With Sudan, international expectations have long been low. A report on Ethiopia, from New-York based Human Rights Watch (HRW), indicates how far a country’s halo can slip. Once upon a time, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Meles Zenawi, the prime minister, was hailed as part of a new democratic dawn in Africa. The country became an “aid darling” for the West. Yet today, after suppression of opposition following the election in 2005 and a rigged poll earlier this year, life in Ethiopia is more akin to the days of the “Derg” regime, overthrown by the EPRDF in 1991.
Ethiopia, desperately poor, remains one of the largest recipients of foreign development aid—some $3 billion annually. HRW argues that the aid has become subject to “political capture”, with the doling out of donor funds at local level used “to control the population, punish dissent, and undermine political opponents—both real and perceived.” HRW reached its findings after a six-month investigation in the second half of 2009, which ended with Ben Rawlence, its researcher, being deported.
The Ethiopian population, says HRW, “pays a heavy approach for this approach to development.” But its ire is focused on the donors as well as the Ethiopian government. Speaking in London at the report’s launch, Mr Rawlence pointed out that development agencies—such as Britain’s DFID—recognised the harm the government’s actions caused, but turned a blind eye, because of policy that governments themselves “own” aid policy. Monitoring mechanisms which focus on fiscal controls simply did not detect the politicisation of aid.
Such a situation poses a familiar dilemma for donors: aid is often misused, but stopping aid harms people in recipient countries. HRW is not calling for this. Instead, it calls on donors to acknowledge the politicisation of aid “across the board” in Ethiopia and to work together in bringing pressure on Ethiopia’s government when the current country assistance strategy expires in 2011. Easier said than done perhaps, but very necessary, especially if donors are to adhere to their own belief that “aid is most effective when defined by accountability and transparency.” Ethiopia, says HRW, is “a case study of contradiction in aid policy.”
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