Ethiopia in BondAid?

Alemayehu G. Mariam

“Bondage” is the state of being bound by or subjected to some external power or control. When people are bound by debt, they are in “debt bondage”. When they are held in involuntary servitude, they are in “bondage slavery”. Before much of Africa became “independent” in the 1960s, Africans were held under the yoke of “colonial bondage”. “International aid” addiction has transformed Africa’s colonial bondage into neo-colonial bondaid. Could it be reasonably argued that Africans are sinking deeper and deeper into a quicksand of “bondaid” (to coin a new word) in the second decade of 21st Century?

In 1989, Graham Hancock wrote the “Lords of Poverty” scrutinizing the international aid “industry” including U.N. agencies, USAID, the World Bank and the IMF. His withering criticism infuriated many in the “international aid bureaucracies”. But his incisive analysis could not be easily dismissed. His basic argument is that international aid “has financed the creation of monstrous projects that, at vast expense, have devastated the environment and ruined lives; it has supported and legitimised brutal tyrannies; it has facilitated the emergence of fantastical and Byzantine bureaucracies staffed by legions of self-serving hypocrites…” It is a “a waste of time and money” and harmful to poor recipient countries ($60 billion in 1989). “Aid is not bad because it is sometimes misused, corrupt, or crass; rather, it is inherently bad, bad to the bone, and utterly beyond reform…. It is possibly the most formidable obstacle to the productive endeavors of the poor. It is also a denial of their potential, and a patronising insult to their unique, unrecognised abilities.”

Hancock views “international aid” as an elaborate “game” in which “public money levied in taxes from the poor of the rich countries is transferred in the form of ‘foreign aid’ to the rich in the poor countries; the rich in the poor countries then hand it back for safe-keeping to the rich in the rich countries.” He debunks the myth that “international aid works” and “must not be stopped because the poor could not survive without it.” He argues that “if the statement that ‘aid works’ is true, then presumably the poor should be in a much better shape than they were before they first began to receive it half a century ago. If so, then aid’s job should by now be nearly over and it ought to be possible to begin a gradual withdrawal without hurting anyone.”

The message of Hancok’s analysis is that the lords of poverty make up an invisible army of faceless, nameless, heartless, thoughtless, merciless, gutless,  clueless, conscienceless and feckless “international civil servants, development experts, consultants and assorted freeloaders” unleashed on Africa to perpetuate and sustain a culture of poverty and beggary. Hancock points out

… the ugly reality is that most poor people in most poor countries most of the time never receive or even make contact with aid in any tangible shape or form: whether is it present or absent, increased or decreased, are thus issues that are simply irrelevant to the ways in which they conduct their daily lives. After the multi-billion-dollar ‘financial flows’ involved have been shaken through the sieve of over-priced and irrelevant goods that must be bought in the donor countries, filtered again in the deep pockets of hundreds of thousands of foreign experts and aid agency staff, skimmed off by dishonest commission agents, and stolen by corrupt Ministers and Presidents, there is really very little left to go around. This little, furthermore, is then used thoughtlessly, or maliciously, or irresponsibly by those in power — who have no mandate from the poor, who do not consult with them and who are utterly indifferent to their fate. Small wonder, then, that the effects of aid are so often vicious and destructive for the most vulnerable members of human society.

A decade later in 2009, Dambissa Moyo, echoed similar views: “Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster…. Over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades…”

Hancock indicts the international aid industry as unaccountable, smug, detached, self-aggrandizing and paternalistic:

… At every level in the structure of almost all our most important aid-giving organisations, we have installed a tribe of highly paid men and women who are irredeemably out of touch with the day-to-day realities of the … underdevelopment which they are supposed to be working to alleviate. The over-compensated aid bureaucrats demand — and get — a standard of living often far better than that which they could aspire to if they were working, for example, in industry or commerce in the home countries. At the same time, however, their achievements and performance are in no way subjected to the same exacting and competitive processes of evaluation that are considered normal in business. Precisely because their professional field is ‘humanitarianism’ rather than, say, ‘sales’, or ‘production’ or ‘engineering’, they are rarely required to demonstrate and validate their worth in quantitative, measurable ways. Surrounding themselves with the mystifying jargon of their trade, these lords of poverty are the druids of the modern era wielding enormous power that is accountable to no one…

