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.” 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.”
RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.