TPLF Inc. and the ‘aid’ hurdle

Aklog Birara, PhD

“Men’s hearts ought not to set against one another, but set with one another and all against evil today.”

Thomas Carlyle

Ethiopia is, potentially, one of the richest countries in the world. This is the reason why it is at the center of what I call “farmland colonization by invitation.” The country’s vital natural resources: arable and irrigable lands, water basins, mines, industries and other pillars of the economy are being assumed by foreign firms in collusion with domestic persons and entities. All this is defended by TPLF Inc. as vital for the country’s rapid development and for the wellbeing of Ethiopians.

That Ethiopia and Ethiopians should not be poor is thus incontestable. Why? It has the requisite natural resources: ample arable farm and irrigable lands, one of the largest livestock in Africa, rivers, predictable rainfall, varied climate, minerals, strategic location and a huge and diverse population. Why Ethiopia remains among the least developed, poorest, hungriest and unhealthiest countries in Africa continues to baffle development experts of every variety, including new comers such as China and India. At US$3 billion plus last year, it is the largest aid recipient in Africa and among the largest in the world. Yet, 46 percent of Ethiopians want to immigrate and thousands do each month for unknown destinations. Human capital is the country’s largest export today. Per capita income is still US$350. The country continues to hemorrhage of its human capital, the worst in its history. Aid contributes to this condition.

Aid continues to grow as repression intensifies

Destitution, malnourishment, hunger, dispossession and displacement at a massive scale, hyperinflation estimated at 50 percent last year, 60-70 percent unemployment among youth in urban areas and at least 21 percent nationally, endemic corruption and massive illicit outflow estimated at US$3.26 billion in 2009 alone, have done absolutely nothing to deter the donor community from making the Meles regime a darling of its development assistance. This is done for a good reason: Ethiopia’s strategic location and the reliable interlocutor role that TPLF Inc. plays not only in Ethiopia but also in the Horn and the rest of Africa assures a semblance of peace and stability. Yet, people suffer each day because of a system that does not free them from destitution and flight.

There is thus symmetry of interests between foreign governments and firms on the one hand, and the interests of the governing party on the other. Given this symmetry, I find it legitimate to examine the thesis of whether or not the medium and long-term security and other strategic interests of the country and the current vital economic and social needs and demands of the vast majority of the Ethiopian people are being served or compromised either by the donor community or by the Ethiopian government or by both.

The aid business

Ana Gomes, Chief of party of the European Union’s Election Observer Team to Ethiopia in 2005, and one of the few staunchest Western supporters of free and fair elections in Ethiopia offered insight into the contradictions between the altruism of aid on the one hand and a blind eye to repression by the Ethiopian government on the other. “There is this industry or aid not only in the European Commission but in the different member countries, namely those who are the biggest aid donors to Ethiopia, like Britain (the second largest bilateral donor after the US), like Germany, who want the business to continue as usual because they have their own interests at stake.” This, in my own research and estimation, is the lead reason why aid continues to flow to the Ethiopian governing party despite worsening conditions in all areas: gross human rights violations, hyperinflation, high unemployment, income inequality, hunger, malnutrition, theft, embezzlement, growing corruption and massive illicit outflow of foreign exchange. This leads me to enumerate on the purpose of aid, a subject on which I feel competent to speak and write.

I ask your indulgence for a minute and forget or park the usual cultural traits of ‘what is new?’ Why is this priority? Forget the standard cynicism that is rampant among us. Overlook the dysfunctional behavior that this is not the current issue or crisis in Ethiopia. After all, I am not talking about illusive notions of freedom and liberties in a country where people are crying for basics such as food to eat and a decent place to live. Park the perennial thought of aligning my name with my ideas. Think of me as someone from planet Mars. Try to focus on the concepts here and see what I am trying to convey with regard to the convenient marriage of repressive governance and aid. Ignore for one minute your suspicion and mistrust of what anyone on earth says about aid and the miracle growth in Ethiopia. Instead, open your mind and learn its impact on the poor and on the few rich. Try to place yourself in a tukul or hut in Gambella, SNNP, Afar, and Beni-Shangul Gumuz, the Omo Valley or anywhere in the country where the poor live and work like their ancestors have done for thousands of years. Kindly reflect on their conditions. It is they who matter the most; and who should drive our thoughts and actions. For them, life is a constant struggle to survive. Aid has done little to nothing in removing the structural and policy hurdles that keep them in this status. Most Ethiopians are poorer today than they were a quarter of a century ago.

The altruistic side of development aid is to help people help themselves. It is to unleash local and national capabilities so that people and the country will not have to rely on aid in perpetuity. It certainly is not to contribute to repression, discrimination, inequality, corruption, a closed and monopolistic market or uneven development. In countries such as China, Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam and Brazil, aid played and still plays catalytic roles in lifting millions from destitution and poverty. It does this by empowering beneficiaries; not by keeping them captives. These countries are led by nationally committed leaders and institutions even if some manifest authoritarian rule and corruption. They try to level the playing field as much as possible. It is true that, in almost all cased, aid stimulates some growth. However, growth supported by the aid stimulus does not necessarily transform a poor country into a sustainable and equitable one. Why is this? It is principally because it is good and empowering governance that unleashes productivity. Poor and repressive governance conditions do not put country and beneficiaries in the driver’s seat. TPLF Inc. and the donor community do not make any effort to put the Ethiopian poor and the country in the driver’s seat.

