Third Instilment on Ersasu and Foreign NGOs (Dagim Dirba)
It is beginning to be rather tedious to exchange views with Ersasu Mere if one can call it that. Worse still, if the online back-and-forth continues the way it has, it could easily turn into an even more tiresome and unrewarding one-way distance-lecture without even the moral satisfaction of broadening an inch Ersasu’s narrow, nay, crammed mental horizon.
The sad part is Ersasu seems to be equipped, as it were, with only low-grade pencil, when the fray he entered calls for more in terms mental preparation. At the very least, it should not have been lost on Ersasu, that such a knowledge-based exercise requires a degree of ability to take a good intellectual stock of the arguments of his protagonist, or debater, I should say, and, at least a minimum capacity to launch an articulate and reasoned rebuttal.
As it happens, Ersasu’s poor showing on both counts is equally apparent in his earlier Amharic rejoinder to Redwan’s exposition of government policy and his recent English sequel to which I shall, for one last time, respond. And respond, if I can say so myself, not in kind but in the form of an advanced lecture on the subject Ersasu raised by way of salvaging the unsalvageable fallacy of his initial argument and fulmination against the said minster.
Don’t get me wrong, what I intend to take to task in this brief riposte is not Ersasu’s language proficiency or his discourteous manner of addressing a senior government official. I need not t go that way, since, barring the kind of company he probably keeps, his effrontery may already have raised a few eyebrows among polite circles where it is possible to engage in a heated political exchange without name calling. At any rate, Ersasu’s cantankerous tone and dereliction to mince words, if you ask me, betrays unfamiliarity with Ethiopian mores of discretion of language even when giving voices to distress, which otherwise he claims to personify without any discernment of the trappings from the substance. That is why his behavior, at least in this instance, has a lot to be desired, though it is not my place to remind Ersasu that a modicum of curtsy may have at least lent an iota of credence to his otherwise strident expression of the same old discontent with an elected government that, whether he likes it or not, is responsible for 80 million people. Again I need not remind him of the importance of earnest moderation, particularly knowing, as I do, that the usual circle of EPRDF bashers often conflate rudeness with militancy and resort to foul language whenever their wishful prediction of EPRDF’s imminent fall fells flat on its face.
Be that as it may, my interest here is not the coarse political rhetoric of the lunatic fringe, which incidentally reminds me of Mengistu Hailemariam’s flare for crude monologue, though he at least could be pardoned for no civility of language is needed if all what one does is order mass murder form a seemingly unreachable safe distance. My interest rather lies in giving fleche to the issues that divide the Ethiopian government and foreign NGO as well as relief agencies of which there is no shortage in this country And, along the way, though at the risk of being reproached for killing a fly with a sledgehammer, expose the woeful inadequacy of Ersasu’s cognitive capacity to grasp the nuances of these issues and the implications at stake for both sides. I do so not because the government’s principled stance towards these entities needs any apology, not at least to weightless critics of Ersasu’s ilk of dilatants who dabble in subjects which their shallow mental faculty cannot warrant. Ersasu, for one, to me lacks what it takes to deeply understated let alone to repudiate the policy environment governing charity societies and foreign- NGOs in Ethiopia. Yet I take Ersasu’s follow-up English-language article as a spring board, if you will, to reframe the underlying ideo-political divide that separate the Ethiopian government and bleeding- heart humanitarians and relief agencies alike.
I confess, I find Ersasu fascinating if only in one weird sense. Notably, in the sense that of all those who harbor visceral hatred for the Ethiopian government and admiration for its enemies, he alone sticks his neck out for the lords of poverty. This is not my coining, mind you, but Graham Hancock’s, that fittingly bear the title of his 1989 book, which exposed the less than lofty side of the business of relief organizations, using Ethiopia as a case study. I am sure Ersasu would have spared himself a huge embracement had he taken the trouble to read Hancock before vouching for those who unintentionally or otherwise perpetuating poverty. Consider Ersasu’s latest sentimentalist criticism of my contention that the relief industry has built-in interest in sustaining relief as it saves lives. As we shall see shortly, unable as he is to grasp the ironic logic in this argument, he rushes to dismiss it as ‘moronic’. If proof need be, read the following verbatim quote from his article. Ersasu writes.
