Ethiopia and the BBC: The politics of development assistance – By Peter Gill

‘Also tonight,’ said Kirsty Wark in the opening link to Newsnight on BBC2 on August 4, ‘torture, rape and deliberate starvation.’  She promised that Newsnight’s ‘exclusive undercover investigation’ would reveal evidence that ‘the Ethiopian government used millions of pounds of international aid to punish their political opponents.’   That was not all.  ‘We also investigate allegations of human rights abuses.’

By Peter Gill

In the course of 17 minutes, Newsnight managed to review six years’ worth of all that had gone wrong in Ethiopia, from post-election violence in 2005, to the intensified anti-insurgency operations in Somali Region after 2007, to more recent opposition complaints that their supporters were being deprived of international development assistance.   To emphasise the British aid connection, the film concluded: ‘The purpose of development aid is to help Ethiopia on to its feet, to establish democracy, justice and the rule of law.  The evidence we’ve gathered suggests it is failing.’

The BBC commissioned its Ethiopia film from the recently established Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London whose website now carries no fewer than 13 stories on the trouble with Ethiopia under the generic tagline ‘Ethiopia Aid Exposed.’  Headlines include ‘Revealed: Aid to Ethiopia increases despite serious human rights abuses,’ ‘Aid as Weapon of political oppression in the Southern Regions’ and ‘Analysis: European taxpayers fund abuses in Ethiopia.’  Under the same tagline, there is also ‘Get the Data: UK Aid to Ethiopia.’

The timing of the programme could hardly have been worse for the hungry and the very poor in Ethiopia.  The country is directly affected by the current East African food emergency and additionally burdened by many thousands of refugees fleeing Somalia in search of food across the border.   The broadcast came as official and private appeals for international help are faltering, and just 24 hours after the United Nations declared an extension of formal famine conditions to cover five regions of southern Somalia.  It is now Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis in 20 years.

Because the BBC crew travelled to Ethiopia as tourists, not journalists, they did not interview any Ethiopian officials.  Nor did they approach any foreign aid officials in the country, so the field was left to opposition politicians and a foreign critic.  Nor was any minister from either the Department for International Development or the Foreign Office able to give up an evening to explain why Britain gave aid to Ethiopia in the first place.  It is now the largest single recipient of UK bilateral assistance, a commitment that will rise from £290 million this year to £390 million by 2015.

So it was Mr Abdirashid Dulane, the deputy Ethiopian Ambassador in London, who faced a seven-minute inquisition from Kirsty Wark on torture, rape and human rights abuse.   He had received a written account of the programme’s allegations, but was denied the chance to view the film before it was aired.   He managed in passing to make the point that the Newsnight film lacked ‘even-handedness,’ and the embassy followed up the next day with a statement complaining that the report’s timing was ‘guaranteed to inflict maximum damage on those who are suffering from the worst drought in sixty years in our region.’

The programme-makers insist they were not canvassing the suspension of emergency or development aid to Ethiopia, although that was certainly the message received by many respondents to the programme.   Overseas Ethiopian critics of the government were cock-a-hoop with the story, and one early British comment on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s website recommended that ‘the UK government stop any financial help to this country until they can be assured that any monies given are used in a non-political way and are for the benefit of the people who are in greatest need.’  An Addis Ababa reporter for the online news service Ezega.com urged her own government to investigate the allegations, yet concluded that the BBC report ‘might cost millions who are starved the food aid they expect from the international community.’

As for the aid-givers, the critical issue here is their handling of allegations over the past two years that development assistance is being used as a political tool by Ethiopia’s ruling party to favour government supporters and, through withholding it, punish their opponents.   The complaints were first made by opposition figures in Ethiopia, but gained traction with the publication of ‘Development without Freedom: How aid underwrites repression in Ethiopia,’ a thorough piece of work researched in 2009 by Human Rights Watch and published in October 2010

With the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in the lead, the aid-givers’ Development Assistance Group in Addis Ababa pre-empted the Human Rights Watch report by commissioning one of their own.   ‘Aid Management and Utilisation in Ethiopia’ was published in July 2010 as ‘a study in response to allegations of distortion in donor-supported development programmes.’ It has since been used by the Ethiopian government and the donors to assert that no credible evidence has been found to substantiate the allegations.  DFID repeated the same line last week.  It is at best disingenuous.  The report was in its own estimation ‘an exploratory and desk-based study’ – in other words, its compilers did not leave the office – and it emphasised repeatedly that it was ‘not an investigation’ and ‘does not seek to prove or disprove allegations of distortion.’

