Why are Foreign Donors Supporting Repression in Ethiopia?

Prime minister Meles ZenawiForeign aid observers have often worried that Western aid to Africa is propping up autocratic regimes. Yet seldom has such a direct link from aid to political repression been demonstrated as in “Development without Freedom,” an extensively documented new report on Ethiopia by Human Rights Watch. Based on interviews with 200 people in 53 villages and cities throughout the country, the report concludes that the Ethiopian government, headed by prime minister Meles Zenawi, uses aid as a political weapon to discriminate against non-party members and punish dissenters, sending the population the draconian message that “survival depends on political loyalty to the state and the ruling party.”

Ethiopia is Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid (at $3.3 billion in 2008 and rising), and is frequently described as a country where western assistance is providing a safety net for the poor and laying the groundwork for country-wide economic growth. Donors working in Ethiopia, citing progress on six out of the eight Millennium Development Goals, claim that aid has “had a significant impact on improving the lives of the poorest families.” A predominantly Christian country bordering two unstable Islamic states (Somalia, and Sudan), Ethiopia is also seen as a crucial ally in the “war on terror.”

Yet Human Rights Watch contends that the government abuses aid funds for political purposes—in programs intended to help Ethiopia’s most poor and vulnerable. For example, more than fifty farmers in three different regions said that village leaders withheld government-provided seeds and fertilizer, and even micro-loans because they didn’t belong to the ruling party; some were asked to renounce their views and join the party to receive assistance. Investigating one program that gives food and cash in exchange for work on public projects, the report documents farmers who have never been paid for their work and entire families who have been barred from participating because they were thought to belong to the opposition. Still more chilling, local officials have been denying emergency food aid to women, children, and the elderly as punishment for refusing to join the party.

Nor should any of this come as a surprise. Meles has for many years managed to charm and win the trust of Western leaders even as his government becomes increasingly repressive. As Helen Epstein recently reported in the New York Review, “countless journalists, editors, judges, academics, and human rights defenders have fled the country or languish behind bars, at risk of torture. New laws passed in 2005 have made political activity more difficult than ever.”

Indeed, many aid officials interviewed in the Human Rights Watch report admit that they were aware of these abuses. As one western donor official said, “Every tool at [the government’s] disposal—fertilizer, loans, safety net—is being used to crush the opposition. We know this.” Yet the umbrella group representing 26 donors in Ethiopia (the Donors Assistance Group, or DAG), suggests that aid agencies intend to continue more or less with business as usual. Their overall response has been to reject the conclusions of the Human Rights Watch report, noting that, in their own research, they have not found “any evidence of systematic or widespread distortion.”

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