Oakland Institute’s efforts to damage Ethiopia’s development policies: a comment


Oakland Institute’s efforts to damage Ethiopia’s development policies: a comment


(MoFA) 12-26-14 In the 1980s, Ethiopia, with images of starving Ethiopian children filling the Western media, became a symbol of humanitarian need.  Subsequently, this was twisted into a representation of an incompetent African government dependent upon wasteful foreign aid and disinterested in the suffering of its people.  These conveniently simplistic journalistic images were never very accurate. Today, they are totally wrong.


Ethiopia’s policies over the last decade or more have been specifically based on pro-poor and pro-development strategies, implemented though integrated planning, coordination, management and cooperation of government at federal, regional and local levels, aid agencies and the people. Over 70% of the federal budget is dedicated to pro-poor policies, and progress to "develop  a  comprehensive  and structured mechanism  to  advance  the  respect,  protection  and  fulfillment  of  human  and  democratic  rights guaranteed  by  the Constitution"  can be clearly seen in the country’s overall economic and social development. Ethiopia is not dependent upon development aid but it has benefitted significantly from it in the implementation of its "Agricultural Development Led Industrialization” strategy and in a series of other pro-poor development programs, covering the country. These have included the Sustainable Development Program to Reduce Poverty (SDPRP); the  Program for Accelerated and Sustained Development to end Poverty (PASDEP); the Sustainable Land Management Program (SLMP II), aimed at reducing land degradation and increasing land productivity of smallholder farmers; the Purchase for Progress (P4P) program to provide training for smallholder farmers in key techniques such as post-harvest handling, group marketing, agricultural finance and contracting; and the Promotion of Basic Services (PBS) program, now in its third phase, which covers education, health, water, sanitation, rural roads and agricultural extension.


The PBS, for example, includes continued decentralization of basic services, increasing completion of primary levels of education, lowering maternal mortality rates, increasing agricultural productivity, lowering the average time to reach all-weather roads, increasing access to potable water, increasing local government budget controls and audits controls, and increasing information flows to people in the woredas (districts). It has an explicit focus on gender, the socially excluded and areas and previously neglected, and covers most of the country.  All elements are subject to stringent verified performance indicators. The view of all who have studied or been involved in the PBS is that it is “an excellent example of harmonized support by donors to improve basic services in a low income country;” and it has been described by those who know as “the most successful project of its kind in the world.”


All these pro-poor programs operate at local and regional state as well as national levels, placing special emphasis on enhancing the productivity of smallholder farmers and pastoralists, strengthening market systems, improving the participation of the private sector in agriculture, expanding the amount of land under irrigation and reducing the number of chronically food insecure households. They have achieved some impressive progress - an 8% or more growth rate for agriculture, the reduction of safety net program beneficiaries from 7.8 million to 1.8 million households, doubling production of major crops, and raising the emergency food reserve to 3 million tones. As the Prime Minister noted recently, the country has achieved food security at national, if not yet household, level. The delivery of public services across the country has allowed woredas (districts), inter alia, to hire 100,000 additional primary school teachers, 38,000 health extension workers and 45,000 agricultural extension workers. It has helped people gain access to public budget information and given 120,000 citizens basic budget literacy training. The proportion of people living below the poverty line has fallen steadily in the last few years; the target is to reduce this to 22% by 2015. Overall, the growth of the Ethiopian economy has been both broad-based and pro-poor. It has, with the aid of carefully placed aid and support, lifted millions out of poverty and brought them health care and other social benefits, improving their lives. This is the result of making poverty reduction and sustainability the central focus of the country’s development. It has all been remarkably successful and certainly gives the lie to claims, in defiance of all the available evidence both from Ethiopia and from development partners, that Ethiopia’s development strategy is ‘non-inclusive’. 


Not surprisingly, with the country poised to surpass almost all the Millennium Development Goals before the 2015 deadline, Ethiopia’s development efforts have been widely endorsed. None of this has prevented one or two international advocacy organizations and individuals, trying to question these results, claiming these developments to be non-existent and when the evidence has become impossible to deny, claiming they were driven by abuse and violence. Organizations such as Oakland Institute and Human Rights Watch continue to propagate an outdated image based on flawed methodology, built up from unverified and unverifiable information, with inaccurate and exaggerated accounts drawn from externally-based politically-motivated sources and seldom, if ever, checked on the ground.


Characteristically, and depressingly, most of the criticisms and accusations against these projects and programs consistently fail to provide sufficient details for them to be checked by independent investigation or even for the Government to investigate the allegations either. This appears to be deliberate policy by the advocacy organizations as they persistently refuse to provide the Government, Ethiopian Human Rights organizations or other bodies with any of the necessary details and, indeed, deliberately obfuscate the details to avoid any checking. This is a central flaw in their methodology and is due to the fact that much of their information is based on allegation rather than on actual fact, and is largely, if not entirely, sourced externally and drawn from politically motivated sources. Not only do these advocacy organizations fail to look at the way the Government’s pro-poor policies and strategies actually operate on the ground, they also employ methodology entirely unacceptable by any normal evidential research standards.