Can you tell the Ethiopian mass who benefited a whole lot from the relief food aid that saved their life ….,
Now, this goes to show the validity of my quip on his puny ability to understand any counterargument against his unexamined opinion. For neither I nor any one for that matter ever questioned this self-evident truth that relief agencies save the famished from dying of hunger. My contention, however, which escapes Ersasu, is that that all these agencies do and expects to do indefinitely so long as it is possible to stall the country’s effort to feed itself. In other words, the terms of reference within which relief agencies function is by design limited to feeding the hungry and by no means includes eradication of the root cause of hunger. Though no doubt admirable as a humane gesture, the moral impulse for extending a helping hand to those pushed to the verge of death by famine is not exactly free from mundane calculation, as relief practitioners would have us believe. This may come as a surprise to Ersasu, but it is a fact that, in monetary terms at least, for every dollar pumped into relief provision, 70-80 percent of it goes to cover administrative costs. For only high-paid foreign experts are trusted with impartial delivery of relief to those in need. This, of course, means fat salaries to executive country-directors of relief programs and additional hefty perks to mid-level operators whose work environment is described as risky and fraught with danger. Now, I will leave it to Ersasu to draw his own conclusion whether or not there is ground to suspect that there could be vested interest in the good-smarten enterprise of disaster relief. But, Ersasu’s cluelessness in this area notwithstanding, there is more than meets the eye as there are multiple players in the food-supply chain of the relief industry that stand to gain from humanitarian disaster-management in severely underdeveloped countries. The first in the chain of beneficiaries is the agricultural lobby that harried by price slump finds outlet in huge government procurement of surplus grain earmarked to starving nations in Africa. Tough a burden on the state treasury, local grain purchase for consignment abroad is as much a relief to proprietors of giant modern farms as it is, albeit secondarily, an anti-inflationary scheme against glut-induced food market fluctuation. This is not to mention that inaction in the face of cataclysmic humanitarian crises invites moral outrage of the taxpayer-public, whereas vice-versa helping the needy of this world can be used as a soft leverage on food-aid recipient countries. Second in the line of beneficiaries of the food-aid program are trackers and maritime conglomerates that, less altruistic as they are, plan and expect to make no small profit from shipping tones of food to the shores of food -poor nations. Last in the chain, but perhaps with the highest stakes, are relief-agencies on the ground, on whose shoulder rests the daunting task of disbursement of charity. Obliviously they too anticipate commensurate monetary reward for their troubles, since altruism alone is not sufficient enough a motive to feed those who can’t feed themselves.
Hence ,if you put two and two together it is not news flash, though it is contrary to the fact on the ground, that according to relief agents ‘ current- year need- assessment figure, 12 million people in Ethiopia might need immediate assistance. Given the actual figure, I am not convinced whether or not this frightening prediction is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, as could have been expected, Al Mariam, the professor of doom and gloom, was the first echo this astronomical figure as nothing gives him more pleasure than news of mass starvation in Ethiopia. In fact, clever by hindsight as ever, this world-class charlatan has the temerity to write in a recent article,
I claim no special knowledge or expertise in the economics of famine. However, by carefully piecing data, analyses and findings from various sources……it became clear to me that 2013 was likely to be the threshold year for the onset of famine or “catastrophic food crises”, as they euphemistically call it, in Ethiopia.
I don’t’ know what ‘’pieces of data’’ he put together, but knowing his unremarkable intellectual faculty for grand synthesis, it can’t be more than a few incongruent trifles here and there which he often awkwardly combines to arrive at a pre-conceived conclusion. Much to AL Mariam’s chagrin , however, the actual figure of people in need of immediate assistance is 2.4 million and not the 12 million plus that he would have liked it to be if only to score a point without any thought of the moral implications of willful replication of fictitious famine-figures to a political end. If truth told, not even during the 2012 drought, the worst to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years, has the figure of the vulnerable reached anywhere near the level the AL Mariams circulate with relish. Otherwise this indefatigable modern-day Donquixote of a lost cause would have had an occasion, though in vane, to resuscitate his stillborn campaign for termination of US aid to Ethiopia.
