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Should donor nations give aid to countries with poor human rights records?

Human Rights


We should not cut aid to countries with poor human rights records. For two reasons – first, it shines a light on the donor country’s own record, and that of its major allies and trading partners. For example, people elsewhere tend to have longer memories than most British people and remember the horrific abuses committed in the name of Empire. Those with shorter memories will remember the thousands of innocent lives lost as a consequence of the illegal Iraq war and the subsequent silence in the face of US torture and extraordinary rendition.

Furthermore, we trade with China and Saudi Arabia and other countries with terrible human rights records. The sight of donors getting on to their moral high horses would be amusing if it weren’t so serious. The second problem is that cutting off aid may lead to much more suffering. If aid is working as it should, it will save lives and help put children through school. And it is far from likely that a threat to cut aid will have the desired effect – continuing to engage is often the best way forward, except when things get so heinous that multilateral action is required via the UN.


We should first ask: what is effective foreign aid according to the best research? Many experts and thinktanks have concluded that governance reform is critical. Part of that reform must include promotion and protection of human rights, anti-corruption measures and implementation of the rule of law. For aid recipients who accept this, I have no problem continuing aid that assists them in these areas – in addition to the alleviation of poverty and other traditional areas. My concern is when we give foreign aid to countries like Ethiopia, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses, shows no desire to improve its human rights record and is undermining all aspects of the rule of law. To use aid as a form of leverage in such countries is not neo-colonialism or ‘getting on a high horse’ but demonstrating a commitment to legal obligations to promote and protect universally accepted human rights. Indeed, China shows what happens if there is no intention to use such leverage: complicity in the human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and other countries. Recent reforms in Burma indicate that using economic and foreign aid leverage can produce dramatic democratic and human rights results.


In most circumstances it’s better to recognize that almost all countries engage in some sort of human rights abuse, including the so-called ‘developed’ countries, and that engagement rather than grandstanding is the best way forward

I agree that better governance is critical for achieving better health and education, and as a good in itself – accountable decision-makers treating people with respect is as important as material wellbeing. And I agree that external actors, donors and others, should seek to defend human rights when they intervene in a country, despite the mixed evidence on whether aid helps or hinders the development of better governance. We should use aid to leverage human rights improvements, just as we should to push for improvements in health and education. Having worked in Colombia, I know how important it can be for donors to invest in the judiciary, or in countering human rights abuses by the military. But these are long-term and complex aims which require careful interaction with relevant constituencies. The threat of ceasing aid or trade with a country seldom works unless it is part of a united approach co-ordinated by the UN in particularly heinous circumstances – think Zimbabwe or Syria.

Are things so bad in Ethiopia that co-ordinated sanctions are called for? That is for the UN or a sub-group of donors to decide and depends crucially on the views of Ethiopians. In most circumstances it’s better to recognize that almost all countries engage in some sort of human rights abuse, including the so-called ‘developed’ countries, and that engagement rather than grandstanding is the best way forward.


A woman listens to democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi at a rally in Burma. But are recent reforms in the country due to foreign aid leverage?

Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Things are indeed bad enough in Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch in their World Report 2012 gave the following description of human rights conditions there:

‘Ethiopian authorities continued to severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly. Hundreds of Ethiopians in 2011 were arbitrarily arrested and detained and remain at risk of torture and ill-treatment. Attacks on political opposition and dissent persisted throughout 2011, with mass arrests of ethnic Oromo, including members of the Oromo political opposition in March, and a wider crackdown with arrests of journalists and opposition politicians from June to September 2011.’

The impotence of the UN Security Council on Syria should cast aside any hope that the UN can be relied on to provide co-ordinated leverage on countries that see the most violent human rights abuses. Zimbabwe is exactly another example of not ‘waiting in hope for the UN’ given the Chinese veto that hovers around any possibility of UN action there.

Human Rights Watch rightly puts the focus on the aid-giving countries:

‘International donor assistance continues to pour into Ethiopia, one of the world’s largest recipients of aid, but this has not resulted in greater international influence in ensuring government compliance with its human rights obligations. Conversely, donors appear to be reluctant to criticize the Ethiopian government’s human rights record so as not to endanger the continuity of their assistance programmes.

