As Ethiopia’s regime is accused of atrocities, David Blair asks whether British aid might – inadvertently and indirectly – be subsidising repression

By , Chief Foreign Correspondent

DfID-uk-aid_2526582cEthiopia’s security forces have carried out terrible atrocities during a brutal campaign against rebels from the Oromo Liberation Front. So reports Amnesty International in ahorrifying investigation which concludes that at least 5,000 people from the Oromo ethnic group have suffered torture, abduction or worse in the last three years alone.

Sadly, anyone familiar with Ethiopia will not be surprised. With a long record of suppressing dissent, its government is one of the most authoritarian in Africa. Yet Ethiopia also benefits handsomely from British aid, receiving £329 million last year, making it the biggest recipient of UK development assistance in Africa – and the second biggest in the world.

You could put these facts together and reach the headline conclusion: “British aid bankrolls terrible regime”. But the Department for International Development (DFID) would point out that things are not quite so simple. First of all, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a national income per capita of less than £300. At least 25 million Ethiopians live in absolute poverty, defined as an income of less than 60p per day. Should you refrain from helping these people just because, through no fault of their own, they happen to live under a repressive government?

Second, no British aid goes to Ethiopia’s security forces. Instead, our money is spent on, for example, training nurses and midwives, sending children to primary school and ensuring that more villages have clean water. If an Ethiopian military unit carries out an atrocity in the Ogaden region, would it really help matters if Britain stopped funding a project to give safe water to a village in Tigray?

This is a serious argument and there are no easy answers. But DFID’s case also has two key flaws. First, when outside donors spend large sums in a poor country, they change the way the relevant government allocates its own resources. Put simply, if rich foreigners are prepared to pick up a big share of the bill for useful things like health and education, then the government could, for example, take the opportunity to spend a lot

is that you give national administrations more freedom to spend their money on what they think is important. That’s fine if the government concerned has the welfare of its people at heart. I put the point delicately: this is not universally true in Africa. In Ethiopia, there must be a real possibility that the government has bought more weapons for its appalling security force than would otherwise have been possible if DFID had not been covering a share of the bill for health, education, water, sanitation and so forth. The danger is that, inadvertently and indirectly, we could be subsidising Ethiopia’s campaign of repression.

The second problem concerns the political setting in which aid is spent. Ethiopia is an authoritarian state with a dominant ruling party that holds 499 of the 547 seats in parliament. In this context, any outsider who invests large sums in Ethiopia will probably end up strengthening the regime’s grip on power, whether intentionally or not. Every time a school is built or a hospital opened, the ruling party will claim the credit. And if the party in question has a long history of crushing it opponents with an iron fist – which is certainly true in Ethiopia – then the donors could find themselves underwriting this system of repression, albeit indirectly.

None of this suggests that Britain should cut off aid to Ethiopia tomorrow or that all our money is necessarily wasted. My only purpose is to show that the law of unintended consequences works more perniciously in the field of international development than just about any other. There are real dilemmas – and aid can end up helping the powerful more than the poor.

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