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“Soldiers came and asked me why I refused to be relocated,” a 20-year-old Ethiopian told me in September at a refugee camp in Kenya. “Ojod,” not his real name, was still visibly shaken from the horror he had left behind: “They started beating me until my hands were broken… I ran to tell [my father] what had happened, but the soldiers followed me. My father and I ran away… I heard the sound of gunfire.” Ojod heard his father cry out, but he kept running and hid from the soldiers in the bushes as he was “full of fear.” When he returned the next day he learned that the soldiers had killed his father.

Abuses such as this in Ethiopia, including arbitrary arrests, beatings and killings, have been occurring not in an armed conflict or political uprising, but as part of a government program billed as improving life for indigenous people and other ethnic minorities in designated rural areas. Donor governments supporting World Bank programs in Ethiopia, including the United States, are indirectly funding these atrocities.

Under its “villagization” program, the Ethiopian government plans to relocate 1.5 million people spread out across these areas by the end of 2013. People are to be moved into new villages where the government has promised improved access to health care, schools and other public services. The idea, says the government, is “to bring socioeconomic and cultural transformation of the people.”

The problem is, as Human Rights Watch field research has found, that the government is being duplicitous on both ends of the relocation. The largely indigenous people being moved have had no say in the process, despite being forced off land closely tied to their culture. Those who object, or later return to their old lands, become targets of abuse by the Ethiopian security forces.

Once forcibly evicted and moved to the new villages, families are finding that the promised government services often do not exist, giving them less access to services than before the relocation. Dozens of farmers in Ethiopia’s Gambella region told us they are being moved from fertile areas where they survive on subsistence farming, to dry, arid areas. Ojod’s family farm was on the river, but as part of the villagization program, the government took his farm and forced his family to relocate to a dry area. There are reports that this fertile land is being leased to multinational companies for large-scale farms.

The villagization program is an Ethiopian government initiative, not one designed by the World Bank. But villagization appears to be the government’s way of implementing a certain World Bank project in five of Ethiopia’s eleven regions. The World Bank’s “protection of basic services” (PBS) project is intended to enhance access to education, health care, and other services. Through it, the Bank is paying a portion of the salaries of local government staff, including teachers who are being forced to implement villagization. At least one regional government is deducting funds from these same salaries to fund villagization.

The World Bank has policies that are designed to prevent against forced resettlement and to protect the rights of indigenous peoples affected by World Bank projects. But it has been closing its eyes to these abuses. On September 25, the Bank’s board of directors approved the third round of this PBS loan, the biggest ever granted in Ethiopia, again without applying the Bank’s own safeguard policies.

A day before the Bank approved the loan, several Ethiopians affected by villagization brought a complaint to the Bank’s accountability mechanism, pressing it to apply its safeguard policies. They were not asking for special treatment, but for the World Bank to apply its own policies, which are designed to prevent harm by its projects. As the Bank’s leading shareholder, the US is well-placed to demand that the Bank vigorously implement its own safeguards. But it has not effectively done so to date.

Ethiopia remains in much need of development aid, particularly in the areas of food security, health, and education. But donors need to hold true to their own policies to ensure that they don’t fund harmful projects, directly or indirectly. The US and other donor countries should be telling the World Bank that they do not want to become complicit in further abuses of “villagization” and that World Bank funding for Ethiopia’s misguided effort needs to stop.

Jessica Evans is the senior advocate and researcher on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch. You can follow her on twitter at evans_jessica.

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