Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) is accused of failing to properly address allegations of human rights abuses in Ethiopia, one of its biggest aid recipients.
While visiting South Omo in January 2012, DfID and USAID officials were told by Mursi and Bodi ethnics of the Ethiopian government’s use of rape, arrests, withholding food aid and other threats, in an attempt to evict people from their land to allow more commercial investments.
A joint USAID-DfID report of the January trip emphasized that, while the accusations were extremely serious, they could not be substantiated by the visit and that a more detailed investigation would be launched. In November 2012, Justine Greening, the UK International Development Secretary,remained unable to address the situation in South Omo, a region, which is inhabited mainly by pastoralists of more than 12 ethnic groups, who, according to the Oakland Institute, are currently under considerable threat, since they are forcibly evicted off their lands in order to make way for the Gibe III hydroelectric dam project, road-building and commercial investors.
While a DfID spokesman confirmed that the Ethiopian government had been asked about the people’s accusations, he did not comment if any response had been given or if the UK Government was pressing the Ethiopian authorities on this issue. DfID response in the matter seems to contradict David Cameron's development’s "golden thread,” promoting rights and freedoms of individuals, good governance and justice for the poorest people.
At the same time, the British Aid agency is also involved in a legal action over its support of the Ethiopian government’s highly disputed three-year "villagization" program, aiming to relocate 1.5 million rural families from their land to new model villages in four regions across the Ethiopia.
In September 2012, Mr O., an Ethiopian farmer, initiated legal action against DfID through London-based law firm Leigh Day & Co. He claims that, in 2011, he was forcibly evicted from and beaten off his farm in Ethiopia’s Gambella region, while witnessing rapes and assaults as government soldiers were forcing other people to leave their land. He also argues that, in the new village, he had no access to farmland, food or water and opportunities to gain enough money to feed his family. He was told to build himself a house, but, as he was not progressing quickly enough, he was taken to a military camp and beaten again.
Like many other Ethiopian villagers forced to relocate, Mr O. soon decided to sneak past village leaders and "local militias" who controlled the area, refusing to let people leave, and fled to Kenya, joined nearly half a million displaced people living in the Dadaab refugee camps, one of world’s largest refugee complexes.
Leigh Day lawyers argue that, by contributing significant funding to the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program, DfID supports villagization, either by financing infrastructure in the new settlements or ensuring the salaries of the authorities overseeing the relocation operations. In a 2010 report, Human Rights Watch report had already revealed the fact that the PBS program was used as a weapon to starve, intimidate or reward people into supporting the ruling party, without however prompting the DfID to investigate the situation, but claiming instead that the problem did not exist.
In response to the Leigh Day’s allegations, the DfID has argued that the UK does not fund Ethiopia’s commune development program and that it would review the situation on the ground and raise concerns at the highest levels with the Ethiopian government. Speaking more generally, it emphasized that it takes the issue of human rights extremely seriously and will review the situation on the ground and take any concerns to the Ethiopian government.
Ethiopia is currently one of the largest aid recipients of British aid. After a recent aid review, aimed at reducing the number of countries receiving UK assistance, Ethiopia came out as one of the preferred receiving countries, with UK donations likely increasing from £240 million in 2010 to £390 million in 2014-15. Ethiopia is an attractive receiving country for the UK, because, with a population of 85 million people, Ethiopia has, as DfID recognized itself, “the largest market” of poor citizens, but also because its government, while ruthless and authoritarian, has managed to make some progress in reaching some of the UN Millennium Development Goals.
While it would have been expected of the UK to reassess its investment in the PBS program after Mr O. launched his DfID pledged £480 million to PBS’s third phase, surpassing even the World Bank, which asked the independent Inspection Panel to launch an investigation into the connections between its money and the villagization abuses.