Resettlement and Human Rights Watch’s unsound and shoddy methodology

(Jan. 20, 2012 – A Week in the Horn of Africa)

This week, Human Rights Watch produced yet another of its deliberately emotive reports on Ethiopia, this time claiming the government under its villagization program was forcibly relocating some 70,000 ‘indigenous’ people in the Gambella Regional State to new villages that lack adequate food, land for farming, health care or educational facilities. In its report entitled “Waiting here for Death: Forced Displacement and Villagization in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region”, HRW also claimed villagization was intended to clear the way for large -scale commercial land investment and that donors, at least indirectly, were funding the program. 

In fact, the Government resettlement program is part of its strategy to ensure pastoralist areas of the country benefit from development and are provided with the necessary socio-economic infrastructures. So far some 125,000 households have been resettled in Gambella, Benishangul and Somali regions, and out of these 20,000 are in Gambella region. The Gambella Regional State action plan for the region provides for infrastructural development, including schools, health posts, water schemes and roads. The program has a three year life-span and the inhabitants were fully consulted before any action was taken. Under the program according to the Federal Affairs Ministry in Gambella region alone, 22 health posts, 19 schools, 18 veterinary clinics and 30 grinding mills have been built, over 70 irrigation schemes set up, more than 400 water pumps supplied and some 128 kms of road constructed. The success of the program can be seen in the willingness of people to be included in it. 

HRW’s latest report is one of a series over several years either written by HRW itself and by other organizations to which HRW has given its imprimatur, unsuccessfully trying to attack the policies of the Ethiopian government, claiming the use of aid for political purposes, enforced villagization or similar activities. These have even gone so far as to call on the international community to end developmental and humanitarian aid to the country. These reports have been successively and comprehensively demolished by donors and their embassies in Ethiopia and by NGOs operating in the areas where these alleged activities have been taking place. Last year, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, even felt it necessary to emphasize that he rejected Human Rights Watch’s methodology as “unsound”; earlier, his department had been obliged to insist that the BBC’s Newsnight program broadcast a correction to a report to emphasize that “DfID officials in Ethiopia did make regular field visits to look into 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 response to earlier HRW allegations, the Donor’s Development Assistance Group (DAG) underlined that it did “not concur with the conclusions of the HRW report regarding widespread systematic abuse of development aid in Ethiopia”. Individual donors and NGOs have repeatedly felt it necessary to disassociate themselves from unfounded and spurious HRW allegations. 

Despite these constant and consistent refutations of HRW’s reports, and Ethiopia’s own detailed rebuttals of HRW’s claims, HRW’s sole response has typically been to ignore any criticisms, and suggest, as in this latest report, that any other evidence, from whatever source, however reputable, should be disregarded when it disagrees with HRW: “In early 2011 as the program got underway, several donors were concerned and commissioned their own assessments of villagization. While these assessments underscored concerns with poor planning and issues relating to food insecurity, donors were not overly alarmed with what they found, and deemed the processes, as noted below, to be voluntary. This finding is inconsistent with Human Rights Watch’s field research.” Again and again, this is the only argument HRW employs in response to the fact that government, donors or other independent bodies have repeatedly investigated these issues and been satisfied. It merely repeats: “this finding is inconsistent with HRW’s field research”. Everybody else’s evidence is to be disregarded. Only HRW’s claims should be accepted!  

In fact, as Andrew Mitchell indicated, there are very serious questions to be asked over HRW’s methodology and these must seriously affect how its reports are considered. HRW, for example, always refuses to provide details of its interviewees, their names or their background, to identify where either interviews have taken place or give any details of when and where alleged incidents occur. It claims this is for the safety of informants, and while this may have some validity in certain circumstances, it does, of course, have the very useful effect for HRW of making it impossible for others to check its findings. It also makes it difficult if not impossible for the authorities to investigate, verify or respond to alleged criminal or illegal activities, which in turn allows HRW to complain about government failures to respond.     

It also makes it impossible to check whether HRW is covering a random or representative sample of population, of relevant issues or indeed of areas involved. It claims it tries to interview a wide range of people across gender, age, ethnicity, urban and rural, and geographic lines but there is no evidence of this. Indeed although HRW claims to have carried out over a hundred interviews altogether in the Gambella region as well as in the Dabaab refugee camp in Kenya and in Nairobi, in May and June last year, it is clear from footnotes that well over half of these were carried out in the Dabaab camp in Kenya. So less than fifty interviews were carried out in Gambella to evaluate a program that HRW claims is dealing with 70,000 people and less than half the districts involved were covered. It is not a level of investigation than can support HRW’s claims. 

In some respects, the surprise is that HRW found so few critics. It is no secret that there were some problems as the program got under way and some organizational hiccups. There were some cases where facilities weren’t fully in place before arrival, and others had difficulty over water supplies. Not everybody was satisfied when they arrived at the new villages. There was no concealment. Nevertheless, it is clear that the majority is settling in their new homes and it is clear that problems have been neither widespread nor systematic. Despite all its efforts HRW has simply failed to provide evidence that this is the case. Its statements on government policy as usual are based less on known actions or actual research than on previously reached positions, frequently related to opposition claims. It is very clear from the pattern of reports HRW has produced in recent years, and indeed from the admission of former HRW researchers, that HRW has long decided that the government of Ethiopia is “bad”. Everything in terms of villagization and other development programs is to be interpreted in terms of this assertion. It is hardly coincidental that time and again, donors, NGOs and other independent visitors have consistently failed to find any of the evidence that HRW claims is easily available. 

