It gets a disproportionately large slice of Africa’s aid, but the Ethiopian regime does not act in the best interests of its citizens or its neighbours. So why has the G20 made the country a spokesman for the entire continent?
Last week the leaders of the world’s largest economies met at the G20 Summit in Toronto. The key items on the agenda were global economic recovery, sustainable and environmentally-friendly growth, and the impact of the recession on social justice. Special invitations were also issued to Vietnam, Malawi, and Ethiopia. Vietnam attended as chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Malawi came as chair of the African Union (AU). Ethiopia, it seems, was invited in a somewhat ambiguous role, as the “voice of Africa.” You can always tell a lot about a party from the guest list. So what agenda was served with this group?
At first glance, it looks as though Ethiopia was there to represent African development issues in the discussion about the global recovery. Ethiopia was, after all, chair of NEPAD—the New Economic Partnership for African Development. NEPAD was an AU initiative that aimed to help develop Africa internally, mobilising the continent’s own resources instead of seeking foreign aid; creating a new vision and direction for Africa in place of one shaped by donor interests. But herein lies a problem. NEPAD has been so unsuccessful in achieving its goals that the AU recently voted to disband it—an outcome that does not exactly reflect well on Ethiopia’s leadership of the initiative.
Indeed, was it ever in the Ethiopian government’s interests for NEPAD to succeed? Part of NEPAD’s mandate is to ensure good governance in African states, and the Ethiopian leadership is hardly a model of this. It has been accused of serious human rights abuses, persecution of political opponents, and anti-democratic governance. Human Rights Watch has called Ethiopia’s recent record “poor…and on a deteriorating human rights trajectory.” The US State Department has cited reports of “unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, often acting with evident impunity.” Foreign policy magazine has just ranked Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi the 9th worst dictator in the world, while the country’s opposition leader and former judge Birtukan Mideksa languishes in prison on a life sentence for treason. In the recent national elections, which returned a 99.6 per cent majority for the government, EU observers reported that the polls “fell short of certain international commitments, notably the lack of level playing field for all parties and transparency of the process,” with a “climate of apprehension and insecurity” in the weeks leading up to the vote. Ethiopia therefore seems a strange choice to be the “voice of Africa” in discussions about African development.
Furthermore, the G20 summit ended with an announcement of $6bn annual lending to the African Development Bank for 2012-2020. This amount may seem impressive at first, but shrinks in comparison with the $0.95bn cost of the security operation around the one-off summit in Toronto, and with the $10bn annual lending agreed to the Asian Development Bank and the $11bn to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Why didn’t Ethiopia, as the “voice of Africa,” express disappointment at this?
Perhaps because Ethiopia is already Africa’s largest recipient of aid from many of the individual G20 nations. Britain awards Ethiopia $250m per year; and the US gives it $862m per year. These individual aid agreements dwarf the G20’s collective aid contribution to Africa: agreements with Britain and the US alone, for example, is equal to nearly 20 per cent of the $6bn the G20 collectively has now pledged, with Ethiopia’s symbolic approval, to Africa overall. This has two major implications: the priority of Ethiopia’s government will be to sustain its relationship with individual aid donor countries, in order to protect its own domestic position; and the question of G20 aid for “all of Africa” is not something about which Ethiopia’s government is likely to be too concerned.
Why, then, might G20 nations want a “voice of Africa” representative like Ethiopia? The answer may in part lie with the second item on the economic agenda: sustainable and environmentally-friendly growth. The G20 nations are under considerable national and international pressure to deliver green treaties. But green treaties come with short-term economic costs; and any commitment to international climate aid finance will have an impact on already strained domestic budgets. Enter Ethiopia. In December 2009, the UN climate talks were in deadlock: the G77 bloc of developing world countries were insisting on a 1.5C restriction on temperature increases above pre-industrial levels, and $2trn climate aid financing by 2020, while the EU and the “Umbrella Group” of non-EU developed countries would only commit to a temperature restriction of 2C, and would not offer more than $123bn in climate aid financing. At the eleventh hour, Ethiopia broke ranks with the G77 bloc to offer a settlement that enshrined the EU’s and Umbrella Group’s 2C and $123bn offer; and hence was born the Copenhagen Accord. When Ethiopia made this solitary move, it was reported that it was “representing Africa.” In fact, the official body representing Africa was the African Group, at the time chaired by Algeria. As a body it vehemently rejected—and still rejects—the accord. But Ethiopia’s support of the agreement conveniently allowed—and continues to allow—the G20 governments to look green, without actually having to be so.
This brings us to the third key issue on the G20 agenda: social justice. The G20 nations are also increasingly under pressure by their citizens to demonstrate a commitment to fair trade, to anti-poverty measures, and to reducing global inequalities. But as with the climate agenda, a wholehearted commitment to these principles will create short-term shocks to national economies. Enter Ethiopia—again. Because of the devastating 1984-5 famines the country suffered, and the international and cross-demographic goodwill inspired as a result, Ethiopia is a potent symbol for the “suffering of Africa”—and its presence at international economic summits helps give these summits a particular moral legitimacy. This image of supporting the “suffering of Africa,” rather than learning from the success stories of somewhere like Senegal or Namibia, is the sort of “social justice for Africa” picture that is easier for governments in the rich world to sell to their citizens.
G20 governments may be right to be nervous about short-term shocks to their economies. But in their refusal to think long term, or to recognise the diversity of Africa, they are doing the continent great disservice. Instead of indulging in tokenism, they could be drawing more on success stories like Ghana, Botswana, Senegal, Namibia and Tanzania—and we could all be learning more from what actually works.
As for Ethiopia’s citizens, whose iconic suffering seems to be what has earned their prime minister the right to be the “voice of Africa”—their suffering continues. “Even so distant, I can taste the grief, / Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp,” wrote Philip Larkin in Deceptions. “Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare / Console you if I could.”
CHART 1: G20 annual lending to international financial institutions in $bn
AfDB: African Development Bank
AsDB: Asian Development Bank
EBRD: European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
IADB: Inter-American Development Bank (includes Haiti debt relief)
CHART 2: Climate aid financing vs recession financing in $b
The Green Deal 2020: G77 bloc developing countries’ total climate aid request until 2020
The Copenhagen Accord 2020: EU and Umbrella Group developed countries’ total climate aid offer until 2020 through the Copenhagen Accord
IFIs 2008-10: G20 provision of funds to IMF and other International Financial Instiutions (like AfDB, AsDB, above) for recession 2008-10