Magazine article New Internationalist

Should Donor Nations Give Aid to Countries with Poor Human Rights Records?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Should Donor Nations Give Aid to Countries with Poor Human Rights Records?

Article excerpt

Aid campaigner JONATHAN GLEN NIE and human rights lawyer ERROL MENDES go head-t0-head.

Jonathan

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.

Errol

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 ofthat 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.

Jonathan

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 coordinated sanctions are called for? That is tor 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.

Errol

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. …

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