(London) - The Ethiopian government is using development aid to suppress political dissent by conditioning access to essential government programs on support for the ruling party, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch urged foreign donors to ensure that their aid is used in an accountable and transparent manner and does not support political repression.
The 105-page report, "Development without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia," documents the ways in which the Ethiopian government uses donor-supported resources and aid as a tool to consolidate the power of the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
"The Ethiopian government is routinely using access to aid as a weapon to control people and crush dissent," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "If you don't play the ruling party's game, you get shut out. Yet foreign donors are rewarding this behavior with ever-larger sums of development aid."
Ethiopia is one of the world's largest recipients of development aid, more than US$3 billion in 2008 alone. The World Bank and donor nations provide direct support to district governments in Ethiopia for basic services such as health, education, agriculture, and water, and support a "food-for-work" program for some of the country's poorest people. The European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany are the largest bilateral donors.
Local officials routinely deny government support to opposition supporters and civil society activists, including rural residents in desperate need of food aid. Foreign aid-funded "capacity-building" programs to improve skills that would aid the country's development are used by the government to indoctrinate school children in party ideology, intimidate teachers, and purge the civil service of people with independent political views.
Political repression was particularly pronounced during the period leading up to parliamentary elections in May 2010, in which the ruling party won 99.6 percent of the seats.
Despite government restrictions that make independent research difficult, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 200 people in 53 villages across three regions of the country during a six-month investigation in 2009. The problems Human Rights Watch found were widespread: residents reported discrimination in many locations.
Farmers described being denied access to agricultural assistance, micro-loans, seeds, and fertilizers because they did not support the ruling party. As one farmer in Amhara region told Human Rights Watch, "[Village] leaders have publicly declared that they will single out opposition members, and those identified as such will be denied ‘privileges.' By that they mean that access to fertilizers, ‘safety net' and even emergency aid will be denied."
Rural villagers reported that many families of opposition members were barred from participation in the food-for-work or "safety net" program, which supports 7 million of Ethiopia's most vulnerable citizens. Scores of opposition members who were denied services by local officials throughout the country reported the same response from ruling party and government officials when they complained: "Ask your own party for help."
Human Rights Watch also documented how high school students, teachers, and civil servants were forced to attend indoctrination sessions on ruling party ideology as part of the capacity-building program funded by foreign governments. Attendees at training sessions reported that they were intimidated and threatened if they did not join the ruling party. Superiors told teachers that ruling party membership was a condition for promotion and training opportunities. Education, especially schools and teacher training, is also heavily supported by donor funds.
"By dominating government at all levels, the ruling party controls all the aid programs," Peligal said. "Without effective, independent monitoring, international aid will continue to be abused to consolidate a repressive single-party state."
In 2005, the World Bank and other donors suspended direct budget support to the Ethiopian government following a post-election crackdown on demonstrators that left 200 people dead, 30,000 detained, and dozens of opposition leaders in jail. At the time, donors expressed fears of "political capture" of donor funds by the ruling party.
Yet aid was soon resumed under a new program, "Protection of Basic Services," that channeled money directly to district governments. These district governments, like the federal administration, are under ruling party control, yet are harder to monitor and more directly involved in day-to-day repression of the population.
During this period the Ethiopian government has steadily closed political space, harassed independent journalists and civil society activists into silence or exile, and violated the rights to freedom of association and expression. A new law on civil society activity, passed in 2009, bars nongovernmental organizations from working on issues related to human rights, good governance, and conflict resolution if they receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources.
"The few independent organizations that monitored human rights have been eviscerated by government harassment and a pernicious new civil society law," Peligal said. "But these groups are badly needed to ensure aid is not misused."
As Ethiopia's human rights situation has worsened, donors have ramped up assistance. Between 2004 and 2008, international development aid to Ethiopia doubled. According to Ethiopian government data, the country is making strong progress on reducing poverty, and donors are pleased to support Ethiopia's progress toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Yet the price of that progress has been high.
When Human Rights Watch presented its findings to donor officials, many privately acknowledged the worsening human rights situation and the ruling party's growing authoritarian rule. Donor officials from a dozen Western government agencies told Human Rights Watch that they were aware of allegations that donor-supported programs were being used for political repression, but they had no way of knowing the extent of such abuse. In Ethiopia, most monitoring of donor programs is a joint effort alongside Ethiopian government officials.
Yet few donors have been willing to raise their concerns publicly over the possible misuse of their taxpayers' funds. In a desk study and an official response to Human Rights Watch, the donor consortium Development Assistance Group stated that their monitoring mechanisms showed that their programs were working well and that aid was not being "distorted." But no donors have carried out credible, independent investigations into the problem.
Human Rights Watch called on donor country legislatures and audit institutions to examine development aid to Ethiopia to ensure that it is not supporting political repression.
"In their eagerness to show progress in Ethiopia, aid officials are shutting their eyes to the repression lurking behind the official statistics," Peligal said. "Donors who finance the Ethiopian state need to wake up to the fact that some of their aid is contributing to human rights abuses."
Led by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party is a coalition of ethnic-based groups that came to power in 1991 after ousting the military government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. The government passed a new constitution in 1994 that incorporated fundamental human rights standards, but in practice many of these freedoms have been increasingly restricted during its 19 years in power.
Although the ruling party introduced multiparty elections soon after it came to power in 1991, opposition political parties have faced serious obstruction to their efforts to establish offices, organize, and campaign in national and local elections.
Eight-five percent of Ethiopia's population live in rural areas and, each year, 10 to 20 percent rely on international food relief to survive. Foreign development assistance to Ethiopia has steadily increased since the 1990s, with a temporary plateau during the two-year border war with Eritrea (1998-2000). Ethiopia is now the largest recipient of World Bank funds and foreign aid in Africa.
In 2008, total aid was US$3.3 billion. Of that, the United States contributes around $800 million, much of it in humanitarian and food aid; the European Union contributes $400 million; and the United Kingdom provides $300 million. Ethiopia is widely considered to be making good progress toward some of the UN Millennium Development Goals on reducing poverty, but much of the data originates with the government and is not independently verified.
Quotes from the Report
"There are micro-loans, which everybody goes to take out, but it is very difficult for us, [opposition] members. They say, ‘This is not from your government, it is from the government you hate. Why do you expect something from the government that you hate?'"
- A farmer from southern Ethiopia
"Yesterday in fact the kebele [village] chairman said to me, ‘You are suffering so many problems, why don't you write a letter of regret and join the ruling party?'"
- A farmer with a starving child from southern Ethiopia, denied participation in the safety net food-for-work program
"The safety net is used to buy loyalty to the ruling party. That is money that comes from abroad. Democracy is being compromised by 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."
- A farmer from Amhara region
"It is clear that our money is being moved into political brainwashing."
- Consultant to a major donor, Addis Ababa
"Intimidation is all over, in every area. There is politicization of housing, business, education, agriculture. Many of the people are forced or compromised to join the party because of safety net and so on, many do not have a choice - it is imposed."
- Western donor official, Addis Ababa
"Every tool at their disposal - fertilizer, loans, safety net - is being used to crush the opposition. We know this."
- Senior Western donor official, Addis Ababa
"Which state are we building and how? It could be that we are building the capacity of the state to control and repress."
- World Bank staff member, Addis Ababa