It takes a village, revisited

So the UK government is facing a judicial review in the High Court for providing aid to Ethiopia without regard to its human rights record. As reported by the BBC and The Guardian (amongst others), an Ethiopian farmer who was forcibly resettled as part of a villagisation programme in Gambella Region in 2011, is arguing the UK government has acted unlawfully in supporting the Ethiopian government through aid payments.

The argument is that the aid provided through DFID has allowed the government to pursue its Commune Development Programme, which aims at resettling around one and a half million families in newly established ‘model’ villages. Although UK aid has not directly supported the CDP (according to DFID), the claimant accuses Britain of being complicit in the policy he says led to his violent eviction from his home, and the failure by the Ethiopian government to provide sufficient land, water or other resources to allow those evicted to survive. Failing to challenge the government on its human rights record, and by continuing to provide aid, the UK enabled the government to pursue this policy through the fungibility of aid.

I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago, when a US report criticised DFID and USAID for failing to act in the light of evidence of physical violence, intimidation and other abuses resulting from the villagisation campaign. I also noted the continued belief in resettlement as a development tool by national governments, donors and other development agencies alike, despite decades of evidence that should strongly advise caution.

This case has made the headlines (the pleasing image somehow reminiscent of Ealing comedies in which the Powers That Be are brought to book by the most unlikely of heroes). Its chances of success may be questionable (although whether that would be an appropriate finding is a very different matter). But the prospect of DFID defending its approach to monitoring good governance in the countries it supports, and in particular its rationale for why in some cases it chooses to be more forceful in making challenges against poor practice, is a juicy one.

The legal review might not tell us anything new, but it may force greater transparency on the decisions being made as to when to stay quieter than others. It will put pressure on DFID to clarify just how seriously it takes its ‘good governance’ mantra when deciding on its aid spending. We may have moved on from the Cold War years, when tyrants and dictators were endured provided they were ‘our’ dictators and tyrants. But there is no doubt that if you are considered to be a strategically important regional power, considerations other than respect for human rights, ‘good governance’ and constitutional niceties come into play (yes, I’m looking at both of you, Rwanda and Uganda).

But of course, as I noted in the last blog, it isn’t just donors who have been engaged in supporting large scale, and deeply controversial resettlement campaigns. Tanzanian villagisation drew into its orbit a host of otherwise impeccably liberal-credentialed NGOs and activists. Elsewhere, during the 1985-86 Ethiopian famine, money raised by NGOs and other charitable giving was used in a resettlement campaign that was highly political. Indeed, Band Aid (the organisation which dominated the headlines of the humanitarian response) supported some of the relocation camps, choosing to see the programme as developmental rather than part of the Derg’s war effort against Tigrayan and Eritrean rebels in the north. Here the result for tens, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, was not just violence and destitution (a bad enough outcome), but death.

These failures may be at the extreme end – support for interventions that culminate in human rights abuses, violence and deaths on a massive scale – but dark outcomes resulting from good intentions are not unusual, nor should they be unexpected. Development interventions have resulted in sufficiently frequent harm that they cannot simply be ignored as isolated cases.

This case raises the question as to whether development interventions can result from deals made between national governments and donors, or whether participation from those directly involved must be taken seriously. That would make policy formulation and implementation more of a challenge, but people cannot simply be treated as parts of a machine to be manipulated and moved about without regard to their own agency to achieve ‘Development’. For development without acknowledging the individual and communal human impact is not development at all. The legal challenge may not result in substantial change to DFID and broader donor policy, but it may add momentum to debates on how meaningful accountability can be improved, for all development actors, not just donors; and for how the voices of those who are forced to leave their homes as part of the Drive Forward can be better listened to and understood by all.


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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