By Leslie Lefkow, Ottawa Citizen Special
Many western officials who manage international aid cite Ethiopia as an example of how assistance from donors like Canada can help African nations escape poverty. The reality is far more complicated — and far more cruel.
A recent Human Rights Watch report reveals that Ethiopia’s repressive government has put foreign aid to a sinister purpose, with officials in Ethiopia’s ruling party using their power to give or deny financial assistance to citizens based on their political affiliation. Perhaps even more shocking, international donors appear to expend more energy pretending these abuses don’t exist than trying to address them.
The depth of the need of many poor Ethiopians is hard to dispute, and there is little doubt that the $3 billion Ethiopia receives annually in donor assistance has brought help to the people of that country. In 2009 Ethiopia was selected as one of the Canadian International Development Agency’s 20 preferred countries, and it has received more than $400 million from Canada over the past few years. Many of the programs that receive donor assistance seek to tackle the harshest impacts of poverty head-on, through food-for-work programs or by providing much-needed resources like food, seeds and fertilizers to needy farmers.
There is nothing wrong with the goals of these programs. But donors have implemented them in ways that can only be described as indefensibly — and in some cases deliberately — naive.
In recent years, the Ethiopian government has carried out a meticulous campaign of intimidation, harassment and abuse that has managed to silence most of the government’s independent opposition. Foreign aid has become one of the government’s most effective tools in suppressing and punishing criticism. Human Rights Watch’s research found that local officials often deny assistance to people they perceive as political opponents — including many who are not actually involved in politics at all. Impoverished farmers know they risk losing access to aid which their livelihoods depend on if they speak out against abuses in their communities. Most respond by staying quiet; aid discrimination has made freedom of speech a luxury many Ethiopians quite literally cannot afford.
Much of Canada’s development aid funds a justice reform project in Ethiopia and it’s a case in point. In the course of Human Rights Watch’s investigation we met with several trainee judges who were suspended from their training and blacklisted from getting any public sector jobs after they raised concerns about the way in which the judicial training was used to indoctrinate students and coerce them into joining the ruling party. As one of the trainees put it: “Three times the trainers told us publicly to join the EPRDF (ruling party). They want every judge to be a member of the party and they want you to do what they say, not what the law says.”
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