Ethiopia: Feed Them and Bleed Them by Alemayehu G. Mariam
Western Donors as Accessories to “Democricide” in Ethiopia
The helping hand that feeds Ethiopians is the same hand that helps bleed Ethiopia. Every year, the U.S., U.K, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, Japan and other Western countries hand out billions of dollars in “humanitarian” and “economic” aid to the regime of dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. Every year, these donors turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the notorious fact that their handouts are used to prop up and fortify a repressive one-man, one-party totalitarian dictatorship. Today, Western donors have collectively embraced the proverbial principle to “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil” of what their “aid” money is doing in Ethiopia.
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) pried open Western donors’ eyes to see the havoc their aid money is wreaking in Ethiopia and unplugged their ears to hear the truth about the evil they are helping to spread throughout that poor country. In a report entitled, Development Without Freedom , HRW sketched out the architecture of a vast kleptocracy (government of thieves) whose lifeblood is continuous and massive infusion of foreign aid. The report represents a devastating indictment of Western donors and their client regime for crimes that, if committed in the donor countries, would constitute Class A felonies:
Led by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the government has used donor-supported programs, salaries, and training opportunities as political weapons to control the population, punish dissent, and undermine political opponents–both real and perceived. Local officials deny these people access to seeds and fertilizer, agricultural land, credit, food aid, and other resources for development. Such politicization has a direct impact on the livelihoods of people for whom access to agricultural inputs is a matter of survival. It also contributes to a broader climate of fear, sending a potent message that basic survival depends on political loyalty to the state and the ruling party.
HRW charges that Zenawi’s regime has used Western aid to benefit its supporters by giving them special access to micro-credit (small loans designed for poor households) loans and benefits under the productive safety net program (multi-year cash payments to those vulnerable to famine to avoid disaster from food shortage emergencies). The regime has misused state educational facilities for political purposes and engaged in systematic political indoctrination of students, repression of teachers and purging of individuals who are unwilling to support the ruling party from their jobs. In sum, after 19 years and “investing” $26 billion in “aid”, the crowning achievement of Western aid in Ethiopia is the establishment and entrenchment of a one-man, one-party totalitarian state!
The Western donors refuse to accept any responsibility for the misuse and abuse of their aid money in Ethiopia; and the conspiracy of silence to cover up the ugly facts uncovered by HRW continues. A few days after HRW released its report, a gathering of vulturous poverty pimps known as the Development Assistance Group (DAG) representing donor states issued a statement denying the undeniable. “We do not concur with the conclusions of the recent HRW report regarding widespread, systematic abuse of development aid in Ethiopia. Our study did not generate any evidence of systematic or widespread distortion.”  DAG co-chair Samuel Nyambi was manifestly dismissive of HRW’s findings when he arrogantly proclaimed that “development partners have built into the programmes they support monitoring and safeguard mechanisms that give a reasonable assurance that resources are being used for their intended purposes.” In DAG-istan, what HRW found and reported simply could not happen. HRW made it all up! The report is all lies and fabrications!
The fact of the matter is that it is in DAG’s self-interest to bury the truth and keep covering it up even when the truth it is exhumed for public display. For DAG to acknowledge any part of the HRW evidence is tantamount to self-incrimination. They could never admit that the things HRW reported occurred under their watch. As the HRW reports demonstrates, DAG and the donor countries “have done little to address the problem [aid abuse/misuse] or tackle their own role in underwriting government repression… even though they recognize [civil and political rights] to be central to sustainable socioeconomic development.”
Huddled together in DAG-istan, the poverty pimps have collectively resolved to continue to do their usual aid business in Ethiopia because “broad economic progress outweighs individual political freedoms”. In “their eagerness to show progress in Ethiopia, aid officials are shutting their eyes to the repression lurking behind the official statistics.” They say “their programs are working well and that aid was not being ‘distorted.’” They refuse to carry “out credible, independent investigations into the problem.” The “donor country legislatures and audit institutions [have failed] to examine development aid to Ethiopia to ensure that it is not supporting political repression.” They refuse to “wake up to the fact that some of their aid is contributing to human rights abuses” in Ethiopia. The Western donors have ignored calls to “seriously weigh the impact that their funding has on bolstering repressive structures and practices in Ethiopia.” They are unwilling to do a “fundamental re-thinking of their strategy.”
The People of Ethiopia v. Western Donors
When I wrote my commentaries “Speaking Truth to Strangers” this past June and “J’Accuse” last November  , I argued that in a perfect world Western donors in Ethiopia could be prosecuted for being accessories before and after the fact to the crime of first-degree “democricide”, gross human rights violations and for aiding and abetting Zenawi’s kleptocracy. The recent HRW report furnishes a fresh boatload of damning evidence for use in the criminal conspiracy case of The People of Ethiopia v. Western Donor Countries to be tried in the court of international public opinion and in the consciences of all the taxpayers in Western countries shelling out their hard earned money to support one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world.
