London — A UK High Court ruling allowing judicial review of the UK aid agency's compliance with its own human rights policies in Ethiopia is an important step toward greater accountability in development assistance.
In its decision of July 14, 2014, the High Court ruled that allegations that the UK Department for International Development (DFID) did not adequately assess evidence of human rights violations in Ethiopia deserve a full judicial review.
"The UK high court ruling is just a first step, but it should be a wake-up call for the government and other donors that they need rigorous monitoring to make sure their development programs are upholding their commitments to human rights," said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director. "UK development aid to Ethiopia can help reduce poverty, but serious rights abuses should never be ignored."
The case involves Mr. O (not his real name), a farmer from Gambella in western Ethiopia, who alleges that DFID violated its own human rights policy by failing to properly investigate and respond to human rights violations linked to an Ethiopian government resettlement program known as "villagization." Mr. O is now a refugee in a neighboring country.
Human Rights Watch has documented serious human rights violations in connection with the first year of the villagization program in Gambella in 2011 and in other regions of Ethiopia in recent years.
A January 2012 Human Rights Watch report based on more than 100 interviews with Gambella residents, including site visits to 16 villages, concluded that villagization had been marked by forced displacement, arbitrary detentions, mistreatment, and inadequate consultation, and that villagers had not been compensated for their losses in the relocation process.
People resettled in new villages often found the land infertile and frequently had to clear the land and build their own huts under military supervision. Services they had been promised, such as schools, clinics, and water pumps, were not in place when they arrived. In many cases villagers had to abandon their crops, and pledges of food aid in the new villages never materialized.
The UK, along with the World Bank and other donors, fund a nationwide development program in Ethiopia called the Promotion of Basic Services program (PBS). The program started after the UK and other donors cut direct budget support to Ethiopia after the country's controversial 2005 elections.
The PBS program is intended to improve access to education, health care, and other services by providing block grants to regional governments. Donors do not directly fund the villagization program, but through PBS, donors pay a portion of the salaries of government officials who are carrying out the villagization policy.
The UK development agency's monitoring systems and its response to these serious allegations of abuse have been inadequate and complacent, Human Rights Watch said.
While the agency and other donors to the Promotion of Basic Services program have visited Gambella and conducted assessments, villagers told Human Rights Watch that government officials sometimes visited communities in Gambella in advance of donor visits to warn them not to voice complaints over villagization, or threatened them after the visits. The result has been that local people were reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisals.
The UK development agency has apparently made little or no effort to interview villagers from Gambella who have fled the abuses and are now refugees in neighboring countries, where they can speak about their experiences in a more secure environment.
The Ethiopian government's increasing repression of independent media and human rights reporting, and denials of any serious human rights violations, have had a profoundly chilling effect on freedom of speech among rural villagers.
"The UK is providing more than £300 million a year in aid to Ethiopia while the country's human rights record is steadily deteriorating," Lefkow said. "If DFID is serious about supporting rights-respecting development, it needs to overhaul its monitoring processes and use its influence and the UK's to press for an end to serious rights abuses in the villagization program - and elsewhere."