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Ethiopia William Easterly

Reflections on Thanksgiving in America

Alemayehu G. Mariam

In 1620, one hundred and two prospective settlers left England and set sail for over two months to come to the New World. They landed in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Nearly one-third of them were religious dissenters escaping persecution. A group of English investors had provided the voyagers transportation, provisions and tools in exchange for 7 years of service upon arrival at their destination. The settlers’ principal concern in the New World was potential attacks by the Native American Indians, who proved to be peaceful and accommodating. Their first winter proved to be wickedly cold. Unable to construct adequate habitation, sick and hungry, nearly one-half of the settlers died in the first year. The following year the settlers had a successful harvest and were living harmoniously with their Indian neighbors. They celebrated their good fortune and good neighbors with prayers of thanksgiving establishing that tradition.

Three and one-half centuries later, thousands of Ethiopians made their “pilgrimage” to America. In the early 1970s, many came to pursue higher education. In the late 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands fled escaping political persecution. That trend continued in the 1990s with the entrenchment of one of the most ruthless dictatorships on the African continent. By the beginning of the new century, America had not only become a destination of choice for any Ethiopian who could manage to get out, but also the dream country of a new generation of Ethiopians.

Regardless of our reasons for coming to America, we have much to be thankful. If we exert ourselves, few of us have to worry about our daily bread or a roof over our heads. If we are determined to improve ourselves, the opportunities are readily available. Our children have more opportunities in America than anywhere else in the world. Above all, we should be thankful for living in a free country. We don’t have to fear the wrath of vengeful dictators. Our liberties are protected; and we have the means to defend them in the democratic process and in the courts of the land. To be sure, we should be thankful not because we live a dreamland, but because we are free to seek and make true our own dreams.

Reflecting on the meaning of the Thanksgiving in America, the question for me is not whether Ethiopians in America have reason to be thankful for the blessings of liberty and the opportunities they have to make material progress. The question for me is whether they should be thankful to America for providing billions of dollars to a repressive dictatorship that has its crushing boots pressed against the necks of their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends living in their native land.

Ethiopia is Africa’s largest recipient of foreign aid. It received well over $3 billion in handouts in 2008. According to U.S.AID statistics, the “FY 2008-09 USAID-State Foreign Assistance Appropriations” for Ethiopia was $969.1 million in 2008 and $916.1 million in 2009. The latest U.S.AID brag sheet reports that U.S. aid money in Ethiopia has “helped build the capacity of institutions such as the Parliament and National Election Board to democratize and improve governance and accountability” and “strengthened judicial independence through legal education training for judges and students, and promote greater understanding of and respect for human rights among police and the courts.” U.S.AID claims that in 2009 it “led advocacy efforts that contributed to pardons for 15,600 prisoners who had been languishing in federal and state prisons.” U.S.AID reports that “about 450,000 [Ethiopian] children die each year, mainly from preventable and treatable infectious diseases complicated by malnutrition. One in three Ethiopians has tuberculosis, and malaria and HIV/AIDS contribute significantly to the country’s high rates of death and disease.” Among the major U.S.AID projects in Ethiopia today include an “integrated health care program [which] focuses on improving maternal and child health, family planning and reproductive health, preventing and controlling infectious diseases, and increasing access to clean water and sanitation.” U.S.AID is one of the major participants “in Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program, a donor-government partnership to reduce the economic and environmental causes of chronic food insecurity that affects 7.5 million Ethiopians.”

Such is the “newspeak”, the glossy, rose-colored narrative, of the U.S. aid bureaucracy. The most recent evidence paints a different picture: American tax dollars have done little to help the people of Ethiopia, and much to strengthen the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi. As the Economist Magazine noted this past July, “there is no escaping the fact that Ethiopia remains almost as fragile and underdeveloped as it was when an Irish musician, Bob Geldof, set up the first global pop concert, Live Aid, to help the drought-benighted nation 25 years ago.” Stated plainly, billions of American (and Western European) tax dollars later, Ethiopia is in no better shape than it was a quarter of a century ago despite the construction boom in glitzy buildings with few utilities in the capital begging for occupancy and the comic display of economic development that is skin deep.

The fact of the matter is that U.S. tax dollars in Ethiopia, combined with aid from other donors, is doing harm to the Ethiopian people by “financing their oppressors.”[1] Summarizing the evidence in the recent Human Rights Watch Report on Ethiopia, the renowned development economist, Prof. William Easterly of the New York University wrote :

Human Rights Watch contends that the government abuses aid funds for political purposes–in programs intended to help Ethiopia’s most poor and vulnerable. For example, more than fifty farmers in three different regions said that village leaders withheld government-provided seeds and fertilizer, and even micro-loans because they didn’t belong to the ruling party; some were asked to renounce their views and join the party to receive assistance. Investigating one program that gives food and cash in exchange for work on public projects, the report documents farmers who have never been paid for their work and entire families who have been barred from participating because they were thought to belong to the opposition. Still more chilling, local officials have been denying emergency food aid to women, children, and the elderly as punishment for refusing to join the party.

