Ethiopia: Starve the Beast, Feed the People! By Alemayehu G. Mariam

August 15th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Americans fed up with uncontrolled deficit government spending are often heard invoking a familiar battle cry: “Starve the Beast!” In other words, no more taxpayer dollars for wasteful government spending.

I say we stand up to the to Western donors and loaners who continue to support the criminal regime of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia and declare: “Starve the Beast, Feed the People!” No more aid to a regime that clings to power by digging its fingers into the ribs of starving children. No more aid to torturers and human rights violators. No aid to election thieves. No aid to those who roll out a feast to feed their supporters and watch their opponents starve to death. Let’s shout in a collective voice to the West — America, England, Germany, the European Union, the IMF, World Bank and the rest of them–: “Starve the bloated beast feeding on the Ethiopian body politics, and help feed the starving people.”

The Nature, Care and Feeding of the Beast

For two decades, the West has been feeding Zenawi’s regime with billions of dollars of development and humanitarian aid while filling the stomachs of starving Ethiopians with empty words and emptier promises. Western donors continue to lay out an all-you-can-eat aid buffet for Zenawi’s regime while turning a blind eye, a deaf ear and muted lips to the misuse, abuse and disuse of their taxpayers’ dollars. Despite billions of dollars in Western aid and Zenawi’s nonstop hype of a 15 percent annual economic growth, the Oxford University Multidimensional Poverty Index last year ranked Ethiopia as the world’s second poorest country, after Niger. But Zenawi brazenly insists Ethiopia will fully ensure its food security and cut extreme poverty and hunger (“severe malnutrition”) by 50 percent in 2015.

The evidence is incontrovertible that the West has adopted a “hear, see, say no evil” policy towards the Zenawi regime. Recently leaked confidential emails of Timothy Clarke, the European Union’s (EU) former ambassador in Ethiopia, show that following the May 2005 Ethiopian elections Clarke made an urgent request to the European Union for some action to restrain Zenawi: “Basic human rights abuses are being committed by the [Ethiopian] government on a daily basis – the EU must respond firmly and resolutely.” The EU and other Western donors “responded firmly” by rewarding Zenawi with billions of dollars of new aid money.

Since 1991, Zenawi’s regime has received some $26 billion in development aidfrom Western donors including the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the European Union, and Britain’s Department for International Development. In 2008 alone, Zenawi’s regime received $3 billion, more than any other nation in sub-Saharan Africa. In March 2011, Howard Taylor, head of the British aid program in Ethiopia made assurances that Ethiopia will receive $2 billion in British development assistance in a four-year period. In 2011, the UK will hand Zenawi £290 million, not including the £48m in emergency aid. Last year, the EU delivered £152m. The fact of the matter is that a big chunk of the aid money disappears into the pockets of those holding the levers of power in Ethiopia, their supporters and bloated bureaucracies. Added to this problem is capital flight and illicit financial flows. A recent United Nations Development Program (UNDP)commissioned report from Global Financial Integrity (GFI) on illicit financial flows (money taken out of a country illegally) from the Least Developed Countries showed that Ethiopia is a top exporter of illicit capital at USD$8.4 billion.

The evidence further shows that Western donors and loaners could not care less what Zenawi does with the humanitarian and development aid they give him. For instance, an audit report by the Office of the Inspector General of US AID in March 2010 came to the horrifyingly astounding and mind-bogglingly incredible conclusion that the US AID has no idea what is happening to its agricultural programs in Ethiopia. The Report stated (at p. 1):
The audit was unable to determine whether the results reported in USAID/Ethiopia’s Performance Plan and Report were valid because agricultural program staff could neither explain how the results were derived nor provide support for those results. Indeed, when the audit team attempted to validate the reported results by tracing from the summary amounts to the supporting detail, it was unable to do so at either the mission or its implementing partners… In the absence of a complete and current performance management plan, USAID/Ethiopia is lacking an important tool for monitoring and managing the implementation of its agricultural program.

In other words, the Inspector General has no confidence in the report of the program staff. Is somebody cooking the books and pulling out statistics out of their back pockets?

But lack of proper auditing to determine what has happened to the aid money is only part of the problem. Equally shocking is the fact that Western donors have ignored time and again credible evidence and warnings that their development and humanitarian aid is being misused, abused and disused to oppress and deny human rights to Ethiopians. In September 2008, Channel 4 News in Britain, the award-winning news program noted for its extensive coverage of international news, reported extensively on how Zenawi’s regime has been using famine as a weapon against civilians in suspected rebels areas.

