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Analysis: Ethiopia Aid abuse allegations

Aid agency logos.[Updated December 31] Ethiopian donors are considering further probes of allegations, made by Human Rights Watch, that the Ethiopian government is using development aid to suppress political dissent by conditioning access to essential government programs on support for the ruling party.

The allegations were made in a report released on October 19, Development without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites Repression in Ethiopia.

"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", said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

However, Irish Aid said on October 26 that its "examination, in consultation with the other major international aid donors in Ethiopia, does not support the Human Rights Watch allegations of widespread, systematic abuse".

John, O'Shea of GOAL said that a reference to GOAL in the report was "totally erroneous" and that GOAL had never encountered aid discrimination in the country, though he described the report as "damning".

The allegations provide a dilemma for donors. They can point to several achievements in recent years, while the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index released last month suggests that Ethiopia has been making strides in tackling corruption. How should donors respond?

In 2005, the World Bank and other donors suspended direct budget support to the Ethiopian government following post-election unrest in which 193 protestors were 'massacred' by the police and 20,000 people were arrested, including more than 100 opposition leaders, journalists and aid workers. Acccording to the rights watchdog, donors expressed fears of "political capture" of donor funds by the ruling party at the time.

Aid resumed in 2006 under a new decentralised program, "Protection of Basic Services." Money is channeled directly to district governments that, 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, says Human Rights Watch.

Since 2005, however, the World Bank attributes significant achievements to aid from foreign donors under the Protection of Basic Services scheme:

  • 264,000 additional schoolteachers, raising primary enrolment from 68.5 percent (2005) to 83.5 percent (2009)
  • 35,000 health extension workers, increasing the immunisation rate from 70 (2005) to 81.6 percent (2009)
  • Rural access to potable water increased from 46 percent (2005) to 61.5 percent (2009)

It also points to achievements in local government and accountability:

  • 90 percent of local governments posted budgets in public places
  • Quarterly audits took place for 95 percent of local governments nationwide (730 out of 770)

Based on those figures, aid to Ethiopia is far from being wasted and a foundation may be being laid from which future improvements in local governments can be built. Economic discrimination at the local level may now be more visible, which may have contributed to the perception that it is more prevalent.

Perhaps that investment in governance is paying off in other ways too. Ethiopia is ranked 116 out of 178 in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, which is much higher than its income per capita ranking. In the 2005 Index, it was ranked 137 out of 159. Ethiopia's corruption score has been steadily improving from 2.2 in 2005 to 2.7 in 2009 and 2010 (higher is better), representing a 23% improvement.

Other recent publications document improvements in Ethiopia too, albeit over a longer period. According to the IFPRI, Concern and Welthungerhilfe 2010 Global Hunger Index (GHI), Ethiopia's GHI has improved from 43.7 in 1990 to 29.8 in 2010, which is the largest absolute improvement of any of the countries measured.

Assessing Progress in Africa toward the Millennium Development Goals, 2010 also reports a number of positive findings, including a greater than 50% fall in infant mortality since 1990. The proportion of women working in the non-agricultural jobs (47%) was found to be the joint highest in Africa. This may partly explain why Ethiopia has seen a 12.2% increase in its employment to population ratio from 1991 to 2007.

Aid, like any public or private spending, will rarely be free of problems or inefficiencies. Certainly, one cannot blame citizens for the actions of their governments. Furthermore, the worst governed countries are normally those where the need is most acute.

Nevertheless, even if aid to Ethiopia were producing positive results that outweighed the unintended consequences, it would be important to ask if changes in aid spending could minimise abuses and to ask whether or not some aid would be better spent elsewhere.

Rather than withdrawing completely from Ethiopia, it might be preferable to make aid there (and elsewhere) more conditional on political and human rights and/or good governance. While the IMF has given conditionality a bad name with one size fits all economic conditions, there have been a few attempts to push political reform using aid:

  • The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has taken a more radical approach with its Ibrahim Prize. The prize - the largest in the world - is awarded to a democratically elected former African Executive Head of State or Government who has observed the term limits set by the country's constitution and has left office in the last three years.


Updated: November 12

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