Our largest aid program goes to a country led by a strongman. Should it?
“If the police see me do this, they might arrest me,” says Elias. An earnest 21-year-old dressed in a Chelsea soccer jersey, he is clearly excited by the risk he’s about to take. He glances around the café, where men sip macchiatos and gaze meditatively at the donkeys, cars, beggars and shoeshine boys that ply this Addis Ababa street. Satisfied that no one is watching, Elias raises two fingers in a “V for victory” salute.
Last year, during a national election campaign, hundreds of thousands paraded through Ethiopia’s capital flashing the V-sign—the wordless gesture of solidarity with opposition parties. Times have changed. Elias saw his 18-yearold neighbour killed by police during a political demonstration. He’s had friends taken away in the night during police sweeps. And since March, a series of small bombs has exploded in restaurants and taxis, resulting in five deaths but no arrests.
In this charged atmosphere, the Canadian embassy oversees one of our country’s largest foreign development programs. Last
year, the Canadian International Development Agency (CID A) spent over $83 million here on projects that ranged from meals for schoolchildren to rehabilitating watersheds. But those aid dollars were earmarked before Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his government orchestrated the recent crackdowns. Now Canada faces a dilemma. Given the current assault on human rights in Ethiopia, should we keep the aid faucets open?
We’re not in this quandary alone. In recent years, Ethiopia looked poised to become an “aid darling”—one of those poor but relatively
well-governed countries favoured by foreign donors. Last year, the international community gave over US$1.9 billion in aid, with more planned. Two years ago, it also decided to try something different. Rather than fund aid organizations to provide a patchwork of services, Canada and other donors funnelled aid directly into government coffers. In turn, the government agreed to spend the money on services like education and health care. This year, donors were set to give US$500 million in “direct budgetary support.”
The venture required considerable trust.
As one embassy official noted, “With direct budgetary support, donors aren’t just dating the Ethiopian government, they’re married to it.” A key force in earning that trust was Meles Zenawi. The prime minister, as both critics and fans will say, is a persuasive man, able to talk like a democratic reformer or a World Bank technocrat when needed. “I always thought that Meies was going to save this country,” says a long-time Western diplomat based in Addis. “He comes across as a calm and rational leader, but right under the surface is a hard-core ideologue with a psychopathic willingness to kill his own people to keep power.” (Like most people interviewed for this article, the official refused to be identified. The government has expelled several NGOs and recently banished the correspondent for the Associated Press.)
Only last May, Ethiopia was enjoying the freest election campaign in its history. In Addis Ababa’s cafés, people flipped through anti-government newspapers and watched lively televised debates. On the streets, opposition supporters waved the two-fingered Vsign. “The election process was quite fair and open until election day,” says a foreign electoral observer who was in Ethiopia last year. “But when the polls closed and it looked like there was a chance the opposition could win, then everything changed.” The observer believes Meles’s ruling party would have won a majority in a completely fair election, “but they weren’t willing to take that chance.”
In the months that followed, opposition politicians disputed the election results and called for strikes. Over 80 people were killed during protests. Police swept through Addis Ababa and rounded up thousands of young men and women, holding them for weeks in detention camps. The government also charged 131 opposition politicians, journalists, and human-rights activists with offences including treason and genocide. The detainees, among them the elected mayor of Addis Ababa, await trial in a prison on the outskirts of town.
There was a time when the quality of government seemed to make little difference to foreign donors. The U.S. lavished support on the Zairean dictator Mobuto Sese Seko, for example, who used state funds to build a mansion with a cellar designed for 15,000 bottles of wine. But donors came to understand that despots, warlords and kleptocrats tend to spend aid dollars poorly. So when Meies’s government tightened its political stranglehold, foreign donors, including Canada, took action. They froze the remaining US$375 million of the US$500 million slated for direct budgetary support. Donor representatives held a tense meeting with Meles,
RELATIVELY STABLE AND AN ALLY IN THE WAR ON TERROR, ETHIOPIA NEEDS TO BE HANDLED GENTLY
who was unrepentant. “If you don’t want to invest in our country,” he reportedly said, “then go elsewhere.”
Should that be Canada’s long-term policy? Should we direct our aid to well-governed nations that will likely use it efficiently? Or should we tolerate waste, and possible misuse by unsavoury rulers, if it means we can help the world’s most desperately poor?
In a recent foreign-policy review for the C. D. Howe Institute, John Richards argues that Canada does a poor job of focusing aid dollars on well-governed countries. But the Catch-22 is that the poorest countries tend to have the worst governments. “For Canada to pull out of all countries with bad governance would mean that we would almost completely pull out of Africa,” admits Richards, professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University. “What we need to do is use conditionality and realpolitik so we can leverage improvements in governance.”
One obstacle is that Canada is usually a minor player in countries where it operates. Danielle Goldfarb, a senior policy analyst at C. D.
Howe, suggests that CIDA would have more influence if it focused its resources on fewer countries, or on specific sectors such as health care or education. Both she and Richards believe our government should encourage a broader debate about foreign aid policy.
“Canadians have an inflated view of our role in the world,” Goldfarb says.
“But our actual development policies get very little public attention.” In Addis Ababa, everyone from taxi drivers to disgruntled bureaucrats has a policy recommendation for foreign donors. Hard-line government critics want aid withheld until the human rights situation improves. Many diplomats, however, believe that the government should be handled gently. Not only is Ethiopia a loyal ally in the American war
on terrorism, it’s an island of tranquility and good governance when compared to neighbouring Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.
Beyene Petros, chair of the opposition party United Ethiopian Democratic Front, takes a moderate position. Donors like Canada need to better monitor aid money spent, he says. But he opposes reductions. “If you can get water to villages and irrigation to crops, or improve education and health care, I don’t have any argument against that,” he says. “I don’t want to try to make politics over starving bodies. That is too hard-hearted.”
Six hundred kilometres south of Addis, far from the political turmoil, Diramu Arero waits outside a ramshackle clinic with her two young children. Early this morning, they hiked across a landscape of scorched orange soil and scrub bush. The region has been caught in a drought that stretches across the horn of Africa, affecting millions. In past droughts, children weakened by malnutrition fell prey to disease epidemics. UNICEF launched a vaccination campaign to prevent that from reoccurring. Canada contributed $26.5 million, using money saved when it froze direct budgetary support to Ethiopia.
Diramu lost a child to measles in the last drought, but disease is not her only concern. Her family depended on cattle for income and for food. But drought killed the herd. “I sell firewood for money,” she says. “If someone could help me buy a donkey to carry the wood, then maybe I could provide for my children. But there is no one to help us.”
The vaccination campaign is a necessity, one that may save thousands of lives, but it won’t help people like Diramu escape from poverty. There are no easy solutions for that. The only certainty is that despair over the government in Addis and a quick disengagement from Ethiopia will not be the way. M
AFGHANISTAN: HORNY NAME GETS DROPPED
Dutch peacekeepers in Afghanistan have had the name of their operation changed from “Unicorn” because they feared that troops from Canada, Australia and Britain were laughing at them. According to Dutch Ministry of Defence spokesman Otte Beeksma, “unicorn” has homosexual connotations among Anglo-Saxons. To stifle the smirking around Kandahar, the ministry has changed the operation’s name to “Uruzgan Taskforce.”
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