemed a maneuver to intimidate UK into accepting Human Rights Watch’s demands, as UK is a major donor to Ethiopia. However, now, with the letter indicating that Human Rights Watch shared its opinions with British officials prior to the publication of its first report, it seems that Human Rights Watch officials concluded that the British tipped the Ethiopians, thereby prompting the launching of a counter study – which DAG published in July 2010, only three months after the one by Human Rights Watch.

That must be why, following the publication of Human Rights Watch’s October report, which directly accuses the Britons, that DAG felt compelled to underline the common position of donorsDAG - Development Assistance Group Ethiopia by issuing an immediate press statement. DAG’s press release, issued a day after Human Rights Watch’s October report, underlines that:

‘We take allegations of misuse of development assistance very seriously. That is why, even before the earlier HRW report, One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure , the DAG commissioned an independent Aid Management and Utilisation Study in Ethiopia to examine the vulnerability of the programmes we support to possible misappropriation.

We do not concur with the conclusions of the recent HRW report regarding widespread, systematic abuse of development aid in Ethiopia. Our study did not generate any evidence of systematic or widespread distortion. We, nonetheless, recognize that the programmes we support are not immune to the potential for aid misuse and have therefore included safeguard measures to address these risks. These measures include a range of rigorous checks such as regular financial audits, independent evaluations, independently-commissioned surveys and field monitoring visits to make sure our aid achieves the intended development results and its benefits reach those who need them.’

Of course, this didn’t sway Human Rights Watch, though it needed two months to respond publicly.

Let’s return to the letter:

‘We [Human Rights Watch] discussed the allegations in detail with the British ambassador to Ethiopia and the head of the Department for International Development (DFID) in Ethiopia in December 2009; with yourself and the then ambassador in November 2010; and again with the head of DFID in Ethiopia in April and July 2011. In December 2010 Human Rights Watch also wrote to the British government and its partners in the Development Assistance Group (DAG), which coordinates aid to Ethiopia, criticizing donors for not investigating the allegations and urging them to do so.’

I am not sure whether Human Rights Watch got a reply to the Dec. 2010 letter. But it shouldn’t be surprising if otherwise.

Human Rights Watch had received at least two direct letters, in March and April 2010, from DAG. Again, DAG’s issued a study report in July and a press statement in October that year. All the four are relevant to Human Rights Watch’s claims. DAG and the Britons might have found it too taxing to write a letter every other month, only to reiterate the same points.

In fact, according to unofficial accounts, Human Rights Watch’s officials were circling European capitals in late 2010 in a bid to persuade donors to freeze parts, if not all, of the development aid to Ethiopia.

Let’s continue reading the letter:

‘In late 2010 Human Rights Watch was told by DFID that a field-based investigation into the allegations was planned by the DAG. Indeed it was recommended in the study commissioned by the DAG to examine monitoring mechanisms. But DFID officials then told Human Rights Watch in April 2011 that the investigation had been cancelled and was no longer deemed necessary.

You [Michell] said in the Newsnight interview that DFID officials had investigated the allegations but, "found no evidence at all of systemic misuse of food support." However, a proper investigation capable of drawing conclusions about the nature of abuses by the Ethiopian government would need to be conducted at the field level, and our understanding is that no such investigation has been undertaken. Exactly this point is made in the DAG desk-based study which donors’ misleadingly cited as a basis for dismissing the Human Rights Watch report. The limits of a desk-based study were explained in the DAG report, footnote 22: In order to understand how the programs, the systems and their safeguards work in practice it would be necessary to go beyond reviewing documentation and to gather additional evidence from the field. As such, the current study – while having made use of the best available evidence – remains exploratory.

Nor therefore can the former study be construed as a basis to disprove the allegations.’

This is the main theme of the letter. Human Rights Watch is claiming that DAG’s study report do not disprove its allegations. The subtext is that Human Right Watch’s reports are qualitatively superior.

Putting aside the beauty contest, let’s briefly note two of the flaws in this claim.

To begin with, though DAG’s study was conducted to find out if there is a systemic widespread political distortion of aid. It was not meant to investigate the complaints of about a dozen individuals stated on Human Rights Watch’s report. After all, DAG commissioned the study before Human Rights Watch published its March 2010 report.

In fact, DAG’s study states on its first paragraph that: ‘the Development Assistance Group (DAG) commissioned a study to assess the rigour of the programme systems and safeguards that are designed to ensure that aid is spent effectively.’

