Authoritarian Aid: A reply to Prof. Cheeseman

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In The Conflict in Ethiopia Calls into Question Authoritarian Aid, Professor Nic Cheeseman makes a case for recalibration of international aid models based on the perceived failure of the model in Ethiopia, its star success story. While making important points that should be of great interest to policymakers in Western capitals, Prof. Cheeseman’s analysis of the current Ethiopian conflict and its implication for the wider international aid model has significant shortcomings that this article has strived to highlight.

First, Prof. Cheeseman argues that the ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia between the regional Tigrayan government and the Federal government is proof that authoritarian governments cannot be relied upon to “maintain the political stability needed to safeguard developmental gains”. In this article, I argue that rather than being an indictment of the so-called “authoritarian aid model”, the current conflict in Ethiopia is an indictment of ethno-federalism. Secondly, Prof. Cheeseman makes a broader argument that aid that directly promotes democratic governance leads to more sustainable development than authoritarian aid. While there are strong arguments in favor of such view, this article holds that the choice is not binary. Both democracy and development aid, regardless of whether the recipient is democratic or authoritarian, have the potential of creating stable, prosperous, and democratic societies in the long run.

The Ethiopian Conflict: An Indictment of Authoritarianism or Ethno-federalism?

In November 2020, the long-running conflict between Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and the leaders of the northern Tigray region erupted into direct confrontation between the forces of the regional government and those of the federal government. Even though PM Ahmed has already declared victory following the capture of the region’s capital, the conflict has created a major humanitarian disaster that has significantly dented the image of the Nobel Prize-winning PM.

Various lessons have been drawn from this conflict. To Prof. Cheeseman, the conflict is proof that authoritarian governments cannot maintain long-term political stability that is needed to safeguard donor-supported development gains. The implication of Prof. Cheeseman’s argument is that the Tigray-Ethiopia conflict could have been avoided had Ethiopia been more democratic. This assertion cannot go unchallenged. Prof. Cheeseman’s argument would hold water if there was evidence that conflicts, such as the Ethiopia-Tigray one, are unique to authoritarian states. This is not the case. The most recent conflict that resembles the Ethiopian one is the Catalan crisis of 2017-2018 in Spain. Since the 1970s, Spain has been a vibrant parliamentary democracy. Even with its strong democratic institutions, the country was not able to avert the 2017-2018 conflict between the Spanish government and regional government of Catalonia over the latter’s quest to hold an independence referendum.

The fact that the Spanish crisis occurred in the absence of authoritarianism means that we have to look elsewhere for the causes of the current Ethiopian crisis. Instead of authoritarianism, a stronger case would be made that the current conflict is due to the country’s ethno-federalism, a structure of government that it shares with Spain. In ethno-federalism, federal units are defined and segregated by ethnicity. The goal of the system is to reduce inter-group conflicts and marginalization of some groups by granting local self-government to each group and guaranteeing representation at the center. When the former Ethiopian PM, Meles Zenawi, introduced ethno-federalism in 1990s, the goal was to prevent the continuation of domination by the Amhara and the re-occurrence of inter-ethnic conflicts that have long characterized relations between different ethnic groups in the country.

Like it failed in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, Ethiopia’s ethno-federalism was bound to fail. There are two main reasons why ethno-federalism often fails wherever it is applied. First, it hardens ethnic identity consciousness. People begin to identify more with their ethnicity rather than the state. Secondly, it gives different ethnic groups political, economic, and military strength that they can use to directly challenge the central government when they are aggrieved. This explains why separatism and irredentism are common in ethno-federal states.

The Ethiopian example is not different from previous ethno-federal states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The 1995 constitution gave the nine ethno-federal units broad autonomy in executive, judiciary, and legislature. The units even have a right to secede and some of them maintain standing armies. Leading a people with strong ethnic consciousness and possessing the military means to challenge the central government, it is no wonder that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the party ruling the northern Tigray region, chose to have a direct confrontation with Abiy’s central government.

Thus, on the question of what contributed more to the current Ethiopian conflict, there is a stronger case for ethno-federalism rather than authoritarianism. Judging from the Spanish Crisis of 2017-2018, there is no guarantee that Ethiopia would have avoided the current conflict had its government been more democratic and less authoritarian. A more convincing argument would be that the current conflict would have been avoided had Ethiopia not been an ethno-federal state.

Aid to Authoritarian States: Should it be Stopped?

Having analyzed the current Ethiopian conflict, Prof. Cheeseman makes a broad conclusion about the usefulness of aid to authoritarian governments. Prof. Cheeseman argues that sacrificing democracy at the altar of development is counterproductive because such an approach leads to countries that have neither development, presumably because of political instability that makes it hard to safeguard development gains, nor democracy. This is an erroneous view. But before I explain why it is erroneous, a little distinguishing of the two main types of financial assistance to developing countries will help.