In this regard, since his politics is apparently not beyond the pale as Al Mariam’s is, Ersasu I hope will eventually come around to realize at least one thing. Chiefly that it is not by accident that Ethiopia withstood the 2012 drought which could have easily turned into mass famine of biblical proportion. Triggering an even bigger onrush of an international army of relief agencies and media networks, eager to capture an unfolding humanitarian crisis under what they would have no qualms to dismiss as an incompetent government. For all of us sake, nothing of the sort came to pass. Nor would such a scenario will ever come to pass in the future as Ethiopia has now passed the threshold of food-security at the national level, thanks to its agriculture-led development strategy that culminated in successive annual double-digit pro-poor growth. This I believe speaks to the determination of the Ethiopian leadership to never be caught unprepared again by at least rain failure.
Here it bears to recall that the first measure which presaged Ethiopia’s present level of self-sufficiency had to do with the successful renegotiation of the terms of the aid provision regime and institutional set up preferred by the donor community. The logic behind this effort was to shift the focus away from relief-centered activity to preparedness against drought. No symbolic act captures this drastic shift than the restructuration of the old Relief and Rehabilitation Commission into the present Disaster prevention and Preparedness Commission. It needs no reminder that the former stood as a living proof of the institutionalization of dependency on charity, and accession to be treated as a failed state. Conversely, the latter stands as a veritable institutional expression of commitment to end reliance on food aid, where the state can no longer be sidelined by international do-gooders, who reckon that mere distribution of aid gives them the right to call the shots in this country. No wonder, then, that as it refuses to play second fiddle to NGOs, the government of Ethiopia takes a great deal of flack from both state and non-state actors bound as they are by a shared world-outlook. Embedded in this outlook, is, among other things, commonality of view that food aid-recipient countries must either surrender or mortgage their sovereignty to donor states as collateral against misuse of charity. As can be expected, Ethiopia was among the first countries to face this dilemmatic trade-off between forfeiting partial sovereignty and receiving food-subsidy. That is why the government had to carefully navigate around this either/or terms of engagement with its opulent counterparts, before steering the country away from dependency towards self-sufficiency as it did through an ideological medium of its own choosing.
Apparently there appears to be a division of labor in the unpublicized obstacles thrown at every step of Ethiopia’s forward path to either slowdown or stall the momentum. As idicated above, relief agencies, for instance, self-servingly exaggerate the country’s annual grain deficit and thereby inhibit direct foreign investment which, hands down, goes a long way in denting the condition that perpetuate dearth than any amount of foreign aid. Whereas, human rights advocates, narrow as their interpretation of universal values is, has no room to accommodate the organizing principle by which the Ethiopian government approaches the same issue. They in fact portray the country as a living hell where violation of human rights is a daily routine. It matters little that ever since the early 1990s, Ethiopia has for the first time in its history embraced democracy under a constitution that not only provides for basic rights, but also enshrines in toto the 1948 UN Human Rights Declarations. Ethiopia is also signatory to almost all international right-promoting protocols and instrumentalities, which the terms obligate the government to submit an annual report on its compliance to international regulatory bodies. Nor are international human rights advocates inclined to credit Ethiopia for drafting and ratifying the 2013 Human Rights Action Plan that instantly met the approval of the United Nations.
Granted legislating enabling democratic laws — does not mean instant and full compliance with every single right-protecting provision at every level of the decision-making institutions, regulatory, or law enforcement agencies. In fact, the Ethiopian government is the first to admit that, given its social, political, cultural and economic background, Ethiopia has a long way to go before it can lay claim to be a robust democracy. Yet, regardless of level of compliance, no one can dispute that it is on a legal foundation that democratic societies are founded and only flourish by enabling laws. Indeed the first criterion that qualifies a country to the title of an emerging democracy is the nature of the laws it is governed by. The second is the effort it exerts to abide by these laws despite the challenges of its historical variables. On both counts, therefore, Ethiopia merits the global recognition accorded to it as an emerging democracy of rule of law where the first and second generation of universal rights are equally observed. Hence, irrespective of the gap between commitment and delivery, in and of itself, the mere fact that an enabling legislation is in place avails citizens a legal platform to stand up for their rights. And space to hold government accountable to its own laws lest otherwise the state forfeits its claim to legitimacy and lose face in the eyes of the international community. This, needless to say, is all too plane to anyone familiar with the tenor of politics in the emerging world of the 21st century. Yet, sad as it is, the cynical naysayers in Ethiopia are wont to dismiss out-of-hand the laws of the democratic federal government as nothing but sham, designed to mask the reality of tyranny.