Prof. Easterly concluded:

This blatant indifference to democratic values is particularly tragic since there are many ways the aid community might help Ethiopians rather than their rulers. First and foremost, donors could insist that investigations into aid abuse be credible, independent and free from government interference, and then cut off support to programs they find are being used as weapons against the opposition. They could speak out forcefully against recent legislation that smothers Ethiopian civil society. They could also seek to bypass the government altogether, channeling funds through NGOs instead, or giving direct transfers or scholarships to individuals… For not only is foreign aid to Ethiopia not improving the lives of those most in need, by financing their oppressors, it is making them worse.

U.S.AID and Aid Without a Moral Compass

In his inaugural address in 1961, President John Kennedy set the moral tone of American aid policy, which now seems to be a distant historical echo: “To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.” The Kennedian sense of altruistic morality in foreign aid is probably forgotten or unknown by those managing America’s foreign aid programs today. President Kennedy set a great ideal to guide America’s hand in helping others who need help. It was a simple and powerfully principled message: We should help the poorer nations of the world because helping our fellow humans is the morally right thing to do. Stated differently, if we cannot help “those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery”, we should not hurt them in the name of helping them.

Today, it seems the one measure of all things in U.S. foreign policy, including aid policy, is the “war on terror.” Any regime or dictator who claims to be an ally of the U.S. in the war on terror can expect to receive not only the full support of the U.S., but full absolution for all sins committed against democracy and human rights. Last December, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said:

First, a commitment to human rights starts with universal standards and with holding everyone accountable to those standards, including ourselves… By holding ourselves accountable, we reinforce our moral authority to demand that all governments adhere to obligations under international law; among them, not to torture, arbitrarily detain and persecute dissenters, or engage in political killings. Our government and the international community must counter the pretensions of those who deny or abdicate their responsibilities and hold violators to account.

The fact is that the U.S. has stood by passively and idly witnessing elections being stolen in Ethiopia time and again in broad daylight. It has turned a blind eye to repeated gross violations of human rights by Zenawi’s regime. Though the U.S. has substantial evidence that its aid money is being used, misused and abused for political purposes, it has chosen not to hold Zenawi accountable. For the U.S., it is all business as usual: Give out the blank checks to the grinning and palm-rubbing panhandlers standing outside the gates of U.S.AID.

I am appalled by the lack of moral criteria in U.S. aid policy because I believe states have moral obligations, ethical standards and legal duties to uphold, contrary to what is taught in the school of realpolitik. I believe it is the lack morality in U.S. aid policy that has contributed significantly to the triumph of tyranny and dictatorship in Ethiopia. It is self-evident that over the past five years the U.S. has shown little willpower and moral power in its dealings with the Zenawi dictatorship. Zenawi has taken advantage of this psychological weakness and simply finessed the U.S. into silence and policy paralysis. He has in fact cunningly turned the tables on the U.S. Just as the U.S. has made Zenawi its principal ally on the war on terror in the Horn, Zenawi has made the U.S. his principal ally in his war against democracy, freedom and human rights in Ethiopia.

The morality of aid to me is not some metaphysical abstraction but a practical expression of the accountability of recipient countries and the U.S. itself of which Secretary Clinton often talks about in her speeches. I frame the moral issue along two questions: Should American taxpayer money be used directly or indirectly to support a repressive dictatorship in Ethiopia? Does the U.S. Government have a moral and legal duty to make sure American tax dollars are not used to repress “those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery”, as President Kennedy so eloquently articulated it?

In pursuit of the war on terror, the U.S. has gone to extremes of subservience to Zenawi’s regime to ignore these two questions. Instead of standing up for American bedrock principles of democracy and human rights and promotion of economic growth and poverty reduction through good governance, the U.S. has adapted its principles to fit the dictates of dictatorship and tyranny. The U.S. continues to pour billions as elections are stolen, the independent press shuttered, constitutions trashed, political parties and opposition leaders persecuted and civic society institutions and leaders criminalized. The U.S. denies facts about poor farmers who are held in perpetual dependence on aid doled out based on a political litmus test. For the U.S., development is operationally defined as dumping aid money into a kleptocratic economy. The “success” of U.S. aid in Ethiopia is measured not by evidence of the right things that have been done (good governance) to promote political and economic freedom and protect human rights, but by how much money has been handed out with no questions asked.

