The refugee who took on the British government, or why ‘aid’ doesn’t work in an international system of oppression and inequality

“For British politicians, foreign aid to Africa has become a cherished emblem of our idealism and generosity.” But this is a powerful story we’ve been told.

The following article details yet another tale of foreign ‘aid’ and corrupt governance (on all sides) doing irreversible damage to the lives and livelihoods of the supposedly intended recipients.

I’d strongly recommend you reading the full article, but it’s a long read, so I’ve pulled out a few of the paragraphs I found most interesting and poignant.

“Ethiopia is in a race to develop. In a similar fashion to Rwanda, the authoritarian government, lacking a democratic mandate, has staked its claims to legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, and it is in a terrible hurry. During the past decade, Ethiopia has pursued a Chinese-style rush to develop its economy: locking up dissenters, crushing the opposition with a succession of 99% electoral victories, and building massive road, rail, agribusiness and hydropower schemes without pausing to conduct the necessary social and environmental impact assessments.

Nonetheless, despite still knocking along the bottom of every poverty index, Ethiopia has earned a reputation as a development success story, and donors, including the UK, are very keen to help, praising Ethiopia’s apparent strong progress towards the UN’s millennium development goals: increasing primary school enrolment and improving statistics on access to healthcare, water and so on. But donors are steadfastly silent on human rights abuses. Ethiopia receives more aid than any other African country – close to $3bn per year, or about half the national government budget. For the donors, Ethiopia is a priority, a linchpin of their development efforts, research and policy; especially so for the UK, where rising aid budgets have propelled Ethiopia into second place, behind Pakistan, as the recipient of the most British aid.”

“In Gambella, the government’s plans for delivering these things took the form of villagisation. The inhabitants of Opik’s village, though, were mistrustful of the government’s intentions. There had been no dialogue, no consultation. If the government had done little for them before, why would they suddenly start caring now? They suspected a plot to steal their land. They had heard of investors coming to test soil in certain areas.

Their suspicions were well founded. In Opik’s district, the allocation of land for agribusiness was well under way. Information was patchy, but a study by the Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, estimated that in Gambella, at that time, the government had leased or marketed 42% of the region to investors. Speaking to investors in India, government officials referred to the land on offer as “unused,” “under-utilised” or “completely uninhabited”.”

“The Anuak had to wait 10 months for a clue. In October 2012, after questions were asked in the British parliament, the findings of the DfiD visits were quietlydeposited in the House of Commons library. They described massive flaws in the villagisation programme, inadequate services and insufficient food, possibly requiring an emergency response.

The first report, which has since disappeared from the parliament website, noted that more than half of respondents had said they did not want to move. The report warned of a “potential humanitarian crisis” due to the people’s “limited livelihood options”. It also warned of “reputational risks” to donors’ aid programmes. This, then, was the heart of the matter.”

“For first Tony Blair and now David Cameron, the essentialising of Africa has been a useful political arena for the exercise of idealism untainted by politics. It was a deft move, following the Iraq war, to establish the Blair Commission for Africaand the Make Poverty History campaign. For Cameron, ring-fencing aid spending “was a key part of the compassionate Conservative makeover,” a senior former No 10 adviser told me.”

“A former chief economist of DfID, who did not want to be named, told me, “If you’re asking, ‘Am I prepared to tolerate a certain level of human rights abuses in exchange for progress on development?’, the answer is yes.” The question, then, is who decides what constitutes a “tolerable” level of repression in the absence of a democratic system?”

“A former head of DfID Ethiopia said to me, in relation to the relocation of the Omo peoples, “but if they’re being relocated anyway, aren’t we making their lives better?” She could not see that there was a problem with underwriting the transaction. It is almost impossible for those who make a living dispensing aid to imagine how easily it can become a tool of repression. She evinced a kind of helplessness, whereas a report by the Oakland Institute into alleged cover-ups of human rights abuses noted that DfID and USAid are, “wilful accomplices and supporters of a development strategy that will have irreversible devastating impacts on the environment and natural resources and will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.””

