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June 13, 2012

When foreign aid, investment props up unpopular regimes

Ethiopian blogger Keffyalew Gebremedhin makes some important points about the possible pitfalls of the various efforts of foreign parties to participate in the transformation of agriculture in countries like his. He writes generally favorably about these initiatives by private investors and 'development partner' (aid), but warns that these programs' chances of success are imperiled from the start when they are instituted in countries where there  is tension between the government and significant sections of the population.

Gebremedhin tackles the recently announced plan by the G8 group of nations to target increased agricultural production in a number of African countries through supporting various private sector efforts. He points out that the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition fist in very well with the pet project of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the 'African-led' Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA.) Ethiopia is going to be one of the testing grounds for the new G8 plan announced in May by U.S.president Barack Obama.

The Ethiopian government of prime minister Meles Zenawi is considered to be an African government in good standing in Western capitals, but is the object of much more, passionately mixed feelings amongst the country's citizens   

According to Gebremedhin, there is ''huge distrust of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s regime'' by Ethiopians. Two other major concerns are ''worries about the dangers of foreign companies serving their own interests at the expense of Ethiopia’s. There is also the fear of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), crops in general and if it results in possible loss of native crops, their consequences to human health and the environment in

He continues, ''fears have been also been repeatedly expressed if Meles Zenawi succeeds in enlisting Bill Gates, as a famous person, to provide his tyrannical regime with international approval and support.''

Of course, one person's 'tyrannical regime' may be another person's dynamic reformer. The latter seems to be the view preferred by G8, if the presence of Zenawi at the May meeting was any indication. And if Gate's foundation has any problems with the current Ethiopian government, that certainly hasn't stopped its experiments in that country. So the fear expressed by Gebremedhin that powerful foreigners are giving support and succor to a ruler he and other Ethiopians may consider a ruthless despot is almost a moot point. 

Obama, G8, Gates & Co. have no problems with Zenawi, even if many Ethiopians do. As Gebremedhin writes in answer to his own earlier expressed worry, ''In his 8 May update, Bill Gates has responded to that extolling praises on Meles Zenawi, without addressing his human rights records.''

If the international agricultural interventions in Ethiopia are generally successful, the government will inevitably benefit politically. But if they fail, the various investors will also inevitably be tarred with the brush of association with a highly controversial government. 

Mentioned several times in the article is the perceived lack of information and transparency on the government's part to the citizens. If this feeling is widespread amongst Ethiopians, it is an issue of practical concern for all involved, including foreign investors, because of the particularly emotive rise evoked by the impression that their country is being hocked out to foreigners while they helplessly look on. The recent spate of fatal armed attacks on a Saudi rice farm is an early warning sign of the depth of local unhappiness about this.

Would more information prevent such feeling? Perhaps, but not if it revealed that foreign investors (and local politicians?) really were getting a much better deal than from the new deals than the country is doing.

Gebremedhin writes, ''The problem is not about what the foreign companies could and could not do. It is about the government failing to inform the public what is underway. The problem with this is that rightly or wrongly all companies may end up being associated with the regime, as its promoters and bank rollers it and its Machiavellian approaches, especially the end justifies the means the prime minister employs. In a country where the excesses of government have reached astounding levels, such reaction is inevitable and may impede the companies’ activities.''

Complicating the issue is that into the information vacuum have stepped in foreign NGOs and non-profits. These have tended to paint the wave of land/farming investment deals in Ethiopia in negative, sometimes even calamitous terms. In the absence of clear information from their own government, it is hardly surprising that a sense builds up amongst many Ethiopians that both the foreign investors and their own government have only contempt for their concerns. One result is that the various agricultural schemes are greeted by automatic cynicism and resentment, rather than on any merits they may have. 

His blog post is somewhat rambling, but Gebremedhin brings up important points that should occupy both the Ethiopian government, foreign investors and 'development partners' but probably don't, with consequences that will only become clear in the coming years.    

Given the wealth of information that there now is particularly about how not to engage in 'development,' it is astonishing how people who really should know better keep on sabotaging by poor implementation what might otherwise be very good plans. How a plan is perceived can be as important to its success as how well it is conceived or funded.  


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