From its offing, TPLF Inc. was determined to take control of the commanding heights of the Ethiopian economy in the name and on behalf of the Ethiopian people. It crafted a new democratic constitution and made a mockery of the rule of law. It tantalized ‘marginalized and oppressed nations, nationalities and peoples’ to side with it; TPLF Inc. being the policy and decision-maker as discussed in commentary eight. In the aid business, relations are rarely horizontal, namely, with local communities and with the population (beneficiaries) at large. Official development aid is discussed with and channeled through the central government regardless of repression and dispossession.

William Easterly, one of the most formidable critics of the aid business said: “Aid agencies do not even criticize specific tyrannical acts, although they might advocate ‘good governance’ and they wind up supporting bad governance with aid funds,” (the Whiteman’s Burden).

This statement is corroborated by numerous others. On August 5, 2011, BBC news-insight, in collaboration with Investigative Journalism, confirmed that “Ethiopian federal and regional governments control the distribution of (all) aid in Ethiopia.” In other words, localities and ordinary people have no say in how aid monies are used; by whom and for whom. The same report quotes Professor Beyene Petros, a member of the opposition, who says, “There is a great deal of political differentiation (discrimination)…The motive is buying support (for the governing party), that is how they recruit supporters, holding the population hostage.” This is the critical point to note. It is Ethiopian communities and the larger population that should be the ultimate beneficiaries from aid. They cannot demand government officials to account if they are held “hostage” by their own government. This is why they cannot question aid’s effectiveness. They cannot ask donors why aid–principally supposed to lift millions out of destitution and poverty—is used as an instrument of control or “hostage.”

Here is the explanation for this phenomenon that is unlike other countries. A government that is not accountable to the population has a better chance of deploying foreign aid as it wishes than a participatory or pluralist one. In a one party ethnic- elite state, the opportunity to divert billions is, thus, a given. There is no accountability to the public. There are no independent institutions to monitor graft, bribery or hush money; or to assess appropriate procurement of goods and services and so on. Institutions such as courts, police and customs, local and regional administrations, municipal authorities—all faces of the governing party—are infected with corrupt officials. They are part of the problem. For this reason, we cannot afford to be callous and unconcerned about the role of aid in Ethiopian society. We need to appreciate and respond to the immediate concerns of ordinary people before we can entertain the lofty ideals of freedom and liberty as important as these are long-term. What we need to look at and act on immediately are the sad impacts of “differentiated” or discriminatory allocation of resources by TPLF Inc. and its subordinates on ordinary citizens, especially the poor, the marginalized and dispossessed who have no voice or representation. It is Diaspora activists and opposition groups of all varieties who should advocate accountability in the use and abuse of aid. If they know the problem, they must act towards its resolution now. They cannot afford to wait once destruction, for example, forcible resettlement has taken place or once the environment has been destroyed irreversibly.

The diversion of funds or their misuse affects ordinary people in real ways each day. I suggest that this happens regardless of ethnicity or religion. The poor and hardworking women and women are the ones who need basic services such as safe drinking water, basic health services against communicable and preventable diseases, adequate food supplies at competitive prices, fertilizers, seeds, credits, farmlands, rural roads, education for their children and so on. These are the things aid is supposed to fund but is not and cannot. Why? Donors are hypocritical and incapable of asking the hard questions. It is because monies are channeled directly to the governing party. Aid is used for political rather than for social and economic development purposes. “Differentiated” or discriminatory treatment of Ethiopians on the basis of ethnic or party or other affiliation deters sustainability and undermines the fundamental principle of equitable development. The reader may ask, ‘so what?’ There is a cost in development. In the long run, “differentiation” or discrimination is destabilizing for the country. More and more people will be poorer and poorer. This is happening now in specific locations such as the Omo Valley, Gambella, and Ogaden, Oromia and SNNP and others.

Almost all development experts agree that there cannot be peace and stability in Ethiopia without fairness and equity. If you share this thesis, you would agree with me that development aid that does not unleash the productive potential of a broad spectrum of Ethiopians and places them on an equitable trajectory will not lead to sustainability. Instead, it will aggravate social and geopolitical imbalances and societal tensions.

Aid and imbalance

Uneven development and income inequality are, largely, a result of how the society is governed and how resources are used, misused and appropriated. In Ethiopia, the key agent of growth and development is the government. Increasingly, evidence shows that it determines who becomes rich or poor; who lives or dies; and who lives in the country and who immigrates. What the single party state decides affects the lives of ordinary people, communities, regions, and the country. What philosophical argument do the brains behind the single ethnic party state use to justify concentration of wealth and assets in a few hands? It is rapid development that will lead to Middle Income status in the next few years. This is done by barring opponents and civil society. “In Ethiopia today, it is argued, all civil society organizations, opposition political parties, individuals in private enterprise, and other groups are described (by TPLF Inc.) as rent-seeking, while in contrast, EPRDF (TPLF Inc. at the helm), the ruling party, is claimed to be the only one which has development credentials” (Dessalegn Rahmato, in Large-Scale Land Transfers in Ethiopia, AA, 2011).

