It takes a village…

Donors have been accused of ignoring human rights abuses linked to a villagisation programme in Ethiopia. As reported in The Guardian, The Oakland Institute has criticised UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and USAID for failing to criticise and act upon reports of physical violence, intimidation and other abuses resulting from a forcible resettlement campaign in the Lower Omo Valley.

According to the Oakland Institute report, Ignoring Abuse in Ethiopia: DFID and USAID in the Lower Omo Valley:

Forced evictions, denial of access to  subsistence land, beatings, killings, rapes, imprisonment,  intimidation, political coercion, and the denial of  government assistance are all being used as tools of forced  resettlement

This, and the accusation of complicity and tacit support for villagisation schemes that involve forced relocation, and the abuses of human rights that are associated with such force, should come as no surprise. Donors, NGOs and other international development actors have a long track record of supporting villagisation and resettlement campaigns in the name of development, and of downplaying the violence and intimidation associated with them.

Remember Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, and disastrous attempts to resettle people from the north in the midst of famine and war? Before that, during the late 1960s and 1970s, Tanzania undertook one of the world’s largest villagisation programmes, physically resettling between 6-8 million people in the space of a decade, with much less controversy than the Derg’s efforts a decade later. As I have explored in my research on the history of NGOs, Tanzania’s villagisation programme was supported by a wide range of organisations and individuals who saw in it the potential for a brave new world for those affected.

One consultant, reporting in 1974 for Christian Aid, noted:

Stories are told of peasant huts being set on fire by the military. Doctors and nurses make no secret of  the casualties they had to deal with, including burnt babies, forgotten by terrified mothers, who ran screaming out of huts set on fire.… The most serious consequence of all this is a lack of food, as a result of which Tanzania is facing a famine… [Surrogates of the State, p.106]

Should the NGO for whom the report had been commissioned have been concerned, withdrawn its support for the programme? No. The report continued to what looks like a rather startling and unexpected conclusion:

The scene has been set for a much more comfortable life than the average African has ever known… Whatever the mistakes of 1974, in eight to ten years time, all the new villages will have the promised amenities, and this should increase considerably agricultural production. [p.108]

They didn’t, and it didn’t. Other NGOs, notably Oxfam, were also very much aware of the realities of Tanzanian villagisation. Yet they to maintained their faith in a process that would, they assumed, lead to a better life for all.

Underpinning the Planglossian faith in villagisation campaigns is a village-bias in international development policy. Since early colonial development interventions, there has been an assumption that ‘Africans’ by and large live in villages. And where they don’t, they should, because villages are best for rural development and for enabling access to services. We can see this bias today, in Ethiopia, in the underpinning logic of the Millennium Development Villages, and elsewhere outside Africa. As a result of this bias, this unchallenged assumption as to the virtue of the village, questionable methods for implementing such schemes have all too often been played down in support of the long-term objectives.

So what is happening in the Lower Omo Valley now should surprise no-one: the insistence that people move if they are to benefit from government and donor-supported development; the blind-eye (or downplaying) of compulsion and other abuses; and the inevitable plea to look to the long-term benefits.


About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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One Response to It takes a village…

  1. muzungu76 says:

    This is a great post. I am currently studying the relationship between forced resettlement and official claims that it is necessary for pro-poor growth strategies in Rwanda and Ethiopia. I would argue that one reason for the complicity is that these governments use the language of global development (e.g. pro-poor growth; sustainability; modernization; etc.) in their development plans, thus appeasing the big donors and IOs to the point nobody criticizes the political oppression that occurs during implementation. Do you have any good sources to find resettlement data for Ethiopia and Rwanda?

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