HRW never allows independent witnesses to its activities nor is it prepared to accept the normal academic process of ‘peer review’, always demanding that its own allegations be taken on trust. It refuses to accept the evidence of any other organizations, continuing to accept its own claims, even if everyone else disagrees with it. It refuses to give details of its interview techniques which frequently seem to involve asking leading questions and making very clear what answers are expected. Hectoring, even threatening, are words that leap to mind. 

Significantly, HRW never appears to investigate the political persuasion of its alleged sources, or consider the possibility that its informants might have political motives or provide information for others to do so. It never appears to consider whether its own informants might have been pressured nor does it evaluate its own local employees, including interpreters, for political interests or vulnerability. In fact, HRW simply never bothers to relate its ‘evidence’ to the political situation. This is an extraordinary omission, particularly as a recent academic paper described the Gambella Regional State as one of the most conflict-ridden regions in Ethiopia. The paper actually claims that “the dominant pattern of inter-group relations in the region is conflict”. This may well be an exaggeration but the fact remains that HRW totally ignores long-standing stresses within the society all of which impacts on the information people are prepared to provide. Equally relevant is the existence of certain opposition elements in the region that have been both armed and supported by Eritrea at various times. 

HRW claims it finds “significant differences between interviews conducted outside of Ethiopia, where people are free to speak without fear of retribution, and interviews conducted in Ethiopia, where fear and intimidation limit the freedom to speak openly”.  This is hardly true of Ethiopia, but even more it displays breathtaking naivety in the apparent belief that people in the refugee camps are free to speak openly. It is well known that opposition groups operate in all the Dabaab camps as they do in Nairobi and in the Diaspora. This is a point known to seriously affect earlier HRW reports where HRW has allowed itself to be used by terrorist organizations like the so-called Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front. 

HRW repeatedly uses shoddy journalistic techniques, including exaggerated and emotive headlines and phrases designed to attract media or fund-raising attention. One example is the title of this report – “Waiting here for Death: Forced Displacement and ‘Villagization in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region”. The ‘evidence’ in the report scarcely supports the claim. At one point the report does briefly, if grudgingly, acknowledge that communities which refuse to move are allowed to stay put. This clearly underlines the voluntary nature of the program. HRW, which has claimed the program is involuntary, then immediately adds the un-provable caveat “thus far”. This is typical of its deliberate, and disreputable, tactics to mislead.     

HRW is either terrifyingly naïve and often, quite frankly, stupid. Of course, it is deliberately playing politics. None of this redounds to its credit and it is hardly surprising that it vociferously denies these options.  However, its output shows signs of a clear political agenda and of attempts to get foreign support for legislative changes in Ethiopia, neither within the purlieus of HRW’s ostensible aims. Significantly, in its ‘recommendations’ to the Government of Ethiopia and to the international community, HRW harks back to its repeated efforts to get several pieces of Ethiopian legislation repealed including the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation and the Anti-terrorist Proclamation, all legislation to which HRW has taken violent exception. None of it has, of course, any relevance to villagization in the Gambella Regional State, but the first has very specific relevance to HRW as it insists that organizations like HRW when operating in Ethiopia have to be annually audited and licensed. This is something to which HRW has vigorously objected, apparently believing it should be above any such ‘petty’ regulations.

In sum, this report is a shoddy and prejudicial piece of work, written to buttress HRW’s previously rejected efforts to try to persuade international donors to cut developmental and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia despite its position as one of the poorest countries in the world. In its arrogance, the hallmark of what is in fact a highly controversial approach to human rights, HRW does not bother to try to defend or even explain itself. It merely repeats, parrot-like, that HRW’s research “does not bear this out”. It consistently refuses to provide any opportunity to investigate the reality of its own claims, and has yet to produce any acceptable reasons why it should be believed. Despite HRW assertions, repetition does not render false allegations any more accurate or acceptable.    

It is hardly surprising that an article in the liberal UK newspaper, the Guardian, a little over a year ago suggested that human rights had become an excuse for anyone who wanted “to depose the government of a poor country with resources? … to bash Muslims? …to undermine governments that are raising their people up from poverty because they don’t conform to the tastes of upper west side [New York] intellectuals?” Human rights, it suggested, had in fact become the catchword of a movement which had lost its way. The article noted that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, and others all promoted “an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call “universal”. In some cases, their work, far from saving lives, actually causes more death, more repression, more brutality, and an absolute weakening of human rights….The problem is its narrow, egocentric definition of what human rights are.” That succinctly sums up the problem with Human Rights Watch’s aims, operations and methodology. It “desperately needs a period of reflection, deep self-examination and renewal”. That comment was written in December 2010. Judging by its recent reports, HRW still needs exactly that today.


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