The Conflict in Ethiopia Calls Into Question Authoritarian Aid

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The conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region is a tragedy for the citizens caught up in the fighting. It also threatens to destabilize the country’s economic and political system for years to come. Compared with these catastrophes, the implications of the war for the model of authoritarian development promoted by the Ethiopian government over the last two decades pale in significance. But these effects are nonetheless likely to be profound and may lead to a recalibration of international aid models.

In recent years, the impressive economic performances of Ethiopia and Rwanda have meant that international donors have become increasingly willing to fund authoritarian regimes in Africa on the basis that they deliver on development. Beyond the obvious concern that donors become complicit in human rights violations, the main question facing authoritarian development in Africa has always been whether the economic gains achieved under repressive rule are sustainable. Critics of this model worried that sooner or later, exclusionary political systems would face major challenges from marginalized groups and individuals, and that these challenges could undermine development plans. Recent events in Ethiopia suggest that these fears were well founded and will lead to greater scrutiny of the decisions made by so many donors to pump so much funding into authoritarian states.

More broadly, if Ethiopia is no longer seen as a success story, then the case for authoritarian development in Africa falls apart. Already, the EU has suspended nearly €90 million ($110 million) in budgetary aid to the country because of concerns over the government’s handling of the conflict in Tigray. Growing evidence that authoritarian politics can have devastating developmental consequences will also give a shot in the arm to organizations like the Westminster Foundation for Democracy that argue that the international community should be doing development democratically.

The model of authoritarian development

In the last fifteen years, there has been growing regional and international sympathy for the idea that authoritarian states might be better placed than democratic ones to drive rapid development. This is an old idea but has gained ground recently, in part because of the rise of China—an authoritarian one-party state—to global economic prominence. In line with this trend, it has become more common for international donors and aid practitioners to question the value of democracy for development—and to suggest that authoritarian governments that can force through necessary reforms might be more effective in some cases.

In sub-Saharan Africa, two main developments have underpinned this trend. On the one hand, for countries in this region the process of democratization either did not really start in the 1990s or quickly stalled, undermining confidence in the democratic project. At the same time, some of the continent’s more democratic states have failed to end corruption or deliver high levels of economic growth. On the other hand, Ethiopia and Rwanda achieved impressive successes, attracting international praise for reducing poverty and unemployment while consistently securing high economic growth.

It has almost become a cliché for those who praise Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government to talk about his ability to keep corruption out of politics and crime off the streets. The gains achieved from 1995 to 2012 under then Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi have proved more resistant to caricature but have been no less influential. In both cases, governments identified and pursued long-term development goals, creating partly owned enterprises to channel state resources into priority areas and so direct economic expansion.

Tired of working with governments that diverted resources and failed to keep their promises, aid agencies such as the United Kingdom’s former Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Development Fund were naturally keen to work with regimes that could deliver success stories. EU support has had the objective of “increasing resilience, accompanying reforms and promoting sustained agriculture and economic growth.” In practice, this has meant supporting a range of projects designed to boost infrastructure, investment, and industrialization as well as foster political and economic inclusivity.

Along with heavy backing from the United States and several other countries—driven by Ethiopia’s role as a key U.S. ally in the region as well as developmental concerns—this approach helps explain why Ethiopia received almost $5 billion in foreign aid in 2018, while Rwanda received just over $1 billion. The figure for Rwanda is particularly striking when one considers that democratic Malawi, which saw a peaceful transfer of power to the opposition in June 2020, receives considerably less aid per person: $70 for each Malawian in 2018, compared with almost $91 for every Rwandan.

Ethiopia’s fall from grace is especially important because it has the potential to radically change this situation, making it much harder for international donors to justify sacrificing human rights on the altar of development.

Theoretical justifications for authoritarian aid

Policy decisions are not made in a vacuum, and recent trends in academic and policy research have played an important role in the rise of authoritarian development. These trends provided donors with an intellectual foundation for investing in countries that, on the basis of their human rights records, the EU and the UK might have been expected to avoid.

Most notably, the African Power and Politics Program, led by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and funded by DFID, was inspired by the observation that many attempts to radically transform African political systems have failed. If efforts to curtail patrimonial politics—in which power is vested in an individual who faces few formal constraints and so can act in arbitrary ways—were not feasible, perhaps donors would be more successful trying something more modest: encouraging a less damaging form of patrimonial government.

