A new UK trust fund would be the natural way to head off incipient populist criticism of the 0.7 per cent targetby Ben Rawlence / November 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Overseas development aid has often suffered from a bad reputation, and I have played a role in burnishing that bad reputation. Back in 2010, working for Human Rights Watch, I researched and wrote a report called ‘Development without Freedom’ that detailed the politicisation of development aid by the government of Ethiopia. Food aid was distributed only to party members, all civil servants including teachers were required to join, and vote for, the ruling party, admission to university required not only grades but party loyalty.
Faced with hard evidence and tough questions, what did the major aid donors, led by the UK, do? They denied the problem and continued pumping money into Meles Zenawi’s repressive regime, arguing that the goal of reducing poverty trumped concerns about human rights. Only after we had supported a World Bank investigation that revealed major flaws in the monitoring, evaluation and oversight of the programmes, and the threat of judicial review after Ethiopian refugees sued the British government, was the offending aid programme (Britain’s largest at the time) finally suspended.
What followed is curious.
Protests demanding democratic reform spread, slowly at first then gathering pace across the country. Reformists gained the upper hand within the ruling party leading to mass releases of political prisoners and ultimately the election of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister in 2018. Ahmed negotiated peace with Eritrea and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Ethiopia is a useful example of what can happen when repressive regimes learn how to deliver the statistics (numbers of people lifted out of poverty or numbers of children sent to school) craved by domestic civil servants eager to justify the effectiveness of their overseas aid budgets. Tasking staff shrunk by austerity to deliver ring-fenced budgets without the necessary rigour and attention encourages departments to “shovel cash out the door.”
The flip side is that when those statistics are shown to be fraudulent or their pursuit causes contradictions in the giving country’s own policies (DFID has human rights guidelines that it was suspected of violating in Ethiopia’s case), public support for aid is further undermined. Then the scramble for success stories resumes as repressive aid clients tumble. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is a master of playing the aid game whilst getting away, literally, with murdering his opponents.