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HRW declares war with Mitchell over Ethiopia aid claims

The powerful NGO says the international development secretary has been "disingenuous" and "misleadin

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, of being "disingenuous" and "misleading" about the misuse of aid in Ethiopia.

Last month, an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Newsnight revealed that the Ethipian government was using long-term development aid for political purposes. It found that communities considered loyal to the opposition had been denied food aid, seed and fertiliser.

Appearing on Newsnight last Wednesday, Mitchell stated that no British development support goes through the government of Ethiopia. He also said that officials had conducted an on-the-ground investigation and found no evidence of the systemic misuse of food aid.

This is where HRW got involved. Jan Egeland, the deputy executive director for HRW Europe, has written an open letter questioning Mitchell's comments. It uses exceptionally strong language, and is unprecedented in accusing a secretary of state of being misleading, and implying he has bowed to pressure from the Ethiopian government. Here are the highlights:

You said in the Newsnight interview that DFID officials had investigated the allegations but, "found no evidence at all of systemic misuse of food support." However, . a proper investigation capable of drawing conclusions about the nature of abuses by the Ethiopian government would need to be conducted at the field level, and our understanding is that no such investigation has been undertaken.

. . .

Your claim that no British support goes through the Ethiopian government is disingenuous. The vast majority of British support to Ethiopia passes through the government.

. . .

We recognise that the Ethiopian government is extremely resistant to scrutiny. Nonetheless, the British government and other donors to Ethiopia should not allow the Ethiopian government to dictate the terms on which public British money is monitored, and every effort should be made to prevent British development aid from strengthening authoritarian rule and repression.

The letter goes on to explain that the Ethiopian federal government is responsible for administering and monitoring the largest development programme, which the British Ambassador to Ethiopia said was "budget support in all but name".

Mitchell has replied:

As I have made clear, the British government does not agree with all of your assertions nor your conclusions. We also do not believe the report is methodologically sound.

Human Rights Watch is an organisation for which I have profound respect and admiration.

But it is important not to overstate criticisms in an unbalanced manner, the effect of which will be to undermine the vital work HRW carries out in other parts of the world.

You point out in your letter that the Ethiopian government must not dictate the terms on which British public money is monitored. I am happy to confirm that this is not the case.

After Mitchell's Newsnight appearance, a DfID official confirmed that the investigation he referred to was actually a desk study conducted from Addis Ababa. It looks as if the matter will not be resolved until a full on-the-ground investigation is carried out.

UPDATE - 3.20pm: I've been contacted by DfID, who said that the statement read out on Newsnight (regarding the desk study) was inaccurate. The following clarification was read out on Friday's programme:

The Department for International Development has confirmed that, as Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell made clear on Wednesday's programme, DFID officials in Ethiopia did make regular field visits to look into the allegations of aid distortion.

Those field visits -- and dozens of similar visits by other donor agencies -- made clear that there was no systemic distortion for political reasons in the distribution of aid.