by David Pred and Natalie Bugalski
A leaked World Bank report calls for an investigation into allegations that a multi-billion dollar aid program in Ethiopia is underwriting the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities to free up fertile land to lease to investors. A meeting of the Bank’s board of directors to discuss the Panel’s preliminary findings was postponed on Tuesday due to objections from the Ethiopian government. Rights groups are watching closely to see how the new Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, will deal with sensitive questions about World Bank accountability and human rights in one of its most important client states.
Anuak indigenous refugees from Gambella region who fled human rights abuses in Ethiopia submitted a complaint to the Bank’s Inspection Panel in September claiming that they had been severely harmed by the flagship international aid program for the provision of basic services in Ethiopia, which is administered and partially financed by the World Bank.
Landlocked in the Horn of Africa and beset by periodic droughts and famine, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. International relief and food assistance is still needed to feed between 10 and 20 percent of its roughly 85 million people. Many Ethiopians, particularly rural dwellers, lack access to basic services, including water, sanitation and basic health facilities.
Since the ousting of the Soviet-backed “Derg” military regime in 1991, the Government of Ethiopia, led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has implemented a vast program of economic recovery and reform meant to address the dire poverty and enormous social and economic needs of the population.
The government and its development partners claim impressive strides towards meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and significant progress in key human development indicators over the past two decades, including a quadrupling in primary school enrollments, halving of child mortality, and a doubling of the number of people with access to clean water.
Yet, in parallel to its economic reform agenda the government has become increasingly oppressive and intolerant of criticism and dissent. As Human Rights Watch has reported, the government has “severely restricted the rights of expression and association, arbitrarily detained political opponents, intimidated journalists, shuttered media outlets, and made independent human rights and election monitoring practically impossible.”
These human rights abuses are rarely openly acknowledged by the bilateral and multilateral donors to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid, receiving approximately US$3 billion in funds annually from external donors, including the World Bank, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Commission, Germany and the Netherlands.
Largely turning a blind eye to the increasingly repressive political climate, donors justify their support by both the enormity of the need and the reported inroads achieved in reducing poverty since the EPRDF came to power. Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi forged close alliances with Western nations based on a common interest in combatting Islamic extremism and establishing greater stability in the volatile region.
Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, the World Bank and other donors supported the Ethiopian Government by providing direct budget support through a series of Structural Adjustment Credits and Poverty Reduction Support Operations, in addition to several specific purpose projects. In 2004/05 direct budget support from all donors constituted approximately one third of total aid to Ethiopia, placing significant aid amounts directly in government hands with minimal control and oversight, despite evidence of egregious human rights abuses being perpetrated by the government and military.