The silent conspiracy between the Western donors and Zenawi’s regime operates on a couple of simple premises. The Western donors in their chauvinistic view believe there are two social classes in Ethiopia. One class consists of the large masses of poor, impoverished, illiterate, malnourished and expendable masses who will not amount to much. The other class consists of the tiny class of elites who maintain a lavish life style for themselves and lord over the masses by manipulating the billions given to them to strengthen their chokehold on the political structure and process. The silent conspiracy is sustained by mutuality of interests. The Western donors want “stability” in Ethiopia, which often means the absence of internal strife that will not undermine their economic and political interests in the country. They want regional “stability”, which means having someone who could be called upon to patrol the neighborhood and kick the rear ends of some nasty terrorists. For those addicted to aid, it’s all about more aid, more free money to play with.
As long as the Western donors meet their dual objectives, they do not give a rat’s behind about what happens to their aid money or what harm it does to the Ethiopian masses. When confronted with the truth about the misuse and abuse of aid money as has been documented in the HRW report, the donors will deny it (“we have built in safeguards, it couldn’t happen), play it down (“nothing to it”), ignore it (“nor worth commenting”), excuse it (“it’s not as bad as it seems”), rationalize it (“we’ve got to work with the government”), and wax legal about it (“there is a sovereignty issue”); and to fool the people occasionally, they will come out in public, put on a show of feigned outrage and pontificate about democracy, the rule of law and the rest of it. After all is said and done, they go right back to business as usual.
Ethiopia: The Potemkin Village
A Potemkin village is “something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance.” Western aid has reduced Ethiopia to a Potemkin village. It’s all a façade, a smoke and mirror show complete with illusions and sleights of hand. DAG is full of it when it counterclaims against HRW’s findings:
The aid provided by members of the DAG in Ethiopia is transforming the lives of millions of poor people through basic services such as healthcare, education and water, and long-term food security. Our programmes are directly helping Ethiopia to reach the Millennium Development Goals.
In their annual dog and pony show, these poverty pimps have been singing the same old song for years: “We are saving lives in Ethiopia by the millions. Imagine how many millions would have perished but for aid; how many children would have not gone to school. See the clinics and hospitals that aid has built.” They challenge us to look at how much economic development aid has brought to Ethiopia: “Behold the shiny glass buildings. See all of the fancy roads that snake over the hills and valleys. Look at all of the universities we helped build. Look at the double digit annual economic growth. Aid money made all that possible.”
What they don’t tell is the fact that many of the shiny buildings have little running water and many more stand unfinished or vacant. The universities have few books and educational materials and even fewer qualified instructional staff. The hospitals and clinics have few doctors and virtually no medical supplies or equipment to care for 85 million people. Ethiopia has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. Inflation has made it impossible for the vast majority of Ethiopian families to meet their basic needs. The poverty pimps say nothing about the fact that famine and hunger stalks a third of the Ethiopia population year around. As to “double digit” economic growth, it is all made up by Zenawi’s regime. . So the smoke and mirror aid show goes on and on. The multi-billion dollar alms industry keeps on humming and squeezing more and more money from the wallets of hard working men and women in the West.
The fact of the matter is that aid is incapable of creating or sustaining economic development (its effects under the best of circumstances are transitory). As Dambissa Moya has argued ,
In Ethiopia, where aid constitutes more than 90% of the government budget, a mere 2% of the country’s population has access to mobile phones. (The African country average is around 30%.) Might it not be preferable for the government to earn money by selling its mobile phone license, thereby generating much-needed development income and also providing its citizens with telephone service that could, in turn, spur economic activity?
To add insult to injury, it is now becoming clearer than ever that aid has become the principal tool of repression, human rights violations and suppression of democratic institutions in Ethiopia.
Western Donors on the Horns of a Dilemma in Ethiopia
Based on the HRW report, one can reasonably conclude that U.S. aid policy in Ethiopia is reeling out of control. U.S. tax dollars given as aid are being misused by Zenawi for political purposes in violation of U.S. law with the apparent tacit approval of U.S. authorities. Cumulatively, the U.S., as the largest aid donor in Ethiopia, has been singularly responsible for the creation of a repressive Frankenstinian regime over which the U.S. has little influence or leverage.
Zenawi’s contempt for the Western donors in general is nothing less than the proverbial “bite of the hand that feeds.” The Economist recently noted, “Mr Meles’s contempt for what he calls the “neoliberalism” of the West is as plain as his admiration for ‘generous’ and ‘dependable’ China. Chinese Communist Party officials were feted at a recent EPRDF conference… The Europeans and Americans find this galling, since they continue to pay for many of Ethiopia’s hospitals and schools, as well as handing out free food.” Zenawi’s contempt is not just for “neoliberalism” (market driven approach to economic and social policy), but also the very essence of what the U.S. and the West in general claims to be its fundamental values including the rule of law, civil and human rights and free democratic processes and institutions.
