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Wax and Gold: Meles Zenawi’s Double Dealings with Aid Donors

Helen Epstein, author of The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing The Fight Against AIDS in Africa, has a stunning piece on aid to Ethiopia published in this month’s New York Review of Books.

Epstein argues that the main cause of fertile southern Ethiopia’s chronic food shortages—the so-called “green famine” —is Ethiopia’s toxic and repressive political system, presided over since 1991 by Meles Zenawi. While Meles placates donors and Western governments with speeches about fighting poverty and terrorism, he has committed gross human rights violations at home, rigged elections, killed political opponents, and imprisoned journalists and human rights activists. Epstein on Meles’ doublespeak:

There is a type of Ethiopian poetry known as “Wax and Gold” because it has two meanings: a superficial “wax” meaning, and a hidden “golden” one. During the 1960s, the anthropologist Donald Levine described how the popularity of “Wax and Gold” poetry provided insights into some of the northern Ethiopian societies from which Prime Minister Meles would later emerge…. “Wax and Gold”–style communication might give Ethiopians like Meles an advantage in dealing with Westerners, especially when the Westerners were aid officials offering vast sums of money to follow a course of development based on liberal democracy and human rights, with which they disagree.

Several Western donors responded to Meles’ more blatant repression by channeling aid directly to local authorities, cutting out the central government. We have argued before that this strategy doesn’t work when there is evidence—which Epstein provides more of—that local government officials are instrumental in election-fixing and using aid to award political supporters and punish dissidents. Now, donors can no longer even support Ethiopian civil society to oppose these human rights violations, since Meles’ government recently passed a law that makes it illegal for civil society organizations to accept foreign funds.

Epstein concludes powerfully:

In 2007, Meles called for an “Ethiopian renaissance” to bring the country out of medieval poverty, but the Renaissance he’s thinking of seems very different from ours. The Western Renaissance was partly fostered by the openness to new ideas created by improved transport and trade networks, mail services, printing technology, and communications—precisely those things Meles is attempting to restrict and control.

The Western Renaissance helped to democratize “the word” so that all of us could speak of our own individual struggles, and this added new meaning and urgency to the alleviation of the suffering of others. The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the “backward masses,” rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.

Read the article in full here.

This entry was posted in Aid policies and approaches, Democracy and freedom, Human rights, Language and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Mezgebu wrote:

    We Ethiopians know Meles only interest is staying in power. He will use aid money sweet speeches, empty promises and so on, to accomplish his goal. So far he has succeeded. 20 years in power and he is trying hard to make it to 25 years. He is one of the longest running head of state in Africa. We Ethiopians believe that the only way we reduce poverty is by having a leader who is accountable to the people.

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 1:54 am | Permalink
  2. avam wrote:

    Apologies for posting this here….didn’t have time to find original post on this…

    but (fyi), for those who haven’t seen it, this was in the NYTimes today – “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint”

    Seems that the absurdity of that particular powerpoint (if not most powerpoints), was not lost on those having to use it……

    “PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

    “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink
  3. William Easterly wrote:

    Avam, great minds think alike! I wrote a post on this the moment I saw the NYT, but didn’t read your comment until now. Best, Bill

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  4. Ted wrote:

    I think we should always be deeply skeptical of giving foreign aid to governments that abuse human rights. This almost inevitably comes with deep corruption which will severely undermine any aid effort we attempt. Plus, I think we need to think more broadly about how we think about people in worse conditions that us around the world. I think we need a broader view than just income-per-capita, it should be a more general “human welfare” view. For aid organizations to simply ignore a major aspect of human welfare, namely human rights, seems short-sighted. Also, while I know it’s difficult to establish a causal connection between civil liberties and growth statistically (Sala-i-Martin claims to have shown a robust correlation though in his “I just ran four million regressions”), but I do have to imagine increased liberty does in some way promote a healthier and more stable economic system. Although, increased civil liberties and increased economic prosperity probably tend to co-move together in practice.

    Also, and this is a somewhat related question for Bill Easterly, do you believe foreign aid should, or at least the scope of aid, be dependent on a respective nations economic policies? My view is that unless a government affords due respect for property rights; at least some reasonable attempt to establish decent enforcement of contracts (I’m not expecting necessarily a perfect system – but at least something); a reasonably amount of barriers to entry (I remember reading Djankov et al’s paper on regulation of entry and I was surprised how difficult it was to start businesses in some countries, and how much it can cost. With such strict barriers it’s not a surprise innovation / entrepreneurship is highly depressed). My view is that unless those three basic conditions are met that any foreign aid is likely to accomplish almost nothing in those countries. Food, water, malaria nets, and medicine might be one thing; but pouring money into a country to spur growth in an economy seems unlikely to happen if a government continues their destructive policies. It seems to me that the IMF sets such harsh conditions on whether a nation can get a loan from them – and yet aid organizations just dole out money without any conditions what so ever. Do you think aid organizations, particularly ones trying to spur economic development rather than just providing food, water or medicine, should seriously examine the economic institutions put in place in a country before handing out a generous check?