This naturally evolved into an argument that donors might be able to achieve more by “going with the grain,” in the words of the ODI’s Tim Kelsall, and investing in forms of patrimonialism that were more consistent with economic growth. More specifically, researchers suggested that when patrimonial systems are tightly controlled, waste can be minimized and resources channeled toward productive investments to support developmental outcomes. Although this literature did not explicitly advocate authoritarian forms of government, the fact that tight control of rents and resources was most likely to emerge in authoritarian systems—and the consistent invocation of the examples of Ethiopia and Rwanda—suggested that these political systems had certain advantages where development was concerned.

Growing sympathy for authoritarian developmental models has not been confined to policy circles or those who have read the literature on developmental patrimonialism. The combination of the rise of China, democratic malaise in the West, and the economic struggles of many African democracies has led citizens and political elites to increasingly question the value of democracy for development. Even a cursory glance at debates on social media reveals growing popular recognition of the achievements of Ethiopia and Rwanda and a rising willingness to use them to disparage democracy promotion efforts.

These overlapping trends should be a cause of deep concern because, especially in countries in which the state of the economy is the dominant preoccupation, they threaten to undermine popular support for democracy itself.

The political test

While the African Power and Politics Program was influential at more senior levels in DFID, the day-to-day thinking and decisionmaking of most development practitioners is driven by different considerations. On the one hand, those working for aid agencies in Ethiopia are motivated by the impressive economic progress that they have seen and the fact that such progress has improved the lives of people in some of Africa’s most vulnerable communities. On the other hand, donors are quick to point out that they do not simply give governments blank checks. Instead, financial support for government programs goes hand in hand with funding designed to enhance the growth of independent media and civil society and improve the quality of elections. In this way, donors may even argue that they are doing development democratically.

Both of these points are reasonable, but their effectiveness depends on the extent to which developmental and democratic gains are being realized in a sustainable way. Given that the governments of Ethiopia and Rwanda have committed human rights violations, this is the very least that donors should be able to establish before deciding to support them—and other similar regimes.

Yet, for all the economic successes of these countries, three major questions about authoritarian development in Africa remain. First, there is some evidence that the empirical data used to identify Ethiopia and Rwanda as success stories may not be as impressive as it was first thought. A 2019 investigation by the Financial Times found that contrary to the Rwandan government’s protestations, “poverty most likely increased between 2010 and 2014.” Similarly, economic growth figures shared by the Ethiopian government have often exceeded International Monetary Fund projections—in some cases by as much as 3.5 percentage points. This suggests that the official figures are part of a broader propaganda campaign designed to sell the regime both at home and abroad.

Second, it is unclear whether the political systems established in Ethiopia and Rwanda can be reproduced in other, very different contexts. It seems implausible, for example, for a government to impose the kind of tight control needed for developmental patrimonialism to work in countries with stronger opposition parties and civil societies, such as Kenya and Nigeria.

The third and perhaps most important question relates to whether these authoritarian regimes will be able to maintain the political stability needed to safeguard developmental gains. The Tiger economies of East Asia, such as South Korea and Taiwan, entrenched the economic progress they achieved in the 1970s and 1980s by undergoing relatively smooth transitions to more open and inclusive—and hence legitimate and stable—political systems in the 1990s.

The prospects for such transitions have always seemed less likely in Ethiopia and Rwanda, where opposition parties are not allowed to operate effectively and limited social and political cohesion remains a cause for concern. The major fear in Rwanda was that the country could suffer a further bout of interethnic violence due to the precarity of having Kagame, a Tutsi president, ruling over a Hutu-majority population. The worry in Ethiopia was that at some point, the federal government would no longer be able to placate the country’s different ethnoregional communities, leading to a return of the politics of secession and guerrilla warfare.

Ethiopia’s fall from grace

While the jury is still out on Rwanda, the political foundations of economic development in Ethiopia appear to be crumbling. When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991, it initially appeared to have broken out of Ethiopia’s damaging cycle of repression and rebellion. Rather than seeking to enforce one ethnic identity over the others, the EPRDF committed to giving the country’s different communities the freedom and self-respect they had always desired. The government enshrined a right to self-determination in the Ethiopian constitution.

However, the reality was very different. In practice, one part of the EPRDF coalition, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), dominated the government for twenty-seven years, despite representing only a small minority of Ethiopians. More broadly, the ruling party kept itself in power by rigging elections and repressing opponents. As a result, many ethnoregional groups felt that in addition to being politically marginalized, they were denied the opportunity to press their concerns through democratic channels. This meant that even though the government presided over high levels of economic growth, many communities did not feel that they were benefiting equally from the development that was being delivered.