Though no less cynical, the importance of legislation, however, is not lost on international human rights advocacy circles. That is why, for instance, long before it took effect, these organizations begun circulating disparaging reports, particularly against Ethiopia’s anti-terrorist law, as if it constitutes an irrefutable proof of the government’s hostility to human rights. Obviously, though unprofessional by any standards, the likes of Human Rights Watch (HRW) never mention the glaring fact that enacting laws against terror is not an Ethiopian invention. But, HRW notwithstanding, the initiative originated from no less an august international body than the United Nations. In truth, it is in line with UN Security Council recommendation, calling on all member states to protect their citizens against rising global terror that Ethiopia drew its own anti- terrorist law based on its specific circumstances. Besides, what other country calls for more legal safeguards against terror than Ethiopia which, long before 9/11, suffered repeated terrorist attacks with no backing from any of the countries that are only now feeling the heat. Yet, for the directing managers of HRW and their Ethiopian recruits who feed them with self-depreciating disinformation , the clear- and- present danger that Ethiopia continually face from Al-Qaida, AL Shabab, and a host of other low-profile terrorist outfits in Eritrea’s pay carries no weight. To the contrary, every time Ethiopia nibs in the bud any terrorist plot involving religious extremists, HRW is the first to denounce the government’s public-safety measure as a violation of the human rights of the Ethiopian Muslim population. Had such an allegation not been grave, it would have been met with laughter in any informed circles. For at no time in Ethiopian history have the rights of the formerly disfranchised Muslim community been fully observed to an even higher degree to boot, than in any of the first democracies. Where, nowadays as in medieval times, Islam is seen as a scourge of Western civilization in certain influential academic institutions and corporate media moguls. In marked contrast, thanks in part to the legacy of grassroots interfaith solidarity, Muslims play prominent economic, social and political role, encouraged and fortified as they are by the Ethiopian federal constitution which upholds and protects religious equality.
But the irony is, self-appointed international human-rights czars are not content with waging a vicious campaign against Ethiopia on the religious front alone. No, they are equally vehement in their broadside against every single of Ethiopia’s development endeavors, with utter disregard to the time-tested truth that there is no other alternative to sweeping comprehensive change if the people of Ethiopia are, for the first time in history, to live a dignified life, unshackled from constant deprivation of the bare minimum of livelihood. In the absence of which, no matter the intensity of mainstream media and academic discourse to the contrary, full implementation of the first generation of political and human rights is next to impossible.
In my last posting I have briefly touched upon the unfriendly campaign against Ethiopia’s war on poverty, the single most irksome factor of its vulnerability to large and small abuse and cause of its plea for charity. There is, therefore, no need to repeat it here, since I have also cited Ethiopia’s mega development projects, targeted for a coordinated sabotage by negative publicity. Among the major actors implicated in manufacturing harmful imagery no doubt include those who call themselves friends of this river, friends of that lake, friends of this forest, friends of that wildlife park and what have you. But the most damaging campaign aimed at halting Ethiopia’s effort to bury the legacy of dependency on foreign handout is spearheaded by a coalition of NGOs who fancy themselves as human rights watchers, environment protectors as well as defenders of endangered indigenous people in Ethiopia. The last one kills me because I don’t know any people at risk in this country, nor am I aware of any nationality whose identity marker is not indigenous to Ethiopia.
On a serious note, however, it is time to windup this response by a succinct summary of the underlying principles that divide the Ethiopian government and international NGOs where human rights is concerned. Put simply, for the Ethiopian government, the absence of protection against organized violation of the rights of human beings alone does not constitute best human rights practice. No doubt the government is duty bound to ensure that, irrespective of origin, status, gender, faith, or political persuasion, everyone in Ethiopia has legally recourse against any form of unlawful bodily or psychological harm. The government also bears responsibility to hold accountable any person, organization, or state authority implicated in violation of human rights. In this connection, what foreign NGOs are unwilling to concede is that Ethiopia has come a long way from its own recent past where the notion of human rights was an alien concept among its successive ruling elites. Against this background in particular, it is only faire to say that the Ethiopia has made remarkable progress in terms of fostering an environment where human rights holds pride of place in the country’s political and legal landscape. This of course is a function of promulgating human rights-protection legal codes and mechanisms of enforcement of the provisions of the laws. Granted, there is no ham in pointing out that there is room for improvement as it is healthy to criticize the inadequacy of the effort to close the gap between human rights laws and human rights practices. Whereas wholesale repudiation of the human rights landscape in Ethiopia leads one to wonder whether ulterior motive might not be at play behind such blanket judgment, which I submit is not a farfetched speculation given the machinations of the NGOs under discussion.