BondAid: “Legitimizing Brutal Tyranny in Ethiopia”?

usaidMy reference to Hancock’s book above is not merely academic. I have been following  reports on therecently announced $1.54 billion USAID assistance program in Ethiopia  and studying other USAID reports on Ethiopia in light of Hancock’s arguments or hypotheses on the role of “international aid” in “legitimizing brutal tyrannies in Africa”. Is there an unhealthy bonding between dictators and donors?

Thomas Staal, the USAID Mission Director in Ethiopia, said the $1.5 billion assistance program “will transform our relationship with Ethiopia from one of assistance to one of economic and social cooperation, trade and investment.” In 2011-2012, “USAID assistance grants to Ethiopia will total USD 675 million” and support four specific priority objectives, including “education, health, agriculture and good governance”.

The fourth objective of “strengthen[ing] good governance practices for improved social accountability and conflict mitigation in programs in every sector” is the focal issue here. Could the $1.54 billion in USAID assistance serve to legitimize the brutal tyranny of Meles Zenawi and undermine the establishment of “good governance” in Ethiopia?

In an interview Stall gave before his reassignment to Bagdad, Iraq last week, he made the stunning admission that “with respect to political participation, we have not done a good job. Specifically, with respect to the election that took place two years ago, we have not done much to promote democracy. Customarily, USAID in various countries engages in election education with non-governmental organizations. It works to empower all political parties  without preference. We support the local media to analyze elections and give information to the voters. But all these things are prohibited in [Ethiopia]. This is a hard situation that causes us to despair. We will try to talk to the government authorities…” (Frankly, one could get the “government authorities” to listen good and hard by practicing the old saying, “money talks and… walks.”)

In March 2012, USAID Ethiopia published a 72-page Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) (2011-2015) report entitled“Accelerating the Transformation Toward Prosperity”. The following excerpts from the CDCS report are offered below to the reader to undertake a preliminary evaluation of Hancock’s hypothesis on the relationship between  “international aid” and the legitimization of tyranny, particularly in Ethiopia.

… After the shock of the relatively free elections in 2005, in which the EPRDF drastically overestimated its popularity, much democratic ground has been lost.  Subsequently, the opposition groups were divided and crushed, and the size and control of the ruling party was increased immensely.  Legislation was introduced to limit and control the space for civil society and media, and wide powers of arrest were included in the “anti-terrorist” legislation.  In 2010 the ruling party “won” 99.6% of the Parliamentary seats… (p. 8.) Limited political space, crushed opposition, 99.6 per cent win of parliamentary seats in 2010, wide powers of arrest and still pouring in $1.5 billion in aid? $3.8 billion in total development assistance in 2009?

… In the areas of democracy, governance, and conflict resolution, USAID is already working well with the Ministry of Federal Affairs (MoFA) on conflict management, mitigation and reconciliation issues,…  Now that the May 2010 elections are over, there is an apparent relaxation of political harassment, and a major opposition detainee has been released… (pp. 11-12.)  Apparent relaxation of political harassment? A major opposition detainee released? Forgot the thousands of political prisoners, hundreds of journalists, dissidents and opposition leaders rotting in Zenawi’s dungeons?  

The strong donor consultation and coordination on the critical issues of democracy and governance has not always resulted in a willingness to take a strong, united stance against clear abuses of constitutional commitments, legislation, or democratic processes.  The DAG [Development Assistance Group] includes the World Bank, UNDP, DFID, CIDA, UNICEF, EU, SIDA, Ireland and Germany among others… (p. 13.) No willingness to take strong, united stance against clear abuses of constitutional commitments because…?? Say what!?!

(In October 2010, I wrote a weekly commentary entitled, “Feed Them and Bleed Them”  and observed, “Huddled together in DAG-istan, the poverty pimps have collectively resolved to continue to do their usual aid business in Ethiopia because “broad economic progress outweighs individual political freedoms”.)

… Largely as a result of USAID support, first state and local governments and finally national level institutions (particularly the Ministry of Federal Affairs) are abandoning inclinations to respond to local conflict primarily through security forces, and are increasingly developing and applying capacities to assist conflicted communities with local government support to negotiate and consolidate local peace agreements and ensure that their own administrative actions at a minimum “do no harm.” …On the practical side, the GOE is making progress through the gradual rolling out of its “good governance” trainings around the country…” (p. 55.)  Excuse me, but is “good governance training” for brutish dictators the same as obedience training for vicious dogs?

… The donor community is torn between the competing objectives of engaging with and assisting Ethiopia as a high profile example of poverty and vulnerability to famine, and addressing the major challenges and constraints to democratic space, human rights abuses, and severe restrictions on civil society and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, association and access to information. The GOE does not make this any easier, waveringbetween seductive and sophisticated rhetoric on development and economic topics on the one hand, and political repression, state dominance over the economy, and outright downplaying of humanitarian emergencies on the other hand.  Added to this double-edged sword is the GOE‟s extreme sensitivity to any direct or even implied criticism, and its willingness to actively punish the criticizer, including members of the international community… (p. 53.)  Ah! Beware the seductive and sophisticated rhetoric of the silver- tongued devil with an angelic voice, as Shakespeare might have cautioned.

… In the absence of competitive elections and other democratic processes, governance that is responsive to the aspirations and needs of its citizens and the knowledge and perspectives of stakeholders provides an important alternative release mechanism for political frustrations that have no other constructive outlet… Ethiopia’s new five year GTP [Growth and Transformation Plan] contains explicit commitments and targets to improve governance.  However, traditions, capacities and resources to conceptualize and implement bottom-up accountability are lacking in a country where good governance was not a high priority during the imperial and communist periods and is only becoming a priority but constrained within the ideology of Revolutionary Democracy… (p. 58.)  After 21 years of Zenawi’s iron-fisted rule, still blaming H.I.M. Haile Selassie and the Derg  for the withering of democracy in Ethiopia? Give me a break!

…Understanding that faith in the efficiency and impartiality of the justice system is a key factor in the risk calculations that govern investment decisions by the private sector, individuals and donors,… Another concern is that politically favored businesses or sectors are able to leapfrog over methodical and inclusive planning processes and legally required contracting proceduresExpectations are more modest here, recognizing that the system itself is thoroughly under the control of the ruling party. The Mission will develop programs that promote the rule of law for sustainable development practices… (p. 59.)  Modest expectations for justice and democracy because the system itself is thoroughly under the control of the ruling party! Heard that!

… USAID/Ethiopia recognizes that there is no policy space to conduct programs focused on competitive electionsInstead, the Mission will focus primarily on tackling the deeper issues of governance by aligning its focus with the achievement of the OE’s GTP sustainable development goals and commitments to improve accountable governance and conflict reduction… (p. 61.)  So reward dictatorship with more money, mo’ money  and mo’ money?

With the increasing ‘land giveaways’ to private, foreign agricultural investors, policy efforts will be undertaken… to support land use planning and natural resource management thatavoids displacement of existing communities and helps ensure balanced development… (p. 19.) Increasing ‘land giveaways’ to private, foreign agricultural investors! Heard that!

Back to 2004: The Good Old Days of Telling It Like It Is!

