Climate of corruption — Ethiopian edition

By Janice Winter

COP17 is being hailed as “groundbreaking” as a deal was agreed after 14 days of difficult and, at times, deadlocked talks. One of the most contentious issues for Africa was the Green Climate Fund, which will go ahead despite anger at the overall failure of developed countries to commit investments. JANICE WINTER explains why this compromise is the best possible scenario.

Headlines last week declared: “Meles Zenawi cries foul over climate money pledges”. Well, that’s rich.

Leading Africa’s heads of state and government panel at the COP17 climate talks in Durban, the Ethiopian prime minister’s biggest emphasis was on the Green Climate Fund. Not only did he complain that funds pledged at Copenhagen COP15 in 2009 had failed to materialise, but also that, rather than being “new” money, much of it seems set to be recycled from existing aid budgets. He warned that such disingenuousness risked undoing the modest gains made towards the Millennium Development Goals and undermining the credibility of the entire process “in the eyes of the people of our whole continent”.

His position seemed reasonable enough: there was compelling scientific evidence that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on socio-economic development in Africa and that considerable financial investments were required from developed countries to assist Africa to adapt to the impact of climate change. But I am “of this continent” and something else risks undermining the credibility of the process in my view: that a corrupt dictator is provided with such an influential platform from which to hijack a critical cause for his own, probably illicit, interests. Coming from Meles, statements about credibility are hypocrisy at its most nauseating.

The Green Climate Fund is aiming for about $100-billion a year by 2020. The man clamouring for this considerable fund is regarded as one of the most repressive leaders on the continent. His government claims to have won a ludicrous 99.6% in the 2010 elections, jails the highest number of journalists in Africa using a law that criminalises dissent as terrorism and brutally tortures critics and opposition figures. Most crucial for this discussion, his government faces widespread, credible and sustained allegations of abusing Ethiopia’s enormous $3-billion of annual developmental aid as a tool of political repression and as a co-option mechanism to bolster his 20-year rule. Detailed and robust investigations include those by Human Rights Watch, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Newsnight.

According to a report to be published by Global Financial Integrity later this month, Ethiopia has lost $11.7-billion to outflows of illicit funds in the last decade. In 2009 alone, the figure was $3.26-billion, exceeding both the value of its total annual exports and the total development aid it received that year. And it is on the increase. The candid finding: “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”

Yet despite these exposés and a significant deterioration in the country’s human rights situation since the brutal post-election crackdown of 2005 (in which 199 people were killed in just four days), international development aid to Ethiopia has doubled since 2005. Something as critical as the Green Climate Fund should not repeat the serious failures of developmental aid in this regard.

Meles Zenawi’s international credibility lies largely in Ethiopia’s official double-digit annual growth rates since the questionable 2005 elections and its asserted progress towards the Millennium Development Goals. As exiled Ethiopian journalist Abiye Teklemariam writes, Meles has forged an image as “a technocratic, if dictatorial, leader who had been able to crack the code of east Asia’s rise and download it into an Ethiopian hardware.”

Conveniently for Meles, no independent institutions in Ethiopia exist to check the veracity of his government’s figures, despite the credible scepticism by some international economists and substantial discrepancies in conclusions about Ethiopia’s performance and progress toward the MDGs. Indeed, the average growth rate for Meles’ entire 20-year rule (including the purported fast-paced period of the past few years) is less than 5% (below the African average of 6%) and that the country only overtook its 1975 GDP in 2006. Even if we take his spectacular recent figures at face value, which would be very generous, these are not representative of his rule. And despite these impressive, if contentious, figures, the Ethiopian economy is characterised by very high inflation, widespread unemployment, a stagnant private sector and corruption.

Before the enormous intended investments are endowed to the Green Climate Fund, far closer interrogation is needed of the ways in which this money might be spent and by whom – whether, in fact, there would be effective guarantees that the funds would be spent on projects to counteract the impacts of climate change, or would instead risk being used by undemocratic leaders such as Meles to counteract the challenges of political opposition and dissent.

The figures for the Green Climate Fund have been calculated by the African Climate Policy Centre, based in Addis Ababa. As it currently stands, African countries and institutions would be eligible for direct access to the fund. Oh, and some of these countries would also be part of the governing structures ensuring their own transparency and accountability.

Before the Green Climate Fund becomes operational and offers developing countries direct access to significant sums of money, it is vital to establish firm eligibility criteria of countries based on an independent corruption index and a strong accountability mechanism to ensure funds are spent transparently. This is necessary to prevent the situation of other aid endeavours where direct access to funding and weak accountability procedures enable corrupt and undemocratic governments to augment their rule through the politicisation of foreign funding.

If the Arab Spring has taught democratic leaders and donor nations anything, it is surely the need for far greater caution before financially assisting – and inadvertently bolstering – repressive leaders and a climate of corruption.