Dear Mr. Mitchell,
I write in response to your September 21, 2011 appearance on BBC’s Newsnight programme in which you discussed Britain’s development aid to Ethiopia and allegations of the misuse of that assistance for political purposes.
Human Rights Watch welcomes your statement to Jeremy Paxman that, “These allegations need to be investigated and the British government will press for them to be so in an open and independent way.” This is indeed what should happen. However, your Department has so far failed to conduct a serious investigation into existing allegations of aid manipulation, although this material was first shared with you in late 2009.
Human Rights Watch raised allegations of the political manipulation of development and humanitarian aid with British officials in Ethiopia in October 2009. Our report “Development Without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia,” published in October 2010, detailed political manipulation by Ethiopian authorities affecting nearly all elements of donor assistance to Ethiopia, including emergency humanitarian food aid and long-term development assistance in the form of training, infrastructure support, agricultural assistance, support to education, the civil service, and democracy promotion. We discussed the allegations in detail with the British ambassador to Ethiopia and the head of the Department for International Development (DFID) in Ethiopia in December 2009; with yourself and the then ambassador in November 2010; and again with the head of DFID in Ethiopia in April and July 2011. In December 2010 Human Rights Watch also wrote to the British government and its partners in the Development Assistance Group (DAG), which coordinates aid to Ethiopia, criticizing donors for not investigating the allegations and urging them to do so. A copy of that letter can be found here: https://www.hrw.org/news/2010/12/09/ethiopia-development-assistance-group-needs-address-and-human-rights-ethiopia.
In late 2010 Human Rights Watch was told by DFID that a field-based investigation into the allegations was planned by the DAG. Indeed it was recommended in the study commissioned by the DAG to examine monitoring mechanisms. But DFID officials then told Human Rights Watch in April 2011 that the investigation had been cancelled and was no longer deemed necessary.
You said in the Newsnight interview that DFID officials had investigated the allegations but, “found no evidence at all of systemic misuse of food support.” However, a proper investigation capable of drawing conclusions about the nature of abuses by the Ethiopian government would need to be conducted at the field level, and our understanding is that no such investigation has been undertaken. Exactly this point is made in the DAG desk-based study which donors’ misleadingly cited as a basis for dismissing the Human Rights Watch report. The limits of a desk-based study were explained in the DAG report, footnote 22:
In order to understand how the programs, the systems and their safeguards work in practice it would be necessary to go beyond reviewing documentation and to gather additional evidence from the field. As such, the current study – while having made use of the best available evidence – remains exploratory.
Nor therefore can the former study be construed as a basis to disprove the allegations.
You also said in the interview that the issue of the allegations “is entirely separate from the issue of British development support going to Ethiopia, none of which goes through the government.” We believe that this statement is misleading on two counts. Firstly, the issue of aid politicisation and misuse is inextricably linked to the question of development support and how it is administered and monitored.
Secondly, your claim that no British support goes through the Ethiopian government is disingenuous. The vast majority of British support to Ethiopia passes through the government. The largest development program supported by the British government is the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program, administered by the World Bank in partnership with the Ethiopian federal government. The World Bank provides block grants to regional governments via the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance. Apart from the fact that the Ethiopian federal government completely controls the regional governments and that they are not independent either in theory or in practice, it is the Ethiopian federal government that is responsible for administering and monitoring the program. The British ambassador to Ethiopia told Human Rights Watch in June 2009 that the PBS program “is budget support in all but name.” The United States government also refers to PBS as “budget support.”
Later in the interview, you clarified your statement about no support going through the government by saying that:
[W]e have an extensive social protection program which is administered by an independent government organisation, which we monitor extremely closely, and which gives protection and support to some seven and a half million people in Ethiopia. Now, that program uses aspects of local government, it does not go through the central government in Addis and it relies upon regional implementation to deliver it.
This would appear to refer to the Productive Safety Nets Program (PSNP), a food-for-work program designed to help food insecure populations, and estimated to reach seven and a half million people. This program is the subject of extensive allegations documented in the Human Rights Watch report, “Development without Freedom.” In fact, the PSNP is managed by the Food Security Program Department under a state minister in the federal government; coordination and oversight of the program falls to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development; and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development is responsible for the financial management of the program. There is no way in which the phrase “independent government organisation” properly describes this arrangement.
You also asserted that “the accusation is that food aid, which is a very small part of it, is being manipulated, and as I say, British officials have investigated that on the ground and found that we can’t be certain that it never happens but we found no evidence of systemic manipulation of food aid.” However, British officials did not investigate that allegation on the ground. But more importantly, the allegations contained in our report and in other sources, such as the US State Department Country Report on human rights in Ethiopia, are by no means limited to food aid.
The allegations contained in our report are that district and village government officials (exactly those people responsible for administering PBS and PSNP and other programs at the local level) discriminated against opposition supporters and other critics of the government using all means at their disposal including: access to food aid, land, fertilizer, seeds, housing, training opportunities, jobs, micro-credit facilities, and so on. Much of these resources are funded by donors including the British government. The Human Rights Watch report also documents the use of donor funded schools and teacher training colleges for the indoctrination of civil servants and school children above the age of 14 in ruling party political ideology, during school time. Nor is food aid only “a very small part” of aid to Ethiopia: As you point out, the PSNP program targets 7.5 million people. Emergency food aid reaches another 7-10 million annually; together amounting to up to 20 percent of the population.
We recognise that the Ethiopian government is extremely resistant to scrutiny. Nonetheless, the British government and other donors to Ethiopia should not allow the Ethiopian government to dictate the terms on which British public money is monitored, and every effort should be made to prevent British development aid from strengthening authoritarian rule and repression. William Hague asserted in a recent letter to Human Rights Watch, which was drafted with your involvement, that he takes very seriously allegations of the distortion of aid in Ethiopia. To give effect to this commitment, the British government and its partners within the Development Assistance Group should conduct an independent, impartial, transparent, field-based investigation into allegations of the manipulation of donor funded government services for political purposes.
I would be very happy to meet with you or your officials to discuss this further.
Deputy Executive Director and Europe Director
Human Rights Watch
The Rt Hon. William Hague, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Jeremy Paxman, BBC Newsnight
Angus Stickler, Bureau of Investigative Journalism