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  5. Sadder but Wiser wrote:

    Helen Epstein is an outstanding chronicler of international folly, and I look forward to reading her linked article. And I agree with Ted that a certain threshold of liberties ought to be expected before major aid comes in. But as usual, reality defies our most ardent attempts to simplify it. Many basics of human welfare can improve dramatically even with lousy economic management and minimal civil or economic freedoms. Look at Cuba. Its basic education and health achievements are second to none, and are not due mainly to material inputs (e.g. drugs) but rather to sophisticated institutional arrangements that countries with far more freedoms have failed to achieve. In Cuba’s case, aid had nothing to do with it, but its example shows that relationships between freedoms and development are not monotonic.

    Posted April 27, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  6. Aman wrote:

    Most of us Ethiopian do not have problem with people having their own opinion regarding political power in Ethiopia. The problem comes when these foreigners do it in a style resembling orchestrated campaign ahead of local elections to smear one side, and we have witnessed this happening in many African countries. I think this approach does not demonstrate sincerity in the part of these external commentators who preach democracy and human rights, by far outcomes of free (including from external interferences) and fair election. The best thing people like Helen Epstein could do for our country, is to staying away from our politics.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 9:20 am | Permalink
  7. THM wrote:

    I have, as a matter of general principle, no issues with what Helen Epestein wrote about Ethiopia. But, her opinion is based on her own experiences with Western Style governance, without qualifications about none-western socieites. China did not follow the historical experiences of Western Societies, be it polically or economic theory. They designed their own systems based on their unique problems and socieites, and have so far succeeded in transforming their society and no doubt will be the most powerful nation in the not too far future.

    The example about Ethiopia also reflects not deeper understanding of the country’s history, particularly immediately preceeding the ascent to power of the current ruling party. Communist dictatorship took power violently from the former King, and destroyed the society economically and psychologically. Those now in the opposition were the products of that communist regime, and want to repeat violent overthrow by sweet talking in the language of the Western World such as civil society, freedom of the press, etc but only as means to instigate insurgency and get support from the unsuspecting western writers. We Ethiopians know better than to be sucked in that scheme….

    Having stated the above, I am in general agreement about the need for gradual reform politically and economically, based on experiences from within. Top priority at this time should be economic development across all sectors, and the state should take the lead since the domestic private sector does not have breadth. Foreign private direct investment would help in fueling private sector-led growth, while government would concurrently reduce its inovolvement in supporting services such as building infrastructure. Ethiopia is rightly following the Chinese example, rather than the west whose progress was in any case partly founded by colonizing others.

    I personally would like the current ruling party of Ethiopia to stay the course for at least another ten years.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  8. Sam Gardner wrote:

    One of the core issues is WHO donors support. In principle they should support institutions and institution building. In practice, they support presidents or governments. A ” strong government” is something donors support in failed states (cfr Afghanistan, DRC). By moving aid to the top of the pyramid, and discussing directly with the government on broad strokes instead of with the administration on practical interventions, aid strengthens the current powers that be against the opposition. We see that most donor darlings have indeed the same party in power for years, and years and years. Budget aid and the like seems to be instrumental in consolidating power. From there the divident from stability in the first 15 years. Afterwards the cost of a lack of accountability mounts.

    Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Kelemu wrote:

    I am a bit surprised that Mr esterly writes liberally about ‘double diealings’ of me Zenawi. I would expect Mr Esterly to simply look back what Ethiopia was a mere 18 years ago and where it is now.
    I am not for ‘aid’ of the wetern kind. I am sure that Mr Easterly know his country does not even spare a dollar in terms of real aid – military build up and subsidizing the American farmer aside.

    I expect Mr Esterly to dwell on real academic work rather than ally with disgruntled political opponents of Mr Zenawi.

    Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks

  1. By after sudan, ethiopia « Opalo's weblog on April 27, 2010 at 11:52 am

    […] More on Mr. Zenawi’s rule here. […]

  2. By uberVU - social comments on April 27, 2010 at 12:32 pm

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by masstrovato: RT @bill_easterly: Fantastic NY Review of Books article on Ethiopia’s Meles’ famine-causing tyranny, double-talk with donors

  3. […] grab” and a form of neocolonialism. They suggest that the corrupt and oppressive regime of Meles Zenawi may be promising economic development, but in reality he and his cohorts are simply stealing the […]

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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