Is Ethiopia’s government, whose security forces are guilty of rape and torture, a worthy recipient of £329 million of British taxpayers’ money?
Almost 30 years ago, Band Aid mobilised a generation of British teenagers behind the campaign to help Ethiopia recover from famine. Today, Ethiopia is the second-biggest beneficiary of British aid, receiving no less than £329 million last year. And yet the same government that is favoured by this largesse has also carried out appalling atrocities. This week, Amnesty International detailed how Ethiopia’s security forces are guilty of rape and torture as they struggle against separatist rebels. Meanwhile, Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, is untroubled by criticism in the local press or any public opposition, for the simple reason that both are effectively banned. The Department for International Development’s plan for Ethiopia shamelessly notes the country’s “progress toward establishing a functioning democracy”, but adds: “There is still a long way to go”. Indeed. A very long way to go.
The question is whether such a government is a worthy recipient of British taxpayers’ money. Our aid does not go to Ethiopia’s security forces, of course, nor to the secret police who create such fear. Yet British funding for schools and hospitals could release resources for Mr Hailemariam to spend on repression. Foreign aid will always give recipient governments more discretion over what to do with their own money. DfID would say that British aid is, for example, helping almost two million Ethiopian children to go to school – and that is a fair point. But DfID’s budget jumped by 32 per cent between 2012 and 2013 – the biggest percentage increase ever enjoyed by any Whitehall department in peacetime history. DfID has failed to allay the suspicion that its officials are more concerned with spending this money than guarding against possible unintended consequences. Sadly, that risk is greater in Ethiopia than almost anywhere else.