I worked to promote human rights in my native Ethiopia. I learned early that raising economic indicators without respecting civil and political rights can be a smokescreen. And donors can do harm if their aid is used by the country’s rulers to consolidate political power rather than help the people who need it most.
In Rwanda the story is similar. Under President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has made economic progress, while independent newspapers have been suspended, journalists jailed, opposition parties prevented from functioning and their leaders put on trial. Accusations of “genocide ideology” and “divisionism” have been used to silence critics. Under the late prime minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia made economic gains. But since 2005, its human rights record has severely deteriorated, while aid has increased. Peaceful protest has been shut down. Opposition leaders, activists and journalists have been jailed or forced to flee the country. Accusations of “terrorism” have been used to intimidate activists and silence criticism.
There is a similar pattern elsewhere. Cambodia and Vietnam and some former Soviet Union countries have made economic progress while dissidents languish in prison. Instead of confronting these countries on their rights records, the United States and the European Union have often played down the gravity of the abuses in the name of development. Yet the ability to voice opinions, criticize harmful government practices and make individual choices based on full information is essential for development.
Even when living standards improve at the macro level, repressive policies frequently ignore or harm those without power: minorities, women, political opponents, the disabled and the poorest of the poor. A rights-based approach to development promotes access to information, opportunities for civil society participation, rule of law and accountability. It also addresses the reasons millions are sidelined and excluded.
The U.S. and the E.U. often pay lip service to human rights but put security and economic considerations first in their foreign policies, at the expense of civil and political rights. This is short-sighted because political repression fuels conflict and instability. In countries like Rwanda and Ethiopia, international donors have the opportunity and the responsibility to press for progress on both human rights and economic development. Without both, the impact of any development assistance may be short-lived.