But the crucial factor behind these NGOs unremitting hostility towards Ethiopia in part stems from their own narrow conception of human rights whose limitation I have tried to indicate above. Whereas for the Ethiopian government, human rights extends to ensuring food security, and basic life-sustaining provisions, including access to potable water, healthcare, education etc. Alas, no high-minded rhetoric, exalting the virtues of human rights is to make the intended level of the impression in an environment where the population is burdened by worries of daily survival. That is why the Ethiopian government boldly chose not to sequence the rights of the people to be free from abject misery and their entitlement to protection against violation of their legal human rights. But, given the country’s frightening all-round underdevelopment there is no alternative to ensuring decent livelihood except through a rapid economic growth, that involves vast expansion of infrastructure, including highways, railway lines, telecom networks, farm-input manufacturing plants, mega power generating projects etc. Obviously in certain development project sites residents of the area have to be resettled to adjacent locations with even better public provisions of basic resources. Similarly, in regions with spars settlement pattern, public commitment to delivery of access to basic social and hard infrastructure can only be realized through policy instrument of clusterization of isolated enclaves of domiciles of barely a household or two. This is what rapid development means, which naturally comes with pangs not to mention sacrifice that the present generation has to bear if the next is to be spared the drudgery and humiliation of underdevelopment. Yet, the louder is the cry of human rights abuse whenever the country makes progress on this front, thanks to the likes of HRW. For all its truth claims where humanity is concerned, HRW seems to take pleasure in leveling untruthful allegations against independent-minded government which its funding-sources find ontologically unacceptable.
Apropos, there is one thing that HRW and their apologists don’t seem to understand. This is, whilst the Ethiopian government is open to constructive criticism of its handling of human rights issues , it is by no means ready to forgo its development agenda. Not at least on pains of punishment ostensibly on punishable charges of harming the environment, the ecology, even the lives of indigenous people. As it happens, only Ersasu Mere denies that Human Rights and the coalition it leads are bent on punishing Ethiopia, though they themselves openly brag about it. In fact, Ersasu reckons it is ‘moronic’ to think, as I do, that HRW intends to have Ethiopia penalized simply because it peruses its own agenda and refuse to do the biddings of the powerful who are bent on recasting the world according to their own prescription. Thus, Ersasu writs with a smug certitude common among deeply half educated clerks
… it is a waste of time to respond to the allegation that the Watch is lobbying the US government to hurt Ethiopia. In case I ask Dagim Dirba, why would they do that? , I am not ready to entertain his moronic response for it would surely be the nonexistent corporate interest. Ethiopia sought after for corporate interest and deemed to be hurt if not complying with the seekers demand.
To translate, Ersasu is saying that I have nothing to back my assertion about HRW’s zeal to see Ethiopia censured by the powers except Ideology. Well, it suffices to glance at the letters below to find out which one of us stands on purely ideological ground in the Marxist sense of false consciousness. For instance, read if you may HRW’s December 17, 2010 letter to Development Assistance Group calling on donors to conduct investigation before providing aid to Ethiopia.(http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/12/09/ethiopia-evelopment-assistance-group-needs-address-and-human-rights-ethiopia) This is echoed in International Rivers May 22,2012 letter to the World Bank.(http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/ngo-letter-to-the-world-bank-regarding-the-ethiopia-kenya-transmission-line-7476.)
The saving grace is that none of it has succeeded. To the contrary, according to a recent article posted on Aiga Forum website ‘’the Washington-based World Bank Group this fiscal year has approved and disbursed a historic record high funding to Ethiopia’’.
With this I rest my case.