Worse, the report said donors were drawing up plans for a second phase of the study that ‘could include detailed fieldwork.’   More than a year has passed, and there appears to have been no such fieldwork, only more attention to the paperwork.   The aid-givers do not even seem to have acted on the invitation of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in his exchanges with Human Rights Watch.  ‘If we get credible reports, we will investigate,’ he said, ‘not to please anyone, but to ensure the credibility of our party.’  The DFID record here is hardly an inspiring example of that new regime of transparency and rigorous results-based monitoring promised by Andrew Mitchell, the new Secretary of State.

Part of the reason for DFID’s tangled response to the aid allegations lies in its own heavy investment in the ‘governance’ agenda.   What was once a straightforward departmental commitment to ‘eliminating world poverty’ has since become, in the swiftly changing fashions of the aid world, a determination to promote democracy, justice and the rule of law.  Thus Newsnight was able to overlook Ethiopia’s significant achievements in bearing down on poverty and extending health and education services to conclude that our aid effort was failing.

Where should outsiders draw the line on which poor countries to help, and when to stop?   Is the rich world interested in helping Africa’s poor or in promoting government systems which resemble its own?   Three days after the Newsnight report on BBC Television, BBC Radio posed the same question this way:  ‘How badly does a country have to behave to forfeit support from the British taxpayer?’   A powerful edition of File on Four investigated allegations that Rwanda and Zimbabwe had sent spies to Britain to stifle opposition abroad, sometimes even to kill, and had used our asylum system to infiltrate refugee communities.

The evidence presented was strong, but File on Four was careful not to answer its own question.   It got a senior Labour politician to do it for them instead.   Kim Howells was a Foreign Office minister and chaired the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.  He was certain these countries should be threatened with having their aid cut off.  He accepted there would be a human price to be paid:  ‘It may be that the poor people who receive the aid are going to grow poorer and their children are going to suffer and so on, but I don’t think we can go on like this.’

At a time of intensifying controversy over the UK aid budget – increasing while almost everything else is cut – it is a provocative notion that Britain should use aid to reward and punish foreign governments for their record on ‘governance’ rather than for helping the poor out of poverty.   It comes close to the bad old ways with aid during the Cold War in Africa.  What would the British taxpayer have to say to that, if he or she was ever asked?

Peter Gill is the author of Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid published by Oxford University Press in 2010

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5 thoughts on “Ethiopia and the BBC: The politics of development assistance – By Peter Gill

  1. “A powerful [REALLY?] edition of File on Four investigated allegations that Rwanda and Zimbabwe had sent spies to Britain to stifle opposition abroad, sometimes even to kill, and had used our asylum system to infiltrate refugee communities.
    The evidence presented was strong,[WAS IT? IT RELIED ON VARIOUS RWANDAN NOBODIES WITH APPARENTLY AXES TO GRIND AND PROBABLY INTERESTS IN BOOSTING IMMIGRATION APPLICATIONS. THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE AS SUCH. THE PROGRAMME BELIEVED THEM BUT NOT THE RWANDAN HIGH COMMISSIONER .] but File on Four was careful not to answer its own question. It got a senior Labour politician to do it for them instead. Kim Howells was a Foreign Office minister and chaired the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. He was certain these countries should be threatened with having their aid cut off. [YES BUT ON THE BASIS OF A "HINT" OR "BREATH" NOT EVIDENCE OR ANY SORT OF PROPER INVESTIGATION OF THE FACTS. ONE WONDERED HOW ANYONE WITH SUCH DISREGARD FOR CHECKINJG THE FACTS COULD EVER HAVE BEEN TRUSTED WITH A POSITION IN PUBLIC LIFE.] He accepted there would be a human price to be paid: ‘It may be that the poor people who receive the aid are going to grow poorer and their children are going to suffer [OH THAT'S ALRIGHT THEN!] and so on, but I don’t think we can go on like this.’”
    NO SURPRISE THAT FILE ON 4 HAS NO COMMENT PAGE OR IN FACT ANY FACILITY FOR RESPONSE.