Nonetheless, government spending remains hugely reliant (between 30 and 40 per cent) on foreign assistance, and donors retain significant leverage that they could use to greater effect to insist on basic measures...’


While there is no doubt that the human rights situation in many countries, including Ethiopia, is critical, it doesn’t follow that withdrawing aid is the best way to support humanitarian and development objectives in those countries. Aid is one element of the relationship between countries – others include trade relations and more general diplomatic pressure. The withdrawal of aid, as well as trade sanctions, should be considered when the political situation in a country reaches a critical point. But both should be used cautiously, given the likely impacts such decisions will have on the poorest and most vulnerable. Such policies by no means guarantee change for the better – they frequently imply a turn for the worse in the short term, something decision-makers have to weigh very carefully.

A careful analysis of the views of opposition groups must count heavily on whether aid should continue. The evidence that donors can influence deep political and/or economic currents in recipient countries is limited – and what evidence does exist implies that such influence is brought to bear as much through engagement as estrangement. Given the range of other financing options now available to Ethiopia, it is even less certain that withdrawal will be the best way to support change. I am not arguing that extreme measures should not be part of the armoury of the international community. I am arguing that withdrawal of aid money should in no way be an automatic response to the degeneration of human rights. There are many other options, including using aid in a different way.


When a despotic government has no intention of curtailing or stopping significant abuses, when all other major levers fail, or when human rights abuses actually increase, then the withdrawal of aid must be considered

No experienced human rights or development expert is suggesting in all situations that foreign aid should be curtailed or cut off immediately on evidence of human rights abuses. Indeed, as we see now in several countries in Central America (and in Colombia) the first reaction could be to use trade, business, military, security co-operation and other levers to encourage governments to stop human rights abuses.

Other options must be considered when it becomes clear that in the short and medium term a despotic government has no intention of curtailing or stopping significant abuses. When all other major levers fail, or when human rights abuses actually increase, then the withdrawal of aid must be considered. This could be especially effective in a country that relies on aid for a significant part of its budget, like Ethiopia. This is what Human Rights Watch is advocating there.

Zimbabwe shows there may be little other alternative. The fact that China may step in when others withdraw their aid is not a reason to throw up one’s hands and say that the aid lever should not be considered. Take Burma: China did compensate for the withdrawal of foreign aid there. But eventually, even the ruling junta realized that such self-interested substitution was not in its best interest. Hence the recent opening-up of democratic space and invitations to the democratic world to re-engage.


Perhaps predictably, we are not that far apart. We basically agree that withdrawing aid should be a possible course of action in extreme circumstances – where people who know a country well determine that its positive effects will outweigh its negative impacts. My main concern is that we resist the easy tabloid logic (so tempting to politicians) that aid as a rule should not go to countries which abuse human rights, even gravely. There is no such rule. Aid to such countries may be just as important and effective as it is in countries where the situation is much more stable. It depends on a wide range of factors that go well beneath the headlines.


Indeed we should at all times avoid the tabloid logic of politicians. However, in certain circumstances, immediate leverage should take place. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example: if the new government that ousted former President Gbagbo were to be just as abusive of its citizens, if not worse, then foreign donors could legitimately use aid as a powerful lever. Along with other economic, trade and business levers, aid can be used to warn off the imminent threat to fundamental human rights. In each country the devil is always in the details. But as Edmund Burke wrote: ‘All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.’

Jonathan Glennie is a research fellow in the Centre for aid and Public expenditure (CaPe) at the overseas Development Institute (oDI) and a regular blogger for The Guardian. he is the author of The Trouble with Aid: Why less could mean more for Africa (Zed Books, 2008).

Errol Mendes specializes in international business law and ethics, constitutional law and human rights law. He edits Canada’s National Journal of Constitutional Law and teaches at the University of Ottawa. His latest book is Peace and Justice at the International Criminal Court, A Court of Last Resort (Edward Elgar Publications, 2010).

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