In its aid policy in Ethiopia, the U.S. seems to be more interested in generating “newspeak” and photo ops than producing the right results (good governance). As I reflect upon it, I am more convinced than ever before that U.S. aid is in good part responsible for keeping Ethiopia “almost as fragile and underdeveloped as it was when an Irish musician, Bob Geldof, set up the first global pop concert, Live Aid, to help the drought-benighted nation 25 years ago.” The evidence assembled by Dambissa Moyo, William Easterly, Peter Buaer and others compellingly show that in Africa foreign aid corrupts; and in Ethiopia, the largest recipient in Africa, aid has corrupted governance absolutely.

For U.S. aid policy to succeed in Ethiopia and Africa in general, it must have a moral imperative which requires holding the corrupt leaders and institutions in recipient countries accountable for their past and present actions. U.S. aid policy must also insist on future compliance with high standards of financial and ethical accountability. The U.S has the tools to convert aid-driven public corruption in Ethiopia into a shining example of public integrity for all of Africa. It is called the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (as amended). Section 116.75 of that law provides:

No assistance may be provided under this part to the government of any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or de-grading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country.

U.S. aid today does not “directly benefit the needy people” of Ethiopia. It benefits directly, indirectly and massively the dictatorship that denies the “needy people” of Ethiopia basic human rights. The U.S. helping hand no longer heals the “needy people” of Ethiopia; regrettably, it has become the brass knuckle of ironfisted dictators. So, I will just say, “Thanks for the thought U.S.A(ID), but no thanksgiving.”



Lessons From Columbia U.

Alemayehu G. Mariam

“Let Ethiopians Debate Ethiopia”

Following Meles Zenawi’s speech at Columbia University on September 22, Prof. William Easterly of New York University expressed his delight in seeing Ethiopians “participating in a debate about Ethiopia.” In his AID WATCH blog under the title “Lessons after the Meles Speech at Columbia: Let Ethiopians Debate Ethiopia”, Prof. Easterly noted[1]:

It sure was nice to see mainly Ethiopians vigorously participating in a debate about Ethiopia, in contrast to the usual Old White Men debating Africa. The Meles visit to Columbia had the unintentional effect of promoting this debate. We were very happy at Aid Watch to have had the privilege of turning over our little corner of the web to host some of this debate, and then just get out of the way.

Prof. Easterly is the author of the widely-read book, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. He is one of the most informed and critically skeptical economist in the world today on the failures of foreign aid to produce sustainable growth in the so-called Third World. His views stand in clear contrast to Columbia professors Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs who are avid advocates of foreign aid as a vehicle for economic development in countries such as Ethiopia.

Prof. Easterly’s colorful intimation about “Old White Men debating Africa” masks two bold-faced and painful truths from which the Ethiopian “intelligentsia” cannot escape. The first is that Western-educated Ethiopian intellectuals in particular have curtsied and made way to the two “Knights of Columbia” who earned their fame and fortune thrusting lances in the heart of the International Monetary Fund and panhandling Western governments to keep Africa on the dole indefinitely. The second truth is that Ethiopian intellectuals have stood by idly as the “Gang of Two” have made it their mission to promote Zenawi internationally by spinning fairy tales of “economic growth” and “development” in Ethiopia.

For well over a decade, Profs. Stiglitz and Sachs have served as intellectual godfathers to Ethiopia’s dictator-in-chief Meles Zenawi. The “objective” of these two “academic entrepreneurs” and “unacademic professors”, to use the recent words of Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia, is to “ingratiate” themselves ” with influential African leaders regardless of their democratic and human-rights record, to get PR and ‘goodies’ for themselves at African summits, at the UN where these leaders have a vote…” Their style has been to rub elbows and hobnob with iron-fisted and human rights-trashing kleptocratic African dictators while preaching and pleading for more foreign aid and spinning fairy tales of “double-digit economic growth” in the international media and policy forums to promote the dictators.

According to the Stiglitz-Sachs theory, decisive and benevolent dictators powered by massive amounts of panhandled Western aid could pull Ethiopia and Africa out of the darkness of poverty into the sunshine of development. All of the human rights stuff is a frivolous distraction that should be ignored in the single-minded pursuit of the Holy Grail of foreign aid to solve the problem of poverty once and for all by 2015, if one is to believe, as does Sachs, in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Such fatuous nonsense has become the credo of the Western foreign aid world thanks to the likes of Stiglitz and Sachs. In 2010 alone, the U.S. has dropped nearly $1 billion in aid to Ethiopia.