Financial assistance can either be development or democratic aid. The aim of development aid is to promote social welfare, economic growth, and reduce poverty. Financial assistance that is used to build roads, hospitals, and schools is an example of development aid. Democracy aid, on the other hand, is used to support institutions and actors involved in efforts aimed at promoting greater political liberalization. Such aid includes financial support to civil society groups, electoral bodies, and institutions that promote greater government accountability, such as anti-corruption bodies, and media entities.

Prof. Cheeseman seems to suggest that only democracy aid promotes the development of democratic societies. This is not the case. Development aid also has the potential of promoting democracy. The difference between democracy and development aid with regards to promotion of democracy is only an issue of time, not effectiveness. Democracy aid takes a relatively short-term view of democratization. For instance, aid to an electoral commission may help it to conduct free and fair elections only in a given electoral cycle.

Development aid takes the view that democratization is a long-term process. To build stable and prosperous democratic societies, it is important to create a large middle class. This causal link between middle class and democracy, first proposed by Aristotle, has been proven right over and over again. It is no accident that development predates democracy in almost all wealthy countries. The rise of Western countries to economic prominence in the world began more than 600 years ago, long before any Western country became fully democratic. The same can be said of recent success stories, such as Japan and other East Asian countries like South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. So, China’s achievement of economic development without democracy is the norm rather than exception. In much of the world’s history, countries first develop before they become democratic.

Thus, when governments, regardless of whether they are authoritarian or not, promote economic growth, build roads, and increase access to education and healthcare services, they build a large middle class which forms the structural foundation upon which democratic political processes operate. Based on this reality, it might even be argued that in the long-term, development aid helps to create more stable and prosperous democratic societies than democratic aid. Therefore, contrary to Prof. Cheeseman’s assertion, authoritarian aid does not sacrifice democracy at the altar of development; it promotes the health of both democracy and development.

Another important distinction that needs to be made between development and democracy aid is their attitude towards the government. Democracy aid often sees government as a hindrance to its efforts. That explains why many governments in Africa and in other parts of the world, such as Hungary and Poland in Europe, and Philippines in Asia, have frosty relations with donors who fund civil society groups and other institutions and individuals that seek to promote democracy. For development aid, partnership with the government is absolutely essential for its success. Development aid can only achieve its objectives if the donors partner with governments that are effective and are also committed to developing their countries. To this end, the divide between effective and ineffective governments has not been authoritarianism and democracy. Some democracies such as Botswana have been effective in using development aid and their own local resources just as well as authoritarian governments, such as Rwanda and Ethiopia. Some democracies such as Kenya and Nigeria have been as ineffective in their use of development aid money just as authoritarian regimes like that of Yoweri Museveni. Thus, for development aid to have the desired impact, its distribution should remain non-ideological. Governments that use donor money well, whether democratic or not, should be given more money because in the long run, their actions lead to the development of stable democratic societies.

Lastly, even though my distinction between development and democracy aid seems to suggest that development aid only focuses on the long-term growth of democracy through creation of a big middle class, there is enough evidence to show that even in the short term, development aid can be used to moderate actions of governments in a more effective way than democracy aid. In many sub-Saharan African countries, development aid constitutes around 90% of all foreign aid received by the country. This aid is either for general budget support or for project-specific aid. The fact that development aid is far more than democracy aid and that it directly supports government activities means that it gives donors far more leverage over governments than democracy aid, which typically supports non-governmental organizations. 

Through threats of withdrawal, conditionalities, and coercion, donors can ensure that the governments that they support, even when they are authoritarian, do not go overboard in their human rights abuses or corruption. A perfect example has been highlighted by Prof. Cheeseman himself who notes in his article that EU suspended nearly $110 million in budgetary aid to Ethiopia over its handling of the Tigray conflict. Through such restraining actions, development aid can be used to ensure that authoritarian regimes do not act on their worst impulses. Another example is the reintroduction of multiparty politics in Kenya in the early 1990s. Kenya’s then president, Daniel Moi, agreed to have Kenya become a multiparty state again just a week after the World Bank announced suspension of aid to the country for six months unless the government met various conditions, key among them being introduction of pluralism and fighting graft.


The Ethiopia-Tigray conflict is an unfortunate event that has resulted in unnecessary deaths, injuries, and a preventable humanitarian catastrophe. To prevent re-occurrences of such events, it is important that we draw correct lessons from them. As this article has pointed out, the correct lesson is not the dangers of authoritarianism and aid that helps to prop up authoritarian regimes, but ethno-federalism. Linking development aid with conflict risks denying African countries valuable financial support which, when well-used, has the potential of accelerating not just economic growth but also transition to robust democracies.

Solomon Baraka Sudi is a freelance writer and can be contacted here.

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