After sucking up $26 billion dollars of aid, Zenawi is telling his Western donors that they are chumps and wimps, and he is going to dump them for the rising sun of East Asia. The Western donors don’t seem to get it; and they keep shelling out billions more to keep Zenawi on the dole as he thumbs his nose at them and sneers at their policies. That is nothing new. After troops under the direct command and control of Zenawi massacred 200 unarmed protesters, wounded over 800 more and jailed 30,000 opponents following the May 2005 elections, Western donors took him to the side and told him, “Be nice. Don’t do stuff like that. Anyway, here is a couple billion to do what you will.” In May 2010, Zenawi announced that he had won the elections by 99.6 percent. On September 23, 2010, the U.S. agreed to write him a handout check for a cool $229.3 million. It is sad to see American taxpayers not only having their back pockets picked, but also their rear ends kicked.
I believe there is another less visible, but equally catastrophic, damage caused by the unsupervised Western aid in Ethiopia. The cumulative anecdotal evidence is compelling and shows that Western aid has helped create in Ethiopia a culture of poverty captained by poverty pimps and their client regime. A review of World Bank, IMF, U.N. and US AID studies and reports over the past 5 years demonstrates the near-total dependence of the Ethiopian economy on foreign aid. Today, aid is to the Ethiopian economy as khat (a popular hallucinogenic drug used in the Horn of Africa) is to the poor addict who is unable to function without that drug. Like khat, aid gives the Ethiopian economy a burst of short-term energy followed by economic lethargy and long-term incapacitating addictive dependency. One cannot help but worry over the fact that the next generation of Ethiopians could adopt a way of life and a set of attitudes that glorifies international handouts and panhandling. The millions of Ethiopians permanently trapped in a culture of intergenerational poverty may have no choice but to kneel down before the altar of foreign aid and pray to the gods of free money for their daily existence.
Time to Re-think U.S. Aid Policy in Ethiopia: Need for Congressional and Other Investigations
It is time to re-think U.S. aid policy in Ethiopia, regardless Zenawi’s apparent threat that he will turn to China to get money with no strings attached. The time for U.S. pretension must end. If there is a scintilla of fact that has any merit at all in the damning evidence assembled by HRW (the HRW report is fully corroborated), it is time for the U.S. Congress to get involved and exercise its oversight functions by undertaking a formal investigation.
There are numerous congressional authorization and appropriations subcommittees and committees that have jurisdiction over U.S. foreign assistance programs. The Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations and the House’s Committee on International Relations have primary jurisdiction over bilateral development assistance. To the extent funds are misused from U.S. contributions to multilateral development banks, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Financial Services Committee have authority to investigate. The appropriations committees and subcommittees in both Houses could also look into the HRW’s findings for misspent and illegally expended funds.
The Office of the Inspector General of the State Department has authority to investigate instances of fraud, waste, and mismanagement that may constitute either criminal wrongdoing or violation of Department regulations. The HRW report provides ample legal basis to launch an official investigation by the OIG. The United States Agency for International Development (US AID) is purportedly committed to rooting out corruption in the use of aid funds. U.S. AID claims, “Corruption damages international development and poverty alleviation by limiting economic growth, reducing social cohesion, skewing public investments, and weakening the rule of law… Democratic governance rooted in the rule of law contributes to long-term, sustainable economic and social development.” AID’s feet need to be held to the fire until it sets up an independent investigation of HRW’s findings. The U.S. Secretary of State could also order an investigation of the HRW findings.
If the Western donors want to redeem themselves in the eyes of the Ethiopian people, they must fully embrace HRW’s prudent and sound recommendations to deal with the problem of aid misuse and abuse.
In light of the government’s human rights violations, direct budget support to the government should not even be considered, and programs supported by international funds should be independently monitored. Credible audit institutions should examine aid to Ethiopia in the context of whether it contributes to political repression. External donors must also demand that Ethiopia does more than pay lip service to respecting fundamental human rights; they must be more vocal about the steps Ethiopia should take to ensure that its citizens enjoy the rights to which they are entitled under the country’s constitution and international human rights law.
No Business Like the Panhandling Business
Anyone who says “there is no business like show business,” has not tried the international alms (begging) business. What could be more fun than sitting around and waiting for the “aid man” to show up and hand out free money to use like a drunken sailor. International panhandling is a lucrative business. Everybody is in it. The panhandlers who live off handouts frolic in their dreams every night shaking down the aid money tree. The rock stars, bankers and aid bureaucrats who work 24/7 peddling aid across the globe are intoxicated by it. Even ivy league professors have gotten into the act; they have found a new calling as “entrepreneurs of aid” in much the same way as the procurers of the world’s oldest profession. Giving alms to Ethiopia is one of the favorite “indulgences” of the Western donors. It is their way of sanitizing their consciences into believing that they are doing good in Africa. If they really want to do good, let them teach Ethiopians how to fish and be self-sufficient. They don’t need to supply a villainous fish monger never-ending boatloads of fish and give him the power to decide who to feed and who to bleed.
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA
Alemayehu G. Mariam Professor of political science, CSU San Bernardino