  2. While there is much to be said for continuity, such as the UK’s GBP46m per year for ten years commitment to Rwanda, there is no doubt that there are always development opportunities in well-managed developing countries too. Perhaps there should be a banker-style ‘governance bonus’ of direct budgetary support, paid annually in arrears to those who stay on the straight and narrow, separate to core development aid based on need? I realise this might be more FCO than DFID, but it’s still UK cash… If the whole pot ends up going to Botswana, Mauritius and a few other then so be it. Mohammed Ibrahim has not awarded his prize for retiring democratic African leaders every year for the simple reason that there isn’t always a deserving candidate in the whole continent.

  3. Pingback: OUPblog » Blog Archive » Ethiopia and the BBC: The politics of development assistance

  4. (Foreign) Aid Reform—An Epistemological Approach

    The West cannot design a comprehensive (external-imposed) reform for a poor country that creates benevolent laws and good institutions to make the economic markets work. Experience demonstrates that the rules that make markets work reflect a complex bottom-up search for social norms, networks of relationships, and formal laws and institutions that have the most payoff. To make things worse, these norms, networks and institutions change in response to changed circumstances and their own past history. Political philosophers such as Burke, Popper and Hayek had the key insight that this social interplay was so complex that a top-down reform that tried to change all the rules at once could make things worse rather than better.

    Piecemeal reformers, foreign and domestic, can try to move toward better systems that are sensitive to local conditions and that unshackle the dynamism of individuals everywhere. The dynamism of the poor at the bottom has much more potential than planners at the top.

    “No one’s life, liberty, or property is safe
    While the legislature is in session.”

    The one gut instinct that many people have about the poverty of nations in Africa is probably close to the target: it is all politics!

    In the course of my work in developing countries, I have encountered outstanding government officials whom I admire greatly. These government officials with insight complain more knowledgeably about bad politics and corruption in their own countries than outsiders can ever hope to articulate.

    We must face reality—decades of research by social scientists, not to mention everyday observation, illustrate how dysfunctional government can get in many countries. We do not do the poor any favours by tenderly respecting the sensitivities of ‘bad’ rulers who oppress their own people.

    Democracy can function, but imposing democracy from the outside does not. Democracy features feedback and accountability, while foreign aid does not. Government institutions such as courts, judges and police could solve some of the problems plaguing emerging market economies. Impartial courts and police help make the market function in affluent countries by enforcing contracts, protecting property rights, providing security against predators and punishing lawbreakers.

    The Achilles’ heel is that any government that is powerful enough to protect against predators is also powerful enough to be a predator itself. The other great invention of human society besides the free market economy is political freedom. According to the simplest view of democracy, an open society with a free press, free speech, freedom of assembly, and political rights for dissidents is a way to ensure good government. Free individuals will expose any predatory behaviour by ‘bad’ governments and vote them out of office. Voters will reward with longer terms of office those politicians who find ways to deliver more honest courts, judges and police. Political parties will compete to please the voters, just as capitalistic firms compete to please their customers. The next generation of politicians will do better at delivering these services. Of course, no real democracy functions close to this ideal. Democracy is not a quick prescriptive fix for poor countries. The path to a stable democracy is tortuous and fraught with peril. Democracy depends on the slow and bottom-up evolution of rules of fair play.

