The dividing line between developmental assistance and aid that is intended to strengthen human rights and democratic governance is an obscure boundary, yet it has considerable moral and strategic significance. Donor countries must weigh a variety of factors—including security and economic questions and the geopolitical role of the beneficiary country—that often leave democracy and human rights goals on the back burner. Such a ranking of priorities has an immediate negative effect on the ground, and it ultimately represents a costly trade-off in which long-term interests are exchanged for short-term gains.By any plausible account, the performance of Ethiopia’s current government raises daunting dilemmas of this kind. International donors have generally responded by emphasizing economic growth and all but ignoring the erosion of human rights. It is an approach that flies in the face of American values and of current U.S. policy for sub-Saharan Africa, which explicitly promotes the creation of democratic and just societies.
The Ethiopian government’s recent actions clearly warrant scrutiny. In February of this year, the Federal High Court revived previously dismissed charges against one of the regime’s few remaining critics in the country, the respected journalist Temesghen Desalegn, who had been chief editor of the weekly newspaper Feteh until it was shut down by the government in July 2012. Temesghen must now confront charges of “outrages against the constitution” for having exercised a basic human right that Americans cherish—freedom of expression. The case is illustrative of a continuing and pervasive deterioration in the space for free speech, peaceful protest, and opposition political activity.
The death of longtime Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012 raised many uncertainties about the future of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, marked his passing by praising the prime minister’s “decades-long commitment to Ethiopia’s development” and “his tireless efforts to liberate his proud people from famine, poverty, and disease.” It is true that Meles was a leading figure in the revolutionary movement that rid Ethiopia of the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
And while Ethiopia remains one of the world’s poorest countries, Meles did preside over significant gains in economic development during his two decades as undisputed leader. He even adhered to a range of democratic standards after taking power. However, his leadership style became increasingly ironfisted over time, following a trajectory that is all too familiar in Africa. The close elections of 2005 led to years of persecution of the political opposition and suppression of civil society. The next elections in 2010 were thoroughly tainted by government intimidation of opposition parties and their supporters, independent media, and civic activists.
Despite this degradation on human rights and democratic governance, the international community has maintained its robust support for Ethiopia’s economic progress. The World Bank has become the country’s largest provider of official development assistance, offering over $7 billion in aid over the past 21 years. In 2006, amid growing concerns about human rights violations by the Meles government, the bank canceled all of Ethiopia’s debt as part of the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative.
Bilateral donors have also been active. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has shifted from the famine relief efforts of past decades to a relatively new strategy intended to help Ethiopia “transform its economy and society toward middle income status.” USAID hopes to achieve this by “coordinating its efforts more closely with the Government of Ethiopia, other donors and civil society.” But under Ethiopian government pressure, USAID projects to strengthen human rights and democratic governance have been assigned a lower priority than economic growth and trade. If it continues, this pattern could have sobering consequences.
For now, the EPRDF’s rule appears to be secure. An internal party compromise after Meles’s death confirmed Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister. Nevertheless, the leadership shows no sign of opening the political space and allowing some dissenting voices to be heard. To the contrary, the assault on human rights has continued apace, with widespread use of internet surveillance, censorship of websites and social media, smear campaigns against all opposition figures, and broad application of restrictive statutes like the antiterrorism law and the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP).
Few human rights organizations remain active in Ethiopia; they have not benefited from a largely symbolic relaxation of restrictions on nongovernmental organizations addressing issues like gender equality and maternal and child health. The CSP has cut off local human rights groups from foreign donors, and the authorities have stripped them of any existing assets and any opportunity to raise funds. Several opposition activists and Ethiopian journalists, including the blogger Eskinder Nega, still languish in prison, serving sentences on terrorism and treason charges. The EPRDF inhibits free private discussion by maintaining an presence at all levels of society, exploiting a network of paid informants and a nationwide telephone-tapping operation.
Recent economic development efforts in Ethiopia do benefit the poor in some ways, but they also serve to perpetuate and legitimize what is essentially a one-party authoritarian regime. Some argue that economic growth must come before high democratic governance standards and observance of human rights.
Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen offered a rebuttal to this position in his 1999 book Development as Freedom, explaining that “political rights, including freedom of expression and discussion, are not only pivotal in inducing social responses to economic needs, they are also central to the conceptualization of economic needs themselves.” In short, when economic growth is not linked to development priorities established through the democratic process, it is more likely to serve the existing power elite while neglecting the real needs of ordinary citizens.
Donors should devote more attention to the long-term costs of authoritarian rule. Businesses can only go so far in the absence of impartial courts, strong property rights, and independent corruption watchdogs in the media and civil society. Left to their own devices, dictators inevitably sacrifice the well-being of their subjects to protect their own wealth and security.
Moreover, their regimes frequently end in violence and disorder, partly or totally destroying any economic or social gains they may have achieved, and reversing any contributions they might have made to regional stability. An aid strategy dedicated to genuine, sustainable prosperity and security would emphasize political rights and civil liberties at least as much as basic economic development, and resist pressure to work against the true interests of both donor and recipient.