We … call on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and America’s Western allies to publicly repudiate Ethiopia’s efforts to use terrorism laws to silence political dissent. We also urge the U.S. to ensure that our more than $600 million in aid to Ethiopia is not used to foster repression.

This is the call to action from a letter published in the New York Review of Books this month.

We at DRI are inspired by the courage of Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist, newspaper publisher, and dissident arrested on September 14th after writing a blog post demanding freedom of expression and an end to torture in Ethiopian prisons. Despite previous arrests, both Eskinder and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, have chosen to remain in Ethiopia and continue their work.

While we don’t want to meddle in other countries’ politics, we do want to speak out against aid that supports rights-violating regimes, in solidarity with Ethiopian citizens who are simply asking to exercise their own civil liberties.

From 2005, when Eskinder Nega was first imprisoned in the aftermath of Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections marred with rigging and violence, to the present, international aid to Ethiopia has more than doubled to well over $4 billion. The three largest donors are the World Bank, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Although they acknowledge “concerns” about governance and the protection of basic human rights, aid agencies continue to increase aid flows, praising the Ethiopian regime for high national growth rates and improvements on some health and poverty metrics. Even if not entirely reliable, these figures allow Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles to capitalize on The Myth of the Benevolent Autocrat, under which a “strong leader” (in the tradition to Lee-Kwan Yew, Deng Xiaoping, and even Paul Kagame) is given undue credit for a period of high growth, and excused for whatever human rights abuses and press freedom repression was deemed necessary in the pursuit of economic growth. Unfortunately for Meles, recent DRI research has found that there is no empirical basis for a belief that unconstrained autocratic leaders outperform democratic leaders.

The Ethiopian predicament raises tough questions for people concerned with both poverty alleviation and human rights. The Ethiopian government uses aid to build schools, vaccinate children, and provide social safety nets for the poor. But a Human Rights Watch report found that the government also systematically uses aid as a political weapon to discriminate against non-party members and punish dissenters. The report found widespread evidence of village leaders withholding seeds, fertilizer, and loans from farmers not in the ruling party, and local officials denying emergency food aid to women, children and the elderly as punishment for refusing to join the party.

In Ethiopia, aid agencies should do all they can to make sure aid helps Ethiopians rather than their rulers. One (albeit imperfect) measure of this is “channel of delivery” – data collected by the OECD on whether country aid agencies route funds through the public sector, NGOs, private-public partnerships, or multilateral organizations. These two graphs show available data for the US and the UK.

US ODA to Ethiopia, by channel of delivery. Source: OECD CRS, 2009

UK ODA to Ethiopia, by channel of delivery. Source: OECD CRS, 2009

Like the UK, the World Bank has long given its aid through direct budget support either to the central or local governments, insisting that social accountability mechanisms are in place to prevent misuse. But many observers and journalists tell a different story: that such mechanisms are either not present, or are not working because independent, third-party observers upon which such accountability measures depend are more often ruling party-affiliated NGOs.  Even a study commissioned by the donors found that two of the programs for Ethiopia’s most needy “face important challenges in their accountability systems” and “significant weakness” in safeguards and monitoring processes intended to detect distortion and produce evidence about whether or not the program works.

While it is logical to believe that the way donors deliver aid can strengthen or weaken the compact between rulers and their people in democratic countries, aid cannot create this compact where it does not exist. Empirical evidence does not support the idea that aid can cause dictatorships to become democracies, and in fact a new DRI working paper suggests that aid is more likely to push countries further down their existing path—so that aid to dictatorships makes them more dictatorial, not less.

Bad news for Eskinder Nega and other dissidents and journalists wrongfully persecuted and imprisoned, as aid agencies continue to empower the regime at the expense of the Ethiopian people.

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