Ethiopia is often cited as a model for development assistance, a leader in efforts to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and a good example of how aid can help African nations fight poverty. On the strength of these supposed attributes, Ethiopia receives more than $3 billion (€2.2bn) in foreign development aid a year, with close to one-third of that coming from Europe. The European Commission alone donates more than €400 million each year.
But Ethiopia is no model for human rights. The government has crushed the political opposition, established intrusive surveillance over the population and eviscerated civil society organizations and the independent media.
There is little doubt that the donor assistance has helped some Ethiopians. Many government programs supported by donors tackle poverty head-on, through food-for-work schemes or by supporting health and education programs.
But these development programs have another, more sinister, side. In 2009, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 200 people across the country, and they described the many ways in which assistance is used by the government to cement support for the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front and to punish anyone who dares criticize its policies and ideology.
Farmers described how they were denied access to loans, seeds and fertilizers because they do not support the ruling party. Other villagers reported that families of opposition members were sometimes barred from participation in the food-for-work or "safety net" program for Ethiopia's most impoverished citizens.
The Ethiopian government's policy of repression is hardly a secret. In 2005, after the first relatively open election campaign in Ethiopia's history, the government cracked down on protests - 200 people were killed by the security forces and 30,000 detained. European election observers denounced the violence and the Commission suspended direct budget support, but soon resumed aid by channeling it to governments in the regions. Since then, the government has tightened its grip. In parliamentary elections in May, the ruling party won an outlandish 99.6% of the votes. The EU's observer mission dryly noted that the polls "fell short of international standards."
While EU election observers and parliamentarians have raised concerns about Ethiopia's deteriorating human rights record, European donors seem to spend more time pretending the abuses do not exist than trying to address them. But with development aid actually being used to enforce repression of basic human rights, Europe's compromises - and its policy toward Ethiopia - need rethinking.
The Commission and some EU member states are considering resuming direct budget support to the government with even fewer strings attached. This should be out of the question. Donors need to make sure that development programs are accountable and transparent.
Some programs supported by the Commission should be cut altogether until the government makes a commitment to serious reforms that would allow the institutions to function independently. Others need much stricter monitoring.
Instead of allowing critical EU member states to become scapegoats when they try to raise human-rights concerns, the Commission and member states need to develop a unified policy that places human rights front and center. If they do not act soon, EU taxpayers will not just be paying for Ethiopian misrule, they risk underwriting serious crimes.
Leslie Lefkow is a Horn of Africa senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.