In December 2010, Human Rights Watch called on the Development Assistance Group (DAG), a coordinating body of 26 foreign donor institutions for Ethiopia to “independently investigate allegations that the Ethiopian government is using development aid for state repression.” In July 2010, aDAG-commissioned study issued a whitewash which concluded that its Productive Safety Nets Programs (alleged to provide “basic services in education, health, agriculture, water supply, sanitation, and rural roads”) and Protection of Basic Services Programs (alleged to “protect and promote the delivery of basic services by sub-national governments while deepening transparency and local accountability in service delivery”) “are supported by relatively robust accountability systems.” In other words, none of the aid money was misused for political or other improper purposes.

In August 2011, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the BBC reported the “Ethiopian government is using millions of pounds of international aid to punish their political opponents.” The report presented compelling evidence of how “aid is being used as a weapon of oppression propping up the government of Meles Zenawi.” Despite numerous documented reports of aid abuse and misuse, Western leaders continue to hide behind a policy of plausible deniability and do nothing pointing to the massaged and embellished reports of the faceless swarms of international bureaucratic poverty-mongers creeping invisibly in Ethiopia.

Starve the Beast!

The best way of preventing famine and massive human rights violations in Ethiopia is simply by denying all aid and loans to Zenawi’s regime. In March 2011, I discussed the grave moral hazard in U.S. policy in Ethiopia and Africa in general, but the logic of my argument applies to all Western donors:

By shifting the risk of economic mismanagement, incompetence and corruption to Western donors, and because these donors impose no penalty or disincentive for poor governance, inefficiency, corruption and repression, African regimes are able to cling to power for decades abusing the human rights of their citizens and stealing elections. Western donors continue to bail out failed African states for two reasons…. Recent Wikileaks cablegrams have documented that the most important objective for Western policy makers in Africa is to support a strongman who can guarantee them stability so that they can continue to do business as usual. Basically, they want a “guy they can do business with.” Second, Western donors believe that the few billions of aid dollars given every year to guarantee “stability” in African countries is more cost effective than helping to nurture genuinely democratic societies in Africa. The moral hazard in Western policy comes not just from the fact that they provide fail-safe insurance to repressive regimes but also from the rewards of increasing amounts of aid and loans to buffer them from a tsunami of democratic popular uprising.
As long as the U.S., U.K. and the rest of them continue to bankroll Zenawi’s regime, Ethiopia will be in a permanent state of famine and starvation of not only food but also democracy and human rights. But the West is not fooling Ethiopians, and they should not believe that because Ethiopians are poor they are also gullible . Ethiopians can clearly see the evidence of Western hypocrisy about democracy, human rights and accountability in their country.
The U.S. talks a good talk about accountability and prevention of corruptionbut will not walk the talk and put the brakes on aid-related corruption in Ethiopia. The height of U.S. hypocrisy in aid to African countries is evident in the recent rhetoric of the top U.S. aid official. This past May, Rajiv Shah, the head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) harangued the leaders of the yet-to-be 54th African state of South Sudan that “President Barrack Obama is ready to invest millions in South Sudan” but “it remains the mandate of the government of South Sudan to ensure that all funds directed towards improving agricultural productivity are not diverted for other purposes. We need accountability.”

South Sudan was not even a formal sovereign state in May 2011 when Shah got on his high horse to scare the dickens out of the heroic leaders of that long-suffering nation. But South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit has anti-corruption on the top of his agenda: Last week, he told lawmakers at the opening session of the South Sudan’s new parliament that “The people of South Sudan will not sit idly and allow corruption and abuses of public resources to continue unabated. We need to abide with the principles of accountability.”
But accountability is not a word that will slip past Shah lips even accidentally when it comes to Zenawi. Despite the accumulated evidence of misuse and abuse of U.S. aid in Zenawi’s regime over the years, Shah’s lips remain zipped. What a hypocrite!

The U.S. needs to make a fundamental choice of policy in Ethiopia: continue to unreservedly support Zenawi and his repressive regime in the name of promoting American military and security policy in the Horn of Africa by providing him billions in aid and risk a sudden popular upheaval, or take measured steps to strike a balance between its security interests and support for the human rights and welfare of the Ethiopia people. Current U.S. policy is out of kilter and skewed towards blindly supporting Zenawi so long as he is seen to be a guarantor of “stability” and a proxy warfighter in the region. U.S. policy needs to change!