The fact of the matter is that the much vaunted foreign aid provides a lifeline to dictators and stokes the furnace of corruption that incinerates the poor and the powerless on a daily basis in countries such as Ethiopia. Suffice it to say that expecting economic growth from foreign aid is like expecting a harvest from desert rains; only the succulent plants benefit from it.

Prof. Bhagwati, charitably, but grossly understates the relationship between Ethiopia’s dictator and Stiglitz-Sachs as ingratiation. Since 1997, Stiglitz-Sachs have been Zenawi’s unofficial hagiographers (biographers of saints). Stiglitz wrote: “These intellectual attributes [Zenawi’s ‘deeper and more subtle understanding of economic principles’] were matched by integrity: Meles was quick to investigate any accusations of corruption in his government. He was committed to decentralization–to ensuring that the center did not lose touch with the various regions.”[2] In 2010, Ethiopia ranked 138/159 (most corrupt) countries on the Corruption Index; 17th among the most failed states (Somalia is No. 1) on the Failed States Index; 136/179 countries (most repressive) on the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom; and 107/183 economies for ease of doing business (investment climate) by The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2010. But we have only seen the tip of the glacial iceberg of corruption in Ethiopia.[3]

In his 2003 book, Stiglitz wrote, “His [Zenawi’s] political opponents came mostly from the long-dominant groups around the capital who had lost political power with his accession, and they raised questions about his commitment to democratic principles.” In his Columbia speech on September 22, during the Q&A session, Zenawi said that the only people complaining about human rights violations and opposing him are “remnants” of Mengistu’s regime, the erstwhile military junta gone nearly 20 years, who lost their power nearly two decades ago. It seems they all read from the same tired 20 year-old script.

In 2004, Sachs wrote[4], “When I meet with Prime Minister Meles and President Museveni I feel like I am attending a development seminar. They are ingenious, deeply knowledgeable, and bold.” In 2005, at an award ceremony for Zenawi, Sachs spoke beatifically of Zenawi: “You have distinguished yourself as a one of our World’s most brilliant leaders. I have often said that our many hours of discussion together are among the most scintillating that I have spent on the topics of economic development. I invariably leave our meetings enriched, informed, and encouraged about Ethiopia’s prospects.”[5] Goethe said, “A person places themselves on a level with the ones they praise.” Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum!

The Echo Chamber of the “Gang of Three”

The “Gang of Three” have had their mutual admiration society going for quite a while. They have carefully orchestrated a subtle campaign of disinformation about stratospheric economic growth rates in Ethiopia using the reputable media; and through sheer volume of media references and repetition, many have now come to believe in the fairy tale that Ethiopia has finally become a utopia where economic growth gallops at a steady clip of 14.9 percent annually. As they buttered up each other for their intellectual insights, foresights, hindsights and angelic integrity and put in place their foreign-aid panhandling schemes to rid Ethiopia of poverty, Ethiopian intellectuals, particularly those in the Diaspora, have been standing on the sidelines in catatonic silence. We have heard the “Gang of Three” lying, but we have not testified against them. We have heard them misleading the people with “lies, damned lies and statistics”, and we have failed to lead the people with simple truths. We have stood deaf, mute and blind as our motherland is raped by land-grabbing raiders and marauders from the Middle East to India.

But others, including Prof. Easterly, have not been silent; in fact, they have been systematically demonstrating with data that shaking down the Western donor dollar tree for every last penny will produce neither economic growth nor development. Prof. Easterly has relentlessly exposed those officially pimping foreign aid as the silver bullet to end poverty in the Third World[6]:

The goal [of foreign aid] is simply to benefit some poor people some of the time… In virtually no other field of economics do economists and policymakers promise such large welfare benefits for modest policy interventions as ‘we’ do in aid and growth. The macroeconomic evidence does not support these claims. There is no Next Big Idea that will make the small amount of foreign aid the catalyst for economic growth of the world’s poor nations.

Ghanaian economist Prof. George Ayittey and international economist Dambissa Moyo have also exposed the scam of foreign aid-dependent development and offered alternative views on promoting economic growth and development in Africa ranging from the radical proposal of cutting off all aid to Africa over a period of time to finding money for development through financial markets, microfinance, improving governance, reducing corruption through rigorous accountability structures, focusing aid to meet the urgent needs of the poor in health care, education, clean water supply and by calling for innovative approaches to development. But in an echo chamber of a self-absorbed foreign aid community that resonates with “lies, damned lies and statistics”, Easterly, Ayittey and Moyo have been voices in the wilderness. But because of their persistence, the simple truth that foreign aid is not changing the lives of the most needy in recipient countries such as Ethiopia is coming out and taking hold, much to the chagrin of those pimping foreign aid.

