The Ethiopian government’s political use of international humanitarian aid is a test of donors’ commitment to human-rights principles.
November 23, 2010

Ethiopia is the largest recipient of western development assistance in Africa. In 2005-08, aid to Ethiopia more than doubled - from $1.9 billion to $3.4 billion. Yet the country's domestic politics are becoming less democratic and more repressive. Could there be a link between aid and repression?

That's a question Human Rights Watch has set out to answer in recent months; and a report published on 19 October 2010 gives an unsettling answer. In the course of several months' research involving interviews with over 200 people in three regions of Ethiopia and the capital Addis Ababa, we uncovered evidence that multi-billion dollar programmes funded by the World Bank and others have been politicised and manipulated by the Ethiopian government and are used as a powerful tool of political control and repression.

Meanwhile the donors, particularly Britain and other European Union donors, have failed properly to acknowledge the problem - let alone challenge the Ethiopian government over it or propose remedies.

A state of insecurity

Ethiopia is a de facto one-party state masquerading as a democracy. Its ruling party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), permeates the state and goes to great lengths to ensure citizens' political loyalty. In parliamentary elections  in May 2010, the EPRDF won 99.6% of the seats. In local elections in 2008 it won more than 99%.

When the opposition protested against the declared results of the election in 2005 - which took place in an unusual atmosphere of freedom, though the process was still flawed - the security forces shot dead 200 protesters and arrested and detained tens of thousands of opposition supporters, including dozens of politicians.

Now, HRW's research indicates that the coercive mechanisms by which the EPRDF maintains control of the country have come to include the politicisation and manipulation of aid. The report documents numerous instances of government officials distributing and withholding the benefits of donor-funded programmes - such as fertilisers, agricultural seeds, food, microcredit, and job and training opportunities - on the basis of party affiliation.

In a country where half of the population lives below the poverty line and many are dependent on food aid, these abusive practices - in addition to being in violation of international human-rights law - send the chilling message that failure to support the ruling party may lead you and your family to starve.

The evidence of these practices includes testimony by fifty people interviewed by researchers in three of Ethiopia's regions, including Amhara and Oromia. They alleged that the World Bank's "productive safety-nets programme" - worth $1.7 billion over three years and designed to provide food to people at risk of starvation - was being used as a political tool. "The safety-net is used to buy loyalty to the ruling party", a farmer in Dessie, in the Amhara region, told us. "That is money that comes from abroad.... Do those people who send the money know what it is being used for? Let them know that it is being used against democracy."

Human Rights Watch documented some instances of the withholding of donor-funded food aid from families with malnourished, hungry children on the basis of political affiliation.

Ethiopian civil society might once have protested. But over the last five years, the Ethiopian government has cracked down with harsh effectiveness on independent media and human-rights organisations that might have sought to expose these violations and hold the authorities to account. Again the donors have turned a blind eye to this repression.   

A need to rethink

This situation reveals that donors in Ethiopia have created for themselves a sharp dilemma. They are aware of the government's poor human-rights record and of their own role in supporting the state. But they also believe that confronting the government on human rights could imperil their efforts to feed those at risk and stimulate economic development. So instead of confronting the government politically, they have tended to address the problem of "governance" as a technical one that can be solved through "capacity building" - i.e. more aid.

But this simply perpetuates the problem. The donors' failure to address the fact that their own policies are contributing to the worsening human-rights crisis in Ethiopia is influenced by Ethiopia's strategic importance as a western ally in a turbulent region prone to Islamist militancy, as well as by the real (if sometimes exaggerated) progress that Ethiopia has made in reducing poverty.

Ethiopia's importance, however, should be a reason to break the links between aid and repression, rather than to ignore them. A fundamental rethink of the donors' approach to Ethiopia is overdue, and Britain - the largest EU donor to Ethiopia - should lead the way.

As a first step, all major donor-funded aid programmes should be independently monitored and audited with a view to establishing how and to what extent they contribute to political repression and to recommending serious reforms. At the same time, donors should confront the Ethiopian government over its human-rights record, including violations of the right to non-partisan treatment in the distribution of the benefits of aid. Ethiopians deserve no less.

Tom Porteous is the UK director of Human Rights Watch.