A U.S.-based human rights group has raised an uproar with a report arguing that development assistance to Ethiopia may be doing more harm than good by strengthening a repressive government. The report has sparked condemnation in some quarters, praise in others.
The Human Rights Watch report issued last month accuses Ethiopia's government of using development aid to suppress political dissent. The 105-page document alleges that much of the $3 billion a year contributed by foreign donors is used to consolidate the power of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Ethiopian government spokesmen did not answer repeated phone calls seeking comment on the report. The government, however, launched a scathing counterattack online. Statements posted on the foreign ministry website accuse Human Rights Watch of "unbridled arrogance" and "warped neo-colonialism."
One statement calls the allegations a "make believe" story that is part of a "vendetta" against the Ethiopian people. Another accuses the rights group of trying to bully the international aid community into halting cooperation with Addis Ababa.
A consortium of 25 aid donors, known as the Development Assistance Group, issued a statement saying it disagrees with the conclusions in the HRW report. The DAG, as the assistance group is known, said its own independent study earlier this year uncovered no evidence of widespread or systematic aid distortion.
The full DAG study posted on the group's website, though, paints a different picture. It states that its study was a "desk-top" exercise - not an investigation - and no specific allegations were checked.
The study notes that a fact-finding mission late last year by the U.S. Agency for International Development observed the potential for political bias in the allocation of aid. It recommended further analysis to determine if systematic distortion takes place on the basis of political affiliation.
The United States is Ethiopia's largest individual aid donor, giving an estimated $1.3 billion per year. USAID Country Director Thomas Staal said the types of distortion alleged in the HRW report would be difficult for a donor study to detect.
"To us, the important thing is to make sure the programs are well managed, closely monitored with strict accountability systems, and you're building institutions that can make sure programs are meeting the goals, targets and beneficiaries intended," said Staal. "And you cannot go after individual cases of an allegation here and there."
Authors of the Human Rights Watch report call the Development Assistance Group's response to their allegations "disingenuous." In a telephone interview, HRW Horn of Africa Senior Researcher Leslie Lefkow said the aid community has been timid in confronting Ethiopia's government with charges of misusing aid money.
"This is one of the ironies of research we did, and the discussions we had with officials before we published this report, is that many of them privately acknowledge the characterization of the regime as repressive. They acknowledge these characteristics privately, but publicly there is no appetite for voicing this analysis."
Ethiopian opposition leader Bulcha Demeksa is a former World Bank director and a long-time senior official of the United Nations Development agency. He said the ruling party's access to vast sums of cash during the last election should have been a red flag to donors that aid money was involved.
"I do not understand how they cannot see the huge amount of money that was spent in elections this year," said Demeksa. "Where does this money come from? Ethiopia, all by itself, cannot sustain that. I believe this money was from the various types of aid coming from donors."
Demeksa said political payments were so widespread during the election that anyone not receiving money was socially ostracized. "In my own district I know very well ... and there is no house this has not touched. People are now afraid if they think somebody has not received money, and is not a thorough EPRDF supporter, nobody goes to his house, he is not invited to weddings, social functions."
Lefkow said the ruling party's influence has grown exponentially in recent years. "Between 2005 and 2010, the party increased its membership to between 4 million and 5 million, that is one in seven adults, which means in most families you have a party member, and in most kebeles (village districts) every household probably has a party member. So I do not think it is an exaggeration to say the party has essentially infiltrated every layer of Ethiopian society."
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi rejects characterizations of Ethiopia as a "one party state." He describes it as a dominant party state.
In parliamentary elections this year, the EPRDF and its allies won 99.6 percent of the seats. In village and regional council elections two years ago, the party won all but three of nearly 3 million seats.
Ethiopia remains one of the world's poorest countries, though official figures show the economy has grown 10 percent or more in each of the past seven years.