“Of all the academic economists working on Ethiopia, I could not find one who was willing to speak on the record for this article. Much of the professional field of development studies is dependent on DfID research grants, with many academics serving on multimillion-pound study teams.

“If you challenge the consensus and make headlines, it is going to make your life harder,” said one economist at a London university, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Career progression is not just about where you publish, it is also about the amount of money you can raise and, in that regard, DfID is the biggest donor by miles,” he said. The two main centres of development studies research in the UK, the Overseas Development Institute in London and theInstitute of Development Studies at Sussex University, have depended heavily on DfID contracts over many years: “If that dependence is not a kind of institutional capture, then I am not sure what is,” said Warwick’s Prof David Anderson, a rare critic.”

Thoughts and feelings welcomed as always…


Channel 4’s ‘The Tribe’ – empowering insight or damaging representation? Does it matter?

It’s finally happened: Channel 4 has exhausted every possible angle for fly in the wall documentaries in the UK. Following the success of Big Brother with mounted cameras in night buses, fried chicken shops, pubs, hotels, family homes, schools, used car dealerships, maternity wards and nightclub toilets; the broadcaster has travelled abroad to film, in minute detail, the daily lives of a ‘tribe’ in Ethiopia

According to Channel 4 ‘The Tribe’ follows the day-to-day life of the Ayke Muko family, part of the “20,000-strong Hamar tribe living in the Omo region of Southern Ethiopia”:

“Cameras placed in and around the family’s huts capture the intricacies of their relationships, their social bonds and attitudes towards parenting and the community. It also charts how they are embracing the encroachment of the modern world while holding onto their traditional way of life.

“Filmed for the most part with small unobtrusive cameras, the series presents an intimate and uniquely authentic portrayal of tribal family life. The series follows them as they fall in love, fall out and come together as a family and through it all we discover there may be more that unites than divides our two worlds.”

When I first saw the advertisement, my instant reaction was one of horror. The title in itself ‘The Tribe’ was enough to set alarm bells ringing, smacking of Bruce Parry’s trampling through groups of remote people for the BBC in the early 2000s. My concerns were many. I questioned the intention of the documentary – what did it hope to achieve? Who did it serve? What messages did it intend to convey?

Having experienced Channel Four ‘documentaries’ I knew how much they sensationalise and dramatise supposedly natural and realistic scenes for the viewing pleasure of the audience, frequently stripping subjects of dignity and authenticity. I felt concerned that selective editing would make a spectacle of Ethiopian family life, disrespecting and patronising cultures and traditions and reinforcing and perpetuating engrained stereotypes in the UK long attributed to African countries.

There were moments where my thoughts flitted towards hope. I read that Paddy Wivell, series producer and director for Renegade Pictures, said: “This is a new way of doing TV anthropology … What excited the consultant anthropologist we worked with was that we were using a different tool – you don’t have a camera operator or a presenter. You can film it in a purer way. I sometimes feel too much television is presented through western, celebrity eyes … Let people speak for themselves.”

Perhaps this documentary would be different, perhaps it would present an honest, respectful and empowering window into Ethiopian life. Maybe it would open up direct channels of communication and influence with UK viewers, challenging perceptions and amplifying the voices of Ethiopians who have long been associated by British media and dominant culture with being little more than victims of famine and poverty. Perhaps it might demonstrate the similarities we all share as humans, with similar hopes and dreams and feelings.

Finally, I came to rest on the wise words spoken by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature and published on my blog just last month. She said:

“You know I’ve actually found that the older I get, the less interested I am in how the West sees Africa, and the more interested I am in how Africa sees itself. […] I do think that the West matters. I do think that engagement matters. But increasingly I’m not as interested as I used to be in this idea that somehow the western gaze should be that biding, interesting subject of the people on the continent of Africa. And also what it means then is we start to cut to those really ugly, dangerous colonial ties…”

I remembered that this is what matters. Yes, there is a role for us in the UK to amplify African voices and stories. Yes we should continue to challenge the stereotypes, narratives and representations of the African continent and people in Western culture that are patronising, racist and silencing. But this should not be about making Ethiopia, