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Supporters of Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front carry placards in Addis Ababa on May 25, 2010, as they celebrate their party's victory in the just-concluded national election.

Simon Maina

The Canadian government says it is "deeply concerned" by a report that its foreign aid to Ethiopia is being used as a weapon to crush political dissent and bolster the power of the ruling party.

The federal government, which provided more than $150-million to Ethiopia in 2008, is calling for a full investigation into the allegations that Ethiopia's ruling party is routinely using aid money to reward supporters and punish those who fail to support it.

"Canada, together with other donor countries, continues to encourage the authorities in Ethiopia to investigate these allegations thoroughly and to take corrective action if required," Scott Cantin, a spokesman for Canada's aid agency, the Canadian International Development Agency, said in a statement.

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Ethiopia is one of the world's largest recipients of foreign aid, benefiting to the tune of more than $3-billion in 2008 alone. The country is considered a strategic ally for the United States, providing stability in the troubled Horn of Africa where the war in Somalia has spilled across borders and fuelled terrorist attacks.

Canada was the fourth-biggest donor to Ethiopia in 2008, providing about $153-million (U.S.) in aid, nearly three times the amount it gave in 2004.

Human Rights Watch, an independent monitoring group, reported on Tuesday that the Ethiopian government has withheld aid from those who desperately need it, even starving families, if they refuse to support the ruling party.

The report, based on a six-month investigation in 53 villages, concluded that Ethiopia is abusing its foreign-aid funds to consolidate the rule of a repressive one-party state. Farmers who fail to support the ruling party are denied access to the fertilizers, seeds, loans and other agricultural aid that is funded by foreign donors, the report says.

In some districts, farmers cannot get assistance unless they provide receipts to prove that they paid membership dues to the ruling party, the report states. In other cases, aid goes to supporters of the ruling party who are not poor and should not qualify for it.

"The Ethiopian government is routinely using access to aid as a weapon to control people and crush dissent," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "If you don't play the ruling party's game, you get shut out. Yet foreign donors are rewarding this behaviour with ever-larger sums of development aid."

Canada is one of the biggest donors supporting a $398-million "capacity-building" program for Ethiopian public servants. But the government is using this program, and similar foreign-funded programs, to intimidate teachers, purge the civil service of anyone with an independent political view and indoctrinate school children in the ideology of the ruling party, Human Rights Watch says.

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Responding to questions on Tuesday, Mr. Cantin said Canada's aid to Ethiopia can be suspended if the authorities fail to meet the conditions that are attached to the aid, including a pledge that the aid must reach the targeted beneficiaries.

Surveys by CIDA suggest that its aid is reaching those who need help, he said. "CIDA takes allegations of aid politicization seriously," he said, "and together with the international community, will participate in efforts to strengthen safeguards where necessary."

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