World Bank programmes linked to political repression

29 November 2010

A mid October report by international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents how World Bank projects in Ethiopia are being used by the government to repress dissent and weaken political opposition, reinforcing criticisms of Bank funding to countries with widespread reports of human rights abuses.

In 2005 the Bank suspended direct budget support to the Ethiopian government following a post-election crackdown on political opponents which left 200 people dead and over 30,000 detained. The Bank cited the need to develop aid distribution mechanisms that could be protected from political capture. Since then Bank programmes in Ethiopia have focussed on governance, through the capacity building of regional administrations and federal institutions, and on funding basic service delivery at regional and district level, as well as work-for-food projects. In the last five years Bank funding to Ethiopia has grown and the country is now one of the largest recipients of development aid in the world.

The HRW report argues that since 2005 “billions of dollars of development assistance were premised on an unfounded assumption that Ethiopia was moving in a democratic direction.” It finds that the Bank-funded programmes have been subject to political control by the governing party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The report found that Bank-funded “services, resources, and training opportunities were being used as threats or rewards for citizens to join the ruling party and cease supporting the opposition, and that donor mechanisms for monitoring or controlling the misuse of aid programmes were inadequate.”

For example, the Bank-administered Protection of Basic Services Program, which every year transfers an estimated $1 billion to regional and district governments to support services in health, education, water, agricultural extension and roads, is being used to oblige farmers and teachers to join the EPRDF. The Bank’s Public Sector Capacity Building Program, used to train civil servants, is often employed as a means to indoctrinate recruits in the party’s ideology and expel opposition supporters under the guise of removing underperforming staff, according to HRW.

In an official response to the report, the Development Assistance Group (DAG), a donor consortium that includes the Bank, argued that although donor projects are susceptible to political capture, it maintained that “development partners have built into the programmes [that] they support monitoring and safeguard mechanisms that give a reasonable assurance that resources are being used for their intended purposes.”

HRW has noted that the DAG response was based on a desk study and highlighted the fact that donors have not carried out any credible, independent investigations. The report emphasises that accountability mechanisms for aid distribution operate alongside government staff, making them incapable of uncovering the partisan political influence on programmes.

Turkmenistan trouble

The issues raised in Ethiopia resonate with ongoing concerns over the Bank’s integration of human rights into its operations (see Update 71), and over how existing Bank safeguards fail to adequately incorporate internationally recognised human rights standards and norms (see Update 71, 70). In late October, the World Bank signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkmenistan to develop the Turkmenbashi Port on the Caspian Sea. This caused alarm amongst human rights NGOs in the country, which scores low on many international indicators of human rights protection. The Bank announcement came two weeks after a public statement from NGOs Amnesty International and HRW voicing concern over “allegations that Farid Tukhbatullin, director of the [NGO] Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, is at risk of harm by agents of the Ministry of National Security (MNS) of Turkmenistan.” NGO Crude Accountability has since stated that they “urge the [Bank] and other financial institutions to reconsider any plans to provide financial support to the Turkmen government until it undertakes significant and measurable human rights improvements.”