Our money is eradicating poverty. But it may also be used to prop up a repressive regime… Camilla Cavendish, The Times 24 March 2010.
I’m talking to an Ethiopian journalist who has fled his country rather than face charges under his Government’s new anti-terror law. Intimidating journalists is a pastime in Addis Ababa; few are left. “The country is very poor, it needs aid,” he says, “but the Government uses aid to repress dissidents.” A former aid worker I talk to goes one step farther. “Aid has become an instrument of coercion,” he says simply.
These whispers coming out of Ethiopia have been drowned out by the noise about the possible hijacking of some of Bob Geldof’s Live Aid money in the 1980s. The Mengistu regime then was shambolic and venal: it is plausible that rebel leaders did siphon off money to arm themselves.
But today’s Ethiopia is an aid success story. It is still desperately poor — ten million people live on the brink of starvation — but its urbane leader, Meles Zenawi, is making real progress in training health workers, vaccinating babies and getting more children into school. This potent combination of need and hope has made Ethiopia one of the biggest recipients of foreign aid in the world, and the second-biggest recipient of British aid.
To international donors Ethiopia is a precious example of poverty alleviation in a land plagued by drought and famine. But to human rights campaigners, and even some Western aid workers, it is a regime of increasingly sophisticated duplicity. Donors say that Mr Meles’s Government is delivering aid more efficiently to the poor than many other African countries. But it looks as though the machine he has built to deliver aid could also be a ruthless instrument of repression.
Two weeks ago, the US State Department listed a vast range of human rights abuses in Ethiopia, from torture to detention without charge. It also cited “credible reports that the ruling EPRDF used humanitarian assistance to gain support for the party by denying opposition political party supporters access to humanitarian assistance, including relief food, public services, and microfinance loans”. The charge is not that aid is being siphoned off, but that it is being used to entrench one-party rule.
Those allegations are reinforced today in a report by Human Rights Watch. It describes farmers denied seeds, teachers sent on propaganda training and people unable to get a government job without a reference from a party official. It accuses the Government of building a culture of fear ahead of elections in May.
The last elections, in 2005, were the most democratic the country had seen. Too democratic: as opposition parties made big gains, the vote descended into violence. Thousands were arrested. Some are still in jail, including the 34-year-old woman who leads Ethiopia’s Unity for Democracy and Justice Party.
The bloody crackdown shocked the West. Donors suspended “budget support” (direct aid, not for specific projects) to the Ethiopian Government. But not for long. Direct aid soon resumed under a different label, the “Protection of Basic Services” (PBS) programme. Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID), an enthusiastic supporter, says PBS “shifts power from the centre” because it funnels money to the regions.
But far from decentralising power, Human Rights Watch warns that PBS is reinforcing Mr Meles’s apparatus of control. It says that the Government has jacked up the number of local officials to four million, that these control access to everything from food to microcredit, and that many villages are organised in cells that encourage neighbours to spy on each other.
Can a Maoist system have been built under donors’ noses? Or are these stories from the disaffected? Having been an aid worker in Bangladesh, I know that there is never enough aid to go round. I have doled out food to hungry people knowing that the queue is too long. The empty-handed can be bitter. But this sounds like something more. Last year Mr Meles passed two draconian laws that strengthen his grip on the country. A terrorism law criminalises many forms of dissent. A charities law so restricts foreign funding for civil society organisations that one aid official in Addis told me: “It will kill human rights NGOs.”
DfID has launched an investigation into the allegations. Officials point out that Mr Meles has vehemently denied the allegations, and promised to investigate any evidence. But when HRW sent a researcher to meet farmers complaining that they had been denied seeds, the farmers were arrested and the researcher deported. The same thing seems to have happened in January to a Bloomberg journalist.
Like Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Meles Zenawi won Western approval by talking the language of development. Like them, he has provided stability. Like them, he has improved lives at the expense of freedom. The question for the West is how far we accept that trade-off. There must come a point when cronyism and fear make it harder to pull people out of poverty.
I know full well that compromises must sometimes be made to keep people alive. Aid workers fear that reducing aid would hurt the poor. What they do not say is that this would also hurt the aid industry, which has so much vested in Ethiopia.
As Ethiopia has become more repressive, our aid to it has increased, from $1 billion in 2004 to $1.85 billion in 2008. Yet the West has made no meaningful representations against abuses. It is time to challenge Mr Meles to amend his new laws, end intimidation and let the media in. The people who have spoken to me for this article should not have to whisper. Nor should the West.