It’s no surprise that a couple of years ago, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development felt it necessary to describe the methodology as “unsound’.  The most obvious flaws relate to the collection of material and presentation: the deliberate lack of detail to make it impossible for the Government, or indeed any independent bodies, to investigate, verify or check claims, or discover whether the sample is random or representative; the total reliance on external, and non-random, sources and the failure to investigate on the ground; and the failure to question the political affiliation or interest of informants. Indeed, Oakland Institute and HRW either never bother to investigate the motivation or political links of informants, or they just accept the political attitudes involved. They simply accept unquestioningly any and all allegations that fit their pre-conceived view, even when sources are indentified leaders of anti-government groups, in some cases devoted to armed struggle to remove the present government. Above all, there is a continued refusal to accept any other reports, sources or information, however reliable, if it contradicts their own reports. They have a standard response to any criticism, any detail which contradicts their own reports: these are “inconsistent” with our ‘field research’ and therefore they must be wrong: “We are right; you are wrong.”


This arrogance means that Oakland Institute, HRW and others deny the results of numerous investigations and reports by many different bodies, looking into the way aid is distributed and used.  The Oakland Institute says the ‘facts’ are ignored by the international community. It even claims, “Donors are well aware of the situation on the ground and have chosen to turn a blind eye to gross human rights by their closest ally in Africa.” Oakland and HRW in effect say that the Federal Government, regional and local authorities, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, all UN agencies, European Union agencies, the African Development Bank , all donor ambassadors and embassies in Ethiopia, all NGOs, whether local and international, working on the ground,  and virtually all other visitors to these areas, either repeatedly and consistently lie, or they consistently and deliberately refuse to see all the “numerous atrocities” that the Oakland Institute and HRW manage to see. They dismiss the whole series of World Bank investigations and assessment missions to BeniShangul Gumuz on resettlement that found no evidence that relocation was “involuntary”. They dismiss Donor Advisory Group (DAG) field visits to Gambella that found “no evidence of forced relocation or systematic abuse”.  The 2012 Donor Advisory Group report, based, for example, on interviews with hundreds of people with no officials present and visits randomly selected by members of the mission, even noted that “those communities that objected to moving have been allowed to stay”. Between 2006 and 2012 there were 34 investigations/evaluations of the PSB program in various areas carried out by officials and experts of the WB, DfID, CIDA, Irish Aid, EC, IMF, AfDB, SIDA, and Italian Co-operation, as well as representatives of the Governments of Austria, Spain, the Netherlands and others, and Ethiopian federal, regional and local officials. Curiously, none of these bodies manage to see any of the “atrocities” despite visiting the areas concerned quite regularly. The Oakland Institute and HRW, however, manage to see these without actually visiting any of the areas concerned. 


In fact, where the claims of the Oakland Institute and others can be checked, it is clear they are seriously inaccurate. In its latest report the Oakland Institute begins by repeating a statistic that both it and HRW have used repeatedly: “in recent years, the Ethiopian government has leased over 3 million hectares to corporations for the development of large-scale agricultural plantations and is making available a total of 11.5 million hectares to investors.” In another recent paper, “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa,” the Oakland Institute states “since early 2008, the Ethiopian Government has embarked on a process to award millions of hectares (ha) of land to foreign and national agricultural investors. Our research shows that at least 3,619,509 ha of land have been transferred, though the actual number may be higher.” These figures are simply plucked out of the air. They bear no resemblance to reality. The latest figures from a genuinely independent source, a report from the Gates Foundation, says the actual figure for leased land from the federal land bank in 2014 is 380,000 hectares; another 335,000 hectares have been allocated by regional governments; and a further 335,000 hectares for state run sugar plantations. These figures give no indication of how much is actually being currently developed. The disparity raises serious questions about the quality of Oakland Institute ‘research’ and its sources.


The Gates Foundation report is based on a qualitatively and quantitatively different style of methodology. It collected data on all land deals over 5,000 hectares between 2005 and 2012, checking investment identification, location, timeline, investor details, land details, agricultural activity, job creation, fiscal regime and infrastructure, social and environmental impact. It did field work in all relevant regional states, and carried out a wide range of interviews with government officials, technical experts, NGOs, investors and others as well as carrying out seven case studies of farm-level investments. The authors acknowledge that more research at farm and community level is needed; they also said it was difficult on occasion to separate fact-based statements from opinions, but they “tried to indicate when evidence in support of a particular statement is limited.” They examined relevant material in secondary literature in both English and Amharic, and noted the difficulty in commenting “with great rigor” on the social and environmental impact of land deals because “there is no satisfactory baseline available” in many areas. The research was carried out over a three month period in 2012, and the authors describe their results as “best viewed as a rapid appraisal rather than as an in-depth study.” This is hardly a view that will commend itself to Oakland Institute or HRW whose simplistic reports are simply based on allegations of people outside Ethiopia, or quoted from each other’s earlier allegations. 