In 2004, USAID issued its CDCS  entitled “Breaking the Cycle of Food Crises: Famine Prevention in Ethiopia.” Andrew S. Natsios was the Administrator of USAID at the time. Here is an excerpt from that report:

… Ethiopia does not stand at this precipice of food insecurity and instability alone. And, it did not get there by itself. Ethiopia, its neighbors and its development partners have collectively failed to break the downward spiral of hunger, poverty and recurring food crises, which is a critical first step in improving the health and economic conditions of present and future generations of Ethiopians…. [S]uccessfully addressing this challenge will require Ethiopian leadership, commitment and the will to change.Evidence on Ethiopia’s performance is compelling and clear. The country has performed badly over the years, even relative to most other African countries, and to East Africa specifically. Gross per capita incomes are a fifth of the African average, declining about 40% between 1990 and 2000 ($160–$100), relative to a smaller decline of 13% for sub Saharan Africa. The poor performance of the economy is not due to drought, but results from the weak economic policies of the country over a sustained period—characterized by low rates of investment in economic  growth and agriculture  by both government and the commercial private sector, low levels of capacity, and low rates of agricultural and nonagricultural growth. In turn poor economic performance has led to worsening social standardsand created an increasingly fragile state that lacks the resiliency to manage through shocks (environmental, economic, political) that induce crises… (p. 5.)

In May 2012, Rajiv Shah, the current USAID Administrator moderated the G8 Food Security Summit in Washington, D.C. In his ingratiating introductory remarks to Zenawi, (grandiosely stroking Zenawi’s ego) and using the usual “mystifying jargon” of the international aid industry, Shah inquired:

… So many people have associated a mental image of hunger with Ethiopia and at the same time because of actions in the public sector maintaining strong public investment in agriculture you were able to protect millions of Ethiopians during the recent drought from needing food aid and food assistance.  Could you speak to, even as we are launching a new food alliance, to engage the private sector, could you speak to some of the comments you have shared with us privately how important it is we live to our commitments to invest in public investment, in public institutions?

Meles was speechless!

Ethiopia has been the recipient of all kinds of aid from the U.S. over the decades. She has received “economic aid”, “development aid”, “military aid”, “technical aid”, “emergency aid”, “relief aid”, “humanitarian aid” and aid against AIDS. She has also received “BandAid” and “LiveAid” from others. Today, Ethiopians are afraid. They ask, “Is Ethiopia  permanently trapped in “bondaid!?!” They pray for deliverance from the twin Lords of Tyranny and Poverty!


In all of Africa, USAID arguably has the largest aid program in Ethiopia. There are some who are skeptical about USAID’s claims of program effectiveness in Ethiopia. One can fairly judge the efficacy of USAID programs and the credibility of its asserted achievements in Ethiopia when the facts and data are made available for critical analysis and evaluation by intra-institutional authorities and other concerned communities. Unfortunately, facts and data appear to be the Achilles Heel of USAID/Ethiopia. This issue was  made clear to USAID mission director Staal in 2010 by the Regional Inspector of the U.S. State Department Office of the Inspector General in his “Audit of USAID/Ethiopia’s Agricultural Sector Productivity Activities (Audit Report No. 4-6663-10-003-P (March 30, 2010)”. In that Report, the regional inspector informed Staal:

…The audit found the program is contributing to the achievement of market-led economic growth and the improved resilience of farmers, pastoralists, and other beneficiaries in Ethiopia. However, it is not possible to determine the extent of that contribution because of weaknesses in the mission’s performance management and reporting system. Specifically, while the mission used performance indicators and targets to track progress in several areas…, the results reported for the majority of those indicators were not comparable with the targets. Moreover, the audit was unable to determine whether the results reported in USAID/Ethiopia’s Performance Plan and Report were valid because mission staff could neither explain how the results were derived nor provide support for those reported results. In fact,when the audit team attempted to validate the reported results, it was unable to do so at either the mission or its implementing partners (pages 6-12)…

While some may rely on intuitive analysis and inferences from anecdotes to draw conclusions about USAID/Ethiopia, I much prefer evidence-based policy analysis. Hopefully, that body of evidence will be made readily available not only to dispel doubts, discredit rumors and enlighten critics of  USAID/Ethiopia, but most importantly, to enhance and reinforce “the growing emphasis within USAID on transparency, accountability, and results.”

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