Response to Owen Barder on UK Budget Support

Owen, thanks for responding to our piece. Open debate is an important way to clarify issues and hold us all accountable for the integrity of our intellectual positions. First off, you criticize us for getting our facts wrong on Ethiopia’s elections. We said:

Ethiopia’s autocratic government, which is inexplicably the largest recipient of UK budget support in Africa, won 99% of the vote in the last ‘election’.

And you say:

Nice point, except: a. according to the official results of the 2005 election, the ruling party won 59.8% of the votes…it is nonsense to say that the government received 99% of the vote.

I guess we really left you with a poor impression if you think we can’t even count votes! We were referring to the local elections of April 2008 (the more recent, and hence ‘last’). Human Rights Watch (the source of our original assertion) found, during two weeks of field research in the lead up to the elections, “systemic patterns of repression and abuse that have rendered the elections meaningless in many areas.

HRW concluded that the 2008 elections “provided a stark illustration of the extent to which the government has successfully crippled organized opposition of any kind—the ruling party and its affiliates won more than 99 percent of all constituencies, and the vast majority of seats were uncontested.” An Associated Press article from April 20, 2008 told the same story: “opposition parties said a systematic campaign of beatings, arrests and intimidation forced out more than 17,000 of their candidates.”

You also challenge us on another fact:

The UK does not give budget support to the Federal Government of Ethiopia… the UK Government provides finance to local government (albeit through the existing financial transfer mechanism via central government).

But wait, aren’t those the same local governments that just had the rigged elections? A recent article by Aalen and Tronvoll in the journal African Affairs points out that one of the reasons why the ruling party bothered to fix the local elections so thoroughly was precisely because international donors had cut off budget support to the federal government (in the political mayhem following the 2005 elections) and started channeling it to local government bodies instead. (Anyway, we never made any assertion about which level of government received budget support.)

You don’t think we developed our case enough that budget transfers to corrupt autocrats are bad. Fair enough, cases should always be developed more. But for now, which is more intuitive: your claim that aid to kleptocrats is “a way to make the government more accountable to its own citizens,” or our claim that aid money given directly to corrupt dictators is unlikely to reach poor people?

You continue:

The British Government's approach of giving some aid in the form of budget support (too little, in my view) is motivated by evidence that in some circumstances this is an important way of building more effective, responsive and accountable institutions.

“Effective, responsive and accountable institutions”—wouldn’t that include democracy and freedom from corruption? The “evidence” you cite in your post is from a report commissioned by the donors to evaluate themselves. While self-evaluation raises suspicions of bias, even so the support for your claims from this report is a tad on the weak side: “Where a separate governance matrix has been developed, progress is slow…or donors are not satisfied with quality of dialogue…or implementation is weak.”

As for corruption, the same study said that “corruption, and anti-corruption measures, have featured explicitly in the performance matrices and prior actions linked to PGBS. Most often, prior actions related to legal measures, policy development and administrative actions, but, even when formally complied with, such measures have not been conspicuously effective.” Not too surprising—isn’t giving aid to corrupt officials for anti-corruption strategies kind of like giving aid to burglars to install burglar alarms?

You conclude your post by stating:

If Aid Watch wants to be taken seriously as an aid watchdog, then … they need to do some proper analysis of the costs and benefits of different choices for aid delivery in different contexts, rather than simply asserting that it is wrong to give aid to and through governments of which they disapprove.

Thanks for your helpful suggestions on how to ingratiate ourselves with the aid establishment by toning down our criticism of bad aid-receiving governments. However, what really matters to us is not whether WE disapprove of a country’s government but whether the CITIZENS of that country disapprove of their own government—and have the right to express it. Judging from recent election practices by the government of Ethiopia, most Ethiopians don’t have that right.