As the “academic entrepreneurs” buy, sell and auction us off on the foreign aid market and the few voices in the wilderness struggle to call attention to the ineffectiveness of aid in spurring economic development, Ethiopian intellectuals in the main have resolved to stand deaf-mute and watch the debate from the sidelines. That’s what makes Prof. Easterly’s remark about “letting Ethiopians participate in the debate about Ethiopia” especially poignant and embarrassing. He is too much of a scholar and gentleman to call us out in the public square and say, “You Ethiopian intellectuals have not been part of the debate. You have been passive spectators as ‘White old men’ do the thinking and acting for you. You have not been engaged, but disengaged to the point of inexplicable indifference. You have not shown righteous intellectual outrage or courage to confront these foreign aid pimps, conjurers and enchanters. Get your shoulders to the grind wheel and ‘participate in the debate’ and come up with your own solutions to the problems your country is facing.” I catch the drift of Prof. Easterly’s delicate and finessed appreciation that they are  “very happy at Aid Watch to have had the privilege of turning over [their] little corner of the web to host some of this debate.”

Let Ethiopians Lead the Debate on Ethiopia

So, what do we make of Prof. Easterly’s suggestion, “Let Ethiopians debate Ethiopia”? Do we ignore it or rise up to the challenge? I say, let us not only “debate Ethiopia”, but also challenge the dictators and their patron saints in all fields of intellectual endeavor. What is it that they got that we ain’t got? Aha! A Nobel Prize! But a Nobel laureate testifying for a dictator is like the devil quoting Scripture for his purpose, as Shakespeare might say: “An evil soul producing holy witness is like a villain with a smiling cheek.” The true measure of that Prize should not be in possessing it to shield dictatorships from scrutiny, but in using it to help free humanity from the yoke of oppression.

I would like Prof. Easterly to know that Ethiopians are not just coming forward to “debate Ethiopia”, they are actually ready, able and willing to lead the debate. In the past few months, they have stepped up to the plate and begun slugging it out with the false prophets of foreign aid. Dr. Aklog Birara, an international economist, in his new book on “Ethiopia’s endemic poverty” takes on the intellectual apologists of dictators head on:

A vicious cycle of poverty afflicts the vast majority of Ethiopians despite incredible good will manifested in billions of dollars of emergency and development assistance from wealthy countries… The ruling-party, its supporters and a few in the donor community argue that substantial growth has taken place. There is substantial physical evidence in the form of hydroelectric power dams, roads and bridges, buildings and housing, schools and other infrastructure to show this… There is no indication that substantial investments into the productive sectors such as industry, manufacturing and agriculture have been made. Lag in the productivity of the real sector is evidenced by recurring hunger, high unemployment and underemployment, especially an estimated 14 million unemployed youth in the country.

Prof. Seid Hassan has debunked the claims of those who underplay and rationalize endemic corruption in the Ethiopian economy:

The government has been either ineffective in collecting taxes or the economy is unable to generate taxable incomes. The economy’s inability to generate tax revenues is strongly tied with the many constraints that the government has imposed on the people of Ethiopia, the most important of them being state seizure and corruption manifested by the transfer of Ethiopian assets to party-owned conglomerates (the so-called “endowments” who now control the most productive sector and commanding heights of the Ethiopian economy) and the reprieve given to them from paying taxes.

Prof. Getachew Begashaw has demonstrated that those who have a chokehold on the economy also have a chokehold on the people’s throats:

In Ethiopia the one-party government of Meles Zenawi owns all the urban and rural land and completely controls the major economic activities, including manufacturing, construction, and finance. This monopoly of the economic activities of the country, coupled with the absence of democracy, has contributed in a major way to the widespread poverty in the country.[7]

We Must Be Masters of Our Destiny

Prof. Easterly’s subtle intimation that we must master the debate before we can master our destiny is an important lesson to be learned from the Columbia experience. To become masters of our destiny, we must challenge those who have become our intellectual masters by default. We must confront the “Knights of Columbia” and their squires in the scholarly journals, in the media, in the conferences, in blogosphere, in any marketplace of ideas and wherever else they are found selling their snake oil of foreign aid and preaching their false gospel of aid-dependent development to deliver Ethiopia and Africa from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If we fail to do that, we will forever be victims of the formulaic thinking of “Old White men debating Africa” from afar and the policy triumphalism of their puppets at home. Bertrand Russell said, “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution”. It is OUR job, first and foremost, to state the problem in OUR homeland in a way that allows for OUR solution. That is one of the major lessons we should learn from Columbia U.