The U.S. should learn from recent events in North Africa and the Middle East. Ethiopians are no different from other oppressed peoples in their demands for dignity, respect for their human rights and insistence in having a voice in their governance. Like all oppressed people, they want to be free from persecution, brutality and dictatorship. They want to be free to elect their own representatives, to speak their minds and to hold their leaders accountable. They want what Jefferson and the founders of the American Republic wanted when they declared their independence 1776: “That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

Feed the People!

The current famine in Ethiopia requires use of new rules of engagement for the West. It should be no longer acceptable for the West to hand over billions of dollars in humanitarian and development aid to Zenawi and look the other way wishing no one will seek accountability on how the aid is used. Western donors and loaners must attach and stringently apply transparency requirements on Zenawi’s regime and insist on maintaining effective independent oversight in the storage, transportation, and distribution of humanitarian aid in the Ethiopia. Rigorous and sustained oversight is also needed for the administration of development aid. Ultimately, the West needs to come to terms with a larger moral issue. Ought they give aid to a regime which uses that aid to systematically engage in repression and persecution of its opponents and massive human rights abuses with impunity?

For well over four decades, U.S. humanitarian aid policy in Ethiopia has been driven by rescue or crisis intervention. Recently, describing the situation in Ethiopia and the Horn region as the “most severe humanitarian emergency” and the “worst that East Africa has seen in several decades”, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced $17 million in new U.S. aid. As of August 15, 2011, total Western humanitarian pledges, commitments and contributions to Ethiopia amount to USD$574 million. The U.N. estimates some 12 million people in Ethiopia and the region are in danger of starvation and at least USD$2.5 billion is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe this year. Everyone knows a lot more money than $2.5 billion is needed to deal with the expanding famine.

The fact of the matter is that the famine in Ethiopia and the Horn region in 2011 is occurring under the least favorable international famine relief environment in history. There are clear signs of donor fatigue (people tired of giving to famine relief) in countries where relief has been forthcoming in the past. Americans are experiencing severe economic problems of their own with overstretched budgets, two wars, a rising debt problem and a possible “double-dip” recession. They are most likely give to their churches, favorite charities and organizations and local community groups before stretching a helping hand to famine victims in Africa.

European countries are experiencing severe economic problems also. If the recent riots in poor communities in the U.K. are any indication, those residents may insist on getting the billions in aid earmarked to Ethiopia by Howard Taylor, head of the British aid program to Ethiopia. Most of the other Western donor countries are preoccupied with their own financial woes, high unemployment, debt crises and general economic downturn. There are no celebrities to raise money for Ethiopia. The great Michael Jackson has fallen silent and will not sing “We Are the World” to save Ethiopia’s famine victims. Bob Geldof is nowhere in sight to assemble another Band Aid; and he will not be singing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” again after he was roundly criticized last year following revelations of misused relief aid in 1984 by Zenawi’s rebel group.

The famine of 2011 will be like no other and the toll it will take will be heartbreaking and gut-wrenching.

A Blast From the Past

Last week Mengistu Hailemariam, the junta leader and father of the infamous “Red Terror” campaign in Ethiopia in the late 1970s and the man who flat out denied there was any famine in 1984-85 when a million people died like flies from starvation, crawled from under his rock in Zimbabawe and gave an interview. He blasted the “woyane” regime waiving the flag of Ethiopian nationalism. In his “message” to the Ethiopian people Mengistu said, “Everyone knows the current situation in Ethiopia. All Ethiopians have a duty to free Ethiopia from woyane. If they fail to do that, generations to come will condemn them and we will all wear a blanket of shame.” The history books are full of anecdotes in which Stalin and Hitler condemned each other. Mengistu can wrap himself in the Ethiopian flag from head to toe but it will not blanket his monstrous crimes nor his long train of abuses while he was in power. He cannot conceal his blood-drenched hands by wrapping it in the Ethiopian flag. Remarkably, Mengistu’s memory has faded over the years. He should be reminded that the “woyane” he now wants the Ethiopian people to kick out are the same “woyane” he allowed to march into town unopposed 20 years ago as he sneaked out to his hideout in Zimbabwe in the dead of night. Mengistu should know the difference between himself and Meles to Ethiopians is the exact same difference between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

How To Save Ethiopia from a Famine of Food and Democracy

President Obama said, “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands.” The “moment” to “save” Ethiopia is now! But is there anything President Obama and the world can do to save Ethiopia?

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