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Report: Ethiopian Government Uses Aid as Political Tool

An international watchdog published a report Tuesday that says the Ethiopian government is using development aid to suppress political dissent.

The report published by Human Rights Watch says villagers in Ethiopia often are refused loans, seeds, fertilizers, food aid and housing if they are a member of an opposition party. Human Rights Watch researcher Ben Rawlence said, "Government officials were saying to these farmers and villagers, 'why don't you go and ask your party for help?' That the ruling party has fought for this assistance from the international community and it's reserved for its own."

Ethiopia is one of the world's major consumers of development aid. In 2008 it received $3 billion from a host of donor nations, most notably the United States, Britain and Germany.

The government won a resounding victory in the May election of this year. Rawlence said the election result was symptomatic of serious political repression in the country. He also said people in Ethiopia are terrified of speaking out against the government.

"The regime is highly repressive, highly disciplined in a kind of Chinese or Maoist fashion, where every five households have a party chairman who reports to the village party chairman who reports up and up, and so-on."

The Ethiopian government has not yet commented on the report, though it has rejected similar claims in the past.

The development department of the British government released a statement that said respect for human rights is central to its work and Britain is "always swift" to raise concerns with the government of Ethiopia.

Kjetil Tronvoll is professor of human rights at the University of Oslo. He said development aid has been used in a positive way in Ethiopia. "You have the expansion of social service delivery, yes, of health clinics, of hospitals. You have the expansion of higher education institutions, definitely. Primary education has been expounded radically. Road construction, infrastructure work with the input of development money - so yes, absolutely you have a positive effect, too."

Tronvoll said, however, that he doesn't mean to say the repression of political rights should be ignored. He said donor countries are in a difficult position because the Ethiopian government doesn't allow money to be channeled directly into development programs.

"It is kind of, you take the whole package or nothing is communicated by the authorities, and it is up to the donors to accept and close their eyes for the lack of democracy and human right principles in order to support the overall possibly positive economic trend, or to say that it is too difficult for us to accept these principles," said Tronvoll.

He said what donor governments can do, though, is be more vocal in their criticisms. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 200 people in 53 villages for the report. The investigation lasted six months and took place in 2009.