By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
The U.S. gives about $1 billion annually to Ethiopia. But even as U.S. and other international aid has surged in the last decade, activists charge that the government has become more authoritarian.
Reporting from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — Like many in the West, former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn watched the country’s recent elections for signs that democracy was finally taking root.
When the results of the May vote were announced, all but two of 547 parliamentary seats went to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the coalition that has been in power here for nearly 20 years, or its allied parties.
“How do you win 99% of the vote?” Shinn said. “That’s un-American.” And yet, he said, “Ethiopia remains a darling of the donor community.”
The U.S. gives about $1 billion annually to Ethiopia, more than to any other country in sub-Saharan Africa except Sudan. But even as U.S. and other international aid to Ethiopia has surged in the last decade, activists charge that the government has become more authoritarian.
“There’s been an inverse ratio of rising donor aid and a worsening human rights record,” said Leslie Lefkow, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government has won a degree of favor from the West for sending troops to fight radical Islamists in neighboring Somalia, but reports of rights abuses and a string of draconian laws that have constricted political space have put donor countries in an awkward position.
“It’s a dilemma for the international donor community, which doesn’t want to walk away from Ethiopia because the needs are so great,” said Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Recent allegations of aid corruption have caused further unease among donor countries.
A March report by Human Rights Watch alleged a countrywide pattern of local government leaders denying aid to opposition supporters. Eligibility for many major aid programs is determined by local government officials — almost all of whom belong to the ruling coalition or its affiliates.
One former Ethiopian aid worker, who didn’t want to be named out of fear of government retribution, told The Times that aid is leveraged by local leaders to consolidate power.
“Aid is a tool for development,” the aid worker said. “It is also a tool for politics.”
Ethiopian officials deny such claims. Communications Minister Bereket Simon said Human Rights Watch was “engaged in the continuous fabrication of allegations” and said Ethiopia “has put in place a transparent mechanism for the distribution of food aid.”