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Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks at a news conference in Addis Ababa January 10, 2007. (ANDREW HEAVENS)
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi speaks at a news conference in Addis Ababa January 10, 2007. (ANDREW HEAVENS)

Globe Editorial

In Ethiopia, aid for the ruling party Add to ...

Imagine living in a country where access to university, to a loan, or to fertilizer for your farm is conditional on supporting the ruling party. Canadian taxpayers are underwriting this practice. It is time for a change in approach and policy.

The regime in question, Ethiopia's, is a democracy, but in name only. In the May, 2010 national election, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front won 499 of 547 seats after locking up many of its opponents.

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And yet Ethiopia is an international aid darling, as it tests innovative programs to tackle poverty. Canada gave $138.1-million in 2008-09 and is the fourth largest country donor. Donors have begun setting up new structures to ensure that more aid is delivered locally, rather than by the central government.

But a report released today by Human Rights Watch details the consequences: The party hierarchy has infiltrated every level of society, down to the village kebele unit, where the aid is actually distributed, dominated by party officials who know everyone's allegiance. Human Rights Watch found that "donor-funded services, resources and training opportunities were being used as threats or rewards for citizens to join the ruling party and cease supporting the opposition." One interviewee said he was forced to show a list of receipts for his party membership dues to get assistance.

It is an all too common conundrum, and one not limited to Ethiopia: The aid, by all accounts, is doing some good. But without human rights, the aid carries a taint and will not improve the long-term prospects of the country.

Luckily, policy-makers have options. The first is to work more closely with other donors to pressure Ethiopia to relax its grip on its people, and threaten to pull out if they don't see improvement.

The second is to find alternative recipients. It would take a cabinet directive to remove Ethiopia from the Canadian International Development Agency's list of priority recipients. But surely other states merit consideration, like Liberia, which is about to have its second free presidential election and just passed a freedom-of-information law, but has great needs: a recently demobilized cadre of child soldiers and a capital city without regular access to electricity.

Canadians are all too aware of how Ethiopians have suffered for decades. But when politics and party allegiances determine who gets help, taxpayers and the people left out deserve answers.

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