It is not just the Oakland Institute’s “research” that fails so spectacularly at the most basic level. All the evidence for its other allegations remains minimal. One central element in the latest Oakland Institute’s paper is that the Government is “Engineering Ethnic Conflict”. The ‘evidence’ for this is that there was a clash, or more accurately two clashes at Maji, between members of the Dizi and the Suri, two peoples who, as indeed the Oakland Institute somewhat reluctantly admits have a long history of conflict over cattle and pasture. The Oakland Institute alleges there was a massacre, a couple of years ago, which it claims was organized by the government, and that 30, 50, 68 or more people were killed. It says it was unable to confirm the precise numbers killed because no police report was filed. In fact, police reports were filed on both incidents and a dozen or so people died. According to actual eyewitnesses, there is no indication that this was anything more than a brief and unfortunate, if tragic, resurgence of traditional enmity between two peoples over a specific problem. The local authorities and local elders played a central role in resolving the situation. All the evidence on the ground is that local and government authorities tried to resolve the problem. There is absolutely no evidence that the government encouraged these clashes or that they had anything to do with resettlement projects in the South Omo. It is, however, certainly true that resettlement is having a positive impact in the region, being welcomed largely by the peoples of the South Omo as well as by those in other regions where substantial resettlement projects have also been carried out.


The Oakland Institute allegations also include claims that hundreds of Suri are in jail, that around 150 have been killed in the conflict over land in the last year, that the army is infecting the local populations with Hepatitis B, Aids and other diseases and ensuring that prostitution is on the rise, and  “according to a close local contact in December 2012 and January 2013 I kept receiving more reported killings of members of the Suri tribe.” Again, none of these emotive allegations have been supported by any other sources, and no visitors have seen this ‘evidence’ which is simply not visible on  the ground.


The Oakland Institute, like HRW, has a habit of using inaccurate and emotive titles;  “Engineering Ethnic Conflict”, or HRW’s “Waiting here for Death: Forced Displacement and Villagization in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region” (an equally inaccurate report on the Gambella Regional State) are deliberately chosen to attract media attention. In a similar fashion, the Oakland Institute also claims reports of abuse are ‘widespread’. This, in fact, means that the allegations have been constantly repeated:  by the Oakland Institute, quoting HRW; by Friends of Turkana quoting the Oakland Institute; and by HRW quoting Friends of Turkana; and, of course, by all three quoting their own previous reports. The ‘evidence’ all comes from the same sources, refugees, a small group of opposition figures based in Nairobi or Washington, and in some cases members of armed opposition groups based in Eritrea. They constantly repeat each other’s allegations, just as they use each other’s sources. One of these sources founded an organization in Washington devoted to overthrowing the EPRDF in Ethiopia. It claims the EPRDF is a Tigre an organization running an apartheid regime in Ethiopia that has produced a situation worse than that in Rwanda before the genocide there. Oakland Institute and HRW never appear to consider these facts relevant to the quality of ‘evidence’ from such sources. Indeed they consistently repeat them however often they are authoritatively corrected by eyewitnesses from the regions concerned. Any effort to provide genuine on-the-ground evidence is simply dismissed out of hand: The Oakland Institute says that “donors are well aware of the situation on the ground and have chosen to turn a blind eye to gross human rights abuses by their closest ally in Africa." This blind assertion is scarcely an adequate response to the evidence of all those organizations that have repeatedly carried out investigations and found no truth in the claims of forced resettlement or systematic abuse of human rights.


The central point of the Oakland Institute reports and other similar reports appears to be part of a deliberate political agenda aiming to stop the contributions of the World Bank and other donors to Ethiopia’s pro-poor developmental programs in order to contribute to the overthrow of the government, to “implicate western funds in the coercive settlement of pastoral communities and the conditional – and coercive – distribution of good aid, which seems to be principally aimed at establishing dependency on food aid while devoting increasing amounts of land to growing crops for export and less on ensuring subsistence.”  The fact that absolutely no reliable evidence is provided for any of these claims - and there is a mountain of public, available and factual evidence to refute such allegations - underlines the political aims. The Oakland Institute even says “Our hope is that this report will further pressure the US Congress and State Department to renegotiate the development assistance to Ethiopia.”  If, as a result, some of the most effective pro-poor policies in Africa are damaged, the Oakland Institute, and its friends, will have a lot to answer for. 


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