The study identified strengths and weaknesses in the system, thus recommended a number of improvements. Yet, it found no evidence of systemic misuse of food support.

Of course, an investigation of individuals’ complaints is useful to ensure the respect of their Constitutional rights and provide redress. That is, if Human Rights Watch can provide their names and location. But such an investigation, whether it proves or disproves the allegations, could not show the bigger picture. That is: whether there is a systemic political distortion of aid by the Ethiopian government.

Thus, DAG’s study, though not dealing with individual complaints, refutes Human Rights Watch’s conclusions through systemic analysis.

Secondly, though Human Rights Watch claimed in its letter that donors never undertook field level investigation, the truth is to the contrary.

DFID officers in regularly conduct field studies, as Andrew Michell made it clear in his answers, during the interview with Newsnight:British Secretary of State for Development Aid, Andrew Mitchell

Newsnight: Andrew Mitchell do you accept that British aid used for political purposes in Ethiopia?
Mitchell: No, I don’t – but I do accept that there are serious allegations made in your film and those allegations need to be answered. And I raise these allegations when I meet Ethiopian ministers, I’m going to meet one in a few minutes and when I see the Prime Minister Meles I always raise these allegations with him.

Newsnight: But you have never seen them proved?
Mitchell: Well one of the allegations which you mention is about the misuse of food support and we had that investigated by officials in some detail about six or seven months ago and they found no evidence at all of systemic misuse of food support. So I accept completely that these allegations must be looked at – that is the position of the British government, but they are allegations.

Newsnight: Just to be clear about that particular allegation which you say was investigated – did your investigators go to Ethiopia – to the places in question?
Mitchell: Yes, my investigators are the officials who are based in Ethiopia and run the British development programme there. And they investigated these allegations – and as I say they discovered that there was no systemic misuse of food support.

After the interview, Newsnight’s presenter Jeremy Paxman made the misleading claim that: ‘after we recorded that interview the Department for International Development clarified that no department official actually been into the field to specifically investigate allegations of misuse of aid, there investigation was they say a desk based study conducted from Addis Ababa which did not seek to prove or disprove allegations of distortion.’

But that spin was a short-lived one. Two days later, Newsnight had to retract it, on the program, as follows:BBC Newsnight Jeremy Paxman

‘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.’

In fact, the fact that donor officials conduct field studies is indicated on several other documents. For example:

DAG’s Oct. 2010 press release asserted, donors have put in place a number of safeguard measures to address the risks of aid misuse and ‘these measures include a range of rigorous checks such as regular financial audits, independent evaluations, independently-commissioned surveys and field monitoring visits to make sure our aid achieves the intended development results and its benefits reach those who need them.’

A US Embassy Cable of Nov. 2010, published by Wikileaks, stated that:

‘While PSNP [Productive Safety Net Program] 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.

The cable also indicates that at least two field studies had been conducted, saying:

‘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.’

Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch’s letter claims:

‘You [Michell] also asserted that "the accusation is that food aid, which is a very small part of it, is being manipulated, and as I say, British officials have investigated that on the ground and found that we can’t be certain that it never happens but we found no evidence of systemic manipulation of food aid." However, British officials did not investigate that allegation on the ground.’

‘We recognise that the Ethiopian government is extremely resistant to scrutiny. Nonetheless, the British government and other donors to Ethiopia should not allow the Ethiopian government to dictate the terms on which British public money is monitored, and every effort should be made to prevent British development aid from strengthening authoritarian rule and repression.’

Human Rights Watch officials might have missed Newsnight’s embarrassing retraction. Yet, Jan Egeland, the writer of the letter, could use a taxi to drop by DFID office in London and get all the clarifications he needed.

Perhaps, Human Rights Watch decided to try intimidating the Britons through media onslaught, as it does to the Ethiopians.

It should not be surprising, then, Human Rights Watch’s letter received a stern rebuke from Andrew Michell.

Mr. Michell’s response to Human Rights Watch’s letter was as follows:

‘As I have made clear, the British government does not agree with all of your assertions nor your conclusions. We also do not believe the [Human Rights Watch’s] report is methodologically sound.

Human Rights Watch is an organisation for which I have profound respect and admiration.

But it is important not to overstate criticisms in an unbalanced manner, the effect of which will be to undermine the vital work HRW carries out in other parts of the world.

You point out in your letter that the Ethiopian government must not dictate the terms on which British public money is monitored. I am happy to confirm that this is not the case.’


Check the BBC Newsnight archive more on the story.

Daniel Berhane