Malaise About Ethiopia’s Meles

April 29th, 2010 | by addis portal |

Helen Epstein, author of the powerful book “The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa” (which GlobalEye highly recommends) has a new piece on Ethiopia in this month’s New York Review of Books. The article is fascinating because it documents a failed system of international assistance distribution in Ethiopia, with useful lessons for other cases as well.

Since former rebel leader Meles Zenawi assumed the presidency of Ethiopia in 1991, the country has received some $26 billion in development aid from Western donors (in 2008 alone, foreign aid receipts amounted to $3 billion – more than any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa). This flood of cash is mostly due to Mr. Meles’ personal charisma, as he has given rousing speeches and convinced Western leaders (including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) that he is committed to combating poverty and terrorism as well as fostering human rights and democracy.

Epstein argues this is mere façade. In fact, these organizations and governments are subsidizing a regime that is “rapidly becoming one of the most repressive and dictatorial on the continent”. Transgressions include vote rigging, violence against opposition parties and human rights groups, arbitrary detentions, and draconian media restrictions. All this appears to be part of a frightful vision embodied in several Ethiopian-language government documents known as “Revolutionary Democracy”, designed to create a society where “individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook” through top-down control. This doctrine has already begun to be put in practice, and will likely continue as the government is almost assured of winning pre-rigged parliamentary elections this May.

Meanwhile, the aid itself is also proving ineffective, or at least less effective than its donors perceive. As part of the regime’s repressive behavior, officials from Mr. Meles’ party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), routinely deny the benefits of foreign aid programs to known opposition supporters. Epstein even found that some of the government claims about key development indicators were fabricated (for example, 87 percent of children were said to have received all major vaccines, when in fact only 27 percent were).

The lesson from Epstein’s gripping narrative is clear. Doling out aid may make humanitarian or even strategic sense, but aid agencies must ensure that they consider the situation in the countries they assist lest they exacerbate the political circumstances that keep people poor in the first place. As of now, dollops of aid seem to be landing up in government coffers and then misused as tools of political intimidation and subservience, rather than utilized to alleviate suffering.

There are few options going forward. European governments tried to bypass the central government and direct aid straight to local authorities, but then realized that they too were instrumental in fixing elections and building political patronage networks. Civil society groups are essentially banned from receiving external funding as well, thanks to the recent Charities and Societies (CSO) Law, so that is out of the question too. The only workable options seem to be tying assistance to measurable human rights standards, or, as Epstein advocates in her book, funding local group projects on a smaller scale.

But all that assumes massive political will to change how aid works – a big assumption, to say the least.

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