    Aside from numerous examples of electoral cheating/fraud, democracy is an intricate set of arrangements that is far more nuanced than just holding elections. Another problem with democracy is that of the tyranny of the majority. If a majority hates some minority viewpoint, they may vote to censor the dissidents. This would limit the free speech and debate that is one of the virtues of democracy. These points are far from hypothetical in poor-country democracies, which are often polarized along ethnic and class lines and where the winners sometimes abuse the losers. This is why a complete definition of democracy involves some protection for individual rights and freedom of dissent as well as majority rule.

    Another problem with the ideal vision of democracy is corruption. Competitive elections are no guarantee against corruption. Politicians can buy votes instead of earning them with good government. They can steal from state coffers to fund payoffs for their supporters. Corrupt politics merge with ethnic politics as parties compete to win resources for their own ethnic group.

    This superficial sketch of democracy and its vulnerabilities has uncovered several reasons why good government may not take hold—elite manipulation of the rules of the political game, weak social norms, landed wealth, natural resources, high inequality, corruption and ethnic nationalism and hatreds.

    Unfortunately, the aid agencies have had little idea how to fix these problems from the outside when they have tried to change ‘bad’ governments into ‘good’ governments—the foreign aid Planners in the West have never figured out how to deal with ‘bad’ governments. ‘Bad’ governments can sabotage even the most well-intentioned aid programs. Another critical government input for development is good public services. Governments in poor countries often fail at delivering basic health and education services.

    Since donors understandably do not want to admit they are dealing with ‘bad’ governments, diplomatic language in aid agencies becomes an art form. A war is a “conflict-related reallocation of resources”. Aid efforts to deal with homicidal warlords are “difficult partnerships”. Countries whose presidents loot the treasury experience “governance issues”. When government officials want to steal while the aid agency wants development, there are “differences in priorities and approaches that need to be reconciled”. The “weak but improving” line is popular among aid agencies in Africa.

    Some blame the perception of ‘bad’ government in Africa on racism—an insult to the many courageous Africans who have resisted tyrannical rulers at risk of their lives and safety. It is a mistake to go to either extreme—overlooking ‘bad’ government in Africa or embracing a stereotype of African government as always bad or ineffective.

    To aid agencies, participation is an apolitical technical process of consulting the poor. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said about a similar participation idea in the 1960’s: “The socially concerned intellectuals seemed repeatedly to assume that those who had power would let it be taken away a lot easier than could possibly be the case if what was involved was power”. Often society and politics fracture along regional or ethnic lines, and foreign aid maintains neutrality with difficulty.

    This is not to automatically canonize democratically elected governments. They, too, can make terrible choices—this reinforces the fact that it is awfully hard to get democracy to function in a prescriptively beneficial fashion. Outside interference does not have a great record on improving matters, on making governments do the “right” thing.

    Another device by which donors try to get “local ownership” of ‘good’ government reforms is “peer review” of some African rulers by others. This is part of what is called the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which is supposed to have African rulers enforcing standards of ‘good’ governance on one another. It is a little mysterious why the donors embrace a mechanism of accountability for African governments that they would never apply to their own countries. (Would the American government submit to peer review by the Canadians?) “Peer review” misses the whole point of democracy, which is government accountability to its own citizens—not to some other government.

    In his book The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs emphasizes that many African countries do not have unusually ‘bad’ governments compared with other countries at their level of income. Unfortunately, what counts for the population’s well-being is not how good the government is for its level of income; it is just how good the government is, period. Aid agencies have to face reality: Is money given to a ‘bad’ government going to reach those in need—the poor? Perhaps the reason the country is poor has something to do with ‘bad’ government?

    Unfortunately, the official aid agencies do not know how to change ‘bad’ governments into ‘good’ governments with the apparatus of foreign aid. ‘Bad’ government has far deeper roots than anything the West can affect.

    Monte McMurchy
    Presentation at The Munk Centre For International Studies
    University of Toronto
    Toronto, Canada
    2006
    Member UNDP Democratic Governance Roster For Electoral Systems
    Member UNDP Expert Roster for Parliamentary Development
    MemberUNDP Expert Roster for Crisis Prevention and Recovery

  5. Pingback: Drastic and gross human right violation in Ethiopia « odaakoo

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