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Ethiopia and the BBC: The politics of development assistance

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 a journalist specialising in developing world affairs, and first travelled to Ethiopia in the 1960s. He has made films in and reported from Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, South Africa, Uganda, and Sudan, as well as Ethiopia. He has led BBC World Service Trust campaigns on leprosy and HIV/AIDS in India. He is the author of Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid. This post first appeared on the Royal Africa Society blog, and is reposted with permission.

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Recent Comments

  1. mamo

    It is undeniable fact that the ethnically based government of Melese’s concern and care has always was to stash away as much money as the donating country give him seemingly window dressing his concern with the situation on the ground in Ethiopia. More people have died either by hunger, torture or just killing them in plain day light. I think the British tax payers or any other concerned countries should think where their money is going rather than throwing their money to corrupt and tribalist regime

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