This system was sustainable during the reign of Meles, whose personal authority and astute political management papered over the cracks. But after his death in 2012, the EPRDF began to come apart at the seams. The rise to power of the current prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was a direct product of these tensions. After Meles’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, failed to right the ship, it became increasingly clear that the ruling party needed to adapt to survive. Abiy, a younger leader from the Oromo Democratic Party, fit the bill.

Yet, although he quickly won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for moving to end a long-running dispute with Eritrea and promising a raft of democratic reforms, Abiy was unable to return Ethiopia to political stability. Most notably, the growing political marginalization of the TPLF left the former dominant clique increasingly frustrated. Tigrayan leaders ultimately quit the government, while Abiy disbanded the EPRDF and replaced it with his own political vehicle, the Prosperity Party. From that moment on, civil conflict between the federal government and the TPLF, whose role was now limited to control over the Tigrayan regional government, became increasingly likely.

Since civil conflict began in November 2020, Ethiopia has had a new set of developmental challenges. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been displaced, major infrastructure has been destroyed, and Abiy’s reputation as a reformer has been undermined. Moreover, there is a serious risk that even though federal government troops have regained overall control of Tigray, the TPLF will be able to wage guerrilla attacks that will continue to weaken political stability and investor confidence.

It is too early to tell how significant the economic impact of the conflict will be, but one thing is already clear: Ethiopia’s politics is going to negatively affect the country’s economic performance for some time. Political reform is necessary to build more inclusive and stable political foundations for economic growth. This is difficult to achieve, however, because the groups that have dominated politics may not be willing to give up their hold on power, and those that have been marginalized are unlikely to be patient. As a result, Abiy, like his predecessors, will use coercion to maintain political control, building up more problems for the future. Although negotiated and smooth political transitions are not impossible, they are less likely in heavily divided societies and have been rare in sub-Saharan Africa.

Funding African authoritarian regimes may therefore look like a good decision in the short run, but developmental gains may subsequently disappear.

Why Ethiopia matters

Although Ethiopia and Rwanda are often mentioned in the same sentence, Ethiopia is the more important example for the argument that authoritarian government models would serve Africa better than democratic ones. With a small population, a distinctive history, and an intensely authoritarian government, Rwanda is not a promising case from which to generalize. By contrast, Ethiopia, with a large and extremely ethnically diverse population, provides a more compelling example.

The significance of the Ethiopian case for the credibility of the authoritarian development model becomes even clearer when one realizes that Ethiopia and Rwanda are not just the stars of this narrative—they are the narrative. There is no supporting cast.

The empirical evidence in favor of authoritarian development models in Africa has always been remarkably thin. The vast majority of African states were authoritarian in the 1970s and 1980s, and almost all had poor economic growth. Fast-forward to today, and there are very few authoritarian regimes with the potential to join Ethiopia and Rwanda as notable success stories. Instead, most studies have found that democratic governments perform better when it comes to providing public services or economic growth.

Against this backdrop, the conflict in Ethiopia has the potential to fundamentally change the way that people think about development aid in Africa. On its own, Rwanda’s small and aid-dependent economy cannot sustain the narrative that authoritarian regimes perform better on development—and if it does not, there is no justification at all for supporting repressive regimes.

This does not necessarily mean cutting all funding for authoritarian governments. After all, without international support for key democratic institutions and civil society groups, these regimes are likely to remain authoritarian for longer. But it does mean reducing budget support in favor of targeted initiatives designed to strengthen democracy and recognizing the centrality of political inclusion to sustainable economic growth. It also means diverting funding from authoritarian states that show no progress on protecting civil liberties and political rights to countries that are improving in these areas. Doing so would both build on and reward democratization.

These changes to funding models are important, but to be fully effective, they need to be embedded in a more fundamental change in thinking about development in Africa. That means moving away from the myth of the benevolent dictator and toward the reality that democratic governance delivers more sustainable improvements in the lives of citizens.

Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, UK, and the author of Authoritarian Africa: Repression, resistance and the power of ideas (OUP 2019).

This piece was first published by Carnegie Europe as part of a new initiative called the European Democracy Hub. Click here for the original.

The European Democracy Hub is a joint initiative of Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy that brings together practitioners and academics to provide policy-relevant analysis on external EU democracy support and democracy trends within Europe. It aims to act as a focal point for work on democracy, drawing on research to generate ideas for democracy support and democratic renewal.

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