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.

 

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.