Ethiopia is not financial capital rich; and relies heavily on aid and remittances to achieve development objectives of the state. Outside those who belong to the governing party and those who are avid allies– whether in the public or private sector– the rest of social, economic and political actors are suspect of “rent-seeking.” This is to say that they are after their narrow self-interest exploiting others; making profits and corrupting the system. According to TPLF Inc. these actors captured in the above quote have no legitimacy. They have no role in advancing themselves or in advancing their country’s development. If one extends this verdict of TPLF Inc., those outside the governing party are inimical to it; and are a deterrent to the advancement of communities, regions and to the country as whole. TPLF Inc. wishes this mantra for a sound self-serving reason. This notion provides the top leadership of TPLF Inc. the developmental rationale that all authority in the country is and should be vested in it. A political, social, leadership and organizational vacuum serves TPLF Inc. best. This is why opponents cannot afford to delay cooperation, collaboration and solidarity.

Why the rest are restricted or banned

In the absence of independent civil society organizations (banned), opposition parties (either banned or heavily restricted), free and independent press (banned), nationally oriented private sector (restricted and crowded out by party and endowed enterprises and favored individuals), and patriotic individuals (encouraged to leave the country in droves), the political, social, economic and diplomatic space is void of competition. It is real political, social and economic competition that TPLF Inc. hates most. Opponents ought to grasp the reality that the strategy for continued restrictions in the political, social and economic space is to achieve and maintain two key objectives: to ensure that political power is not shared broadly; and to make certain that the governing party and its allies have complete control over the commanding heights of the national economy, aid and other sources of funding. This is the reason why the rest of us cannot afford the luxury of fighting one another.

Despite the above condition that vests authority, power and wealth in a hegemonic single ethnic-party state, we continue to fight one another at huge costs for the poor who are getting poorer, ordinary Ethiopians who suffer from hyperinflation and the country we love that is caught in a vicious cycle of dependency on foreign aid. The struggle “ought not to be against one another.” Rather, it should be against an ugly and “evil” system that spreads its tentacles everywhere; and causes the dispossession and disempowerment of the majority by pitying people at home and us against one another. It is sad but true; donors and the diplomatic community understand this. However, they are unable and unwilling to change their programs anytime soon. It is those who want a better future for the Ethiopian people who must create solidarity among one another and with those who struggle for justice at home.

Whatever the volume, aid can serve the Ethiopian people as a catalyst in raising productive capabilities of the Ethiopian people only if and when it is completely depoliticized. I do not believe that TPLF Inc. will depoliticize aid or land tenure or other forms of the economy or political system on its own. It is not in its interest to change structure and policy. What then? It is when Ethiopian political and social elites set aside minor differences for the sake of the greater good, cooperate with one another, speak with one voice, and demand accountability from the governing party that donors and the diplomatic community would begin to listen and to change. If the donor and diplomatic community would heed to anyone, it would have heeded to the devastating report by Human Rights Watch (HRW): Development without Freedom.

In its seminal report, HRW reported that “development aid flows through, and directly supports a virtual one-party state with a deplorable human rights record. Government practices include jailing and silencing critics and media, enacting laws to undermine human rights activity, and hobbling (stomping out) the political opposition.” Where and how does aid feature in all of these? HRW gives aid prominence to the undermining of potential beneficiaries, especially the rural poor who constitute the majority. There is no sustainable or equitable development without the majority. “The government has used donor supported programs (the Safety net initiated by the World Bank when I served there), salaries and training opportunities as political weapons to control the population (making it “hostage”), punish dissent, and undermine opponents—both real and perceived.” Forget sophisticated urban elites and focus on the rural poor who punished if they do not support TPLF Inc. How does it do it?

TPLF Inc. and its agents and allies in rural areas deny “access to seeds, fertilizers, farmlands, credit and food aid.” It restricts these and other inputs and privileges to those who support the governing party. This politicization of the aid industry or business sends “a potent message that basic survival (in Ethiopia today) depends on political loyalty to the state (the only legitimate development agent) and the ruling party (the sole authority that rules through an iron-fist).” It sends shivers and fears through the entire system and justifies corruption that the top leadership of TPLF Inc. says is anathema to sustainable and equitable development. Deeds speak louder than words. TPLF Inc. cannot escape the verifiable truth that it is not opponents who are “rent seeking” and corrupt. They are not in power and cannot be held accountable. Instead, it is those who wield political power, control the national economy and enrich themselves, their families, relatives, friends, ethnic elites and party and endowments who are accountable for the abysmal situation Ethiopia and Ethiopians face today.

Commentary ten will examine the nexus among three variables: aid, TPLF Inc. governance and corruption. 2/28/2012