Ethiopia’s villagization program has become a favorite subject for politically motivated critiques by advocacy organizations and human rights groups who appear to have the aim of trying to stop all development and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia. Over the years some of these have made it their business to criticize almost all and every development activity carried out by the Ethiopian government, whether it is the building of dams for hydropower, agricultural extension programs, support for local development structures, funding for local health and education programs and almost all other developments in the regional states of Ethiopia.

The style and tenacity of the current campaign against villagization, especially in the Gambella Region, is similar to accusations made by Human Rights Watch made earlier and other reports it has made against the government. The only difference in this latest attack, alleging the government is forcibly resettling people in Gambella region and beating, killing or raping those who opposed the program, is that it is coming from a much less well known organization called Inclusive Development International. The group claims it has been behind the claim that World Bank funds given for the Protection of Basic Services program are against the Bank’s policies over involuntary settlement and protection to indigenous people.

Inclusive Development International is a California-based group which submitted a complaint on behalf of a few Anuak refugees to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel. This is an internal watchdog group which checks whether Bank projects violate the Bank’s own regulations. The Inspection Panel, after interviewing other refugees in Kenya and South Sudan, recommended further investigations to check if there was any link between the allegations of coercion in the villagization program and the Bank’s Protection of Basic Services program which pays for civil servants involved in health, education and other developments in rural areas. The Executive Board of the World Bank is now considering whether to accept the panel’s report.

The story was promptly picked up by many news outlets who gave it the spin that the World Bank’s independent inspection panel had ordered the Bank’s management to verify whether the PBS funds given to Ethiopia are used for “forced resettlement.” The problem with this and similar allegations is that they are exactly similar to those made earlier by Human Rights Watch and others that villagization is enforced, that villagers are being driven off their land by military action, that the land is being cleared for industrial use, that the government has never consulted local people or carried out environmental studies and so on. All of these have been repeatedly refuted by people who have investigated the allegations on the ground.

Neither Inclusive Development International nor Helen Epstein nor indeed any other similar critics appear to have made any effort to investigate on the ground, to speak to federal or regional government officials or members of the kebeles at local level. It is elementary to suggest that any competent journalistic or other investigation should try to research the claims made and make some effort to validate them, not least to try to see if there is any political element in the claims. It might be added in the context of these allegations that Anuak also live in neighboring countries.

In fact, these claims suffer from serious methodological flaws, not least the fact that they originate from testimonies made by unidentified witnesses which are seldom given any independent or serious scrutiny. The claims of Inclusive Development International echoed in Helen Epstein’s recent article “Why are we funding Abuse in Ethiopia?” does not provide any criteria of credibility. There is no indication that any of the allegations were checked on the ground or any inquiry made at the places alleged to have seen these supposed violations. Nor is there an indication of any effort to check facts. Accuracy remains in very short supply. For example, again and again, the claim is made that Ethiopia has distributed 3.6 million hectares of agricultural land to foreign investors. The reality is that some 330,00o0 hectares have been allocated, 80% to domestic investors. 3.6 million hectares is the area that has been set aside for agricultural development generally.

Where investigations and enquiries have been made, the conclusions are very different. Following a recent visit by a UK Parliamentary delegation, Sir Malcolm Bruce, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for International Development, said in an interview that “DFID and other agencies have monitored the villagization program undertaking a dozen visits to the region, and regarding most of the allegations, what these review missions have concluded is that they could not substantiate the claims. They have not categorically rejected these allegations, but to the most part, they have not been able to return with evidence to substantiate the accusations.” He added: “We cannot make discussions based on allegations”.

DFID was the target of a recent article in the London Review of Books by Ben Rawlence of HRW who also managed to suggest that aid to Ethiopia was getting too much. Dismissing the fact that, as he admitted, the government had been making progress towards some of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (actually it is likely to achieve then all, one of the very few countries to do so), he 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. The ‘report’ did not produce any independent or reliable evidence of systematic misuse of aid as he claimed and it was strongly criticized by DIFD, donors, embassies and all 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 of the specific allegations. As usual, HRW said the report and the claims it made must be taken on trust. Given how often these sorts of allegations are proved to have no basis in fact, this is difficult.

The kind of response made by HRW and others to criticisms of their claims is more or less standard. Donors haven’t investigated and merely claim the problems don’t exist. And this, of course, is simply untrue. There have been repeated investigations including at least two substantial surveys by donors, in 2011 and last year, as well as other checks on the progress of what has been identified by almost all those involved as a voluntary process. As we reported in a Week in the Horn recently, in June last year, for example, DFID, USAID, the UN and Irish Aid, carried out a detailed 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 the previous visit, with water pumps installed and were working, homes made safe from flooding, schools provided and road access improved, though it also felt more could still be done over health facilities at the new sites. They found no concern over food supplies, in part because some people had continued to cultivate their original land and been able to move back and forth between new and old sites. The mission’s report specifically noted, as did the earlier 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 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.

Overall, these missions, like all other investigations on the ground, found nothing to substantiate the wilder politically motivated claims made by opposition politicians in exile, by members and supporters of opposition groups or by human rights advocacy organizations. Certainly the donors and other investigations have found that not everything has always worked as smoothly as it should, and there had been some hiccups. It is not surprising in such a substantial program that there have been some questions over details of scale, speed and implementation capacity. The value of the donor and other investigations on the ground is that they allow defects to be identified and remedied as quickly as possible. In fact, all the genuinely independent investigations underline the improvements that villagization has brought to the lives of the people in Gambella Regional State, and other areas in Ethiopia. The program is making it far easier for the government to deliver basic services, including health centers, schools, water supplies, roads and other developments. For the great majority of those involved the results are certainly welcomed.


* Originally published on A Week in the Horn of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – on March 29, 2013 issue, titled “Vilifying Villagization: more unsubstantiated claims”. Items from A Week in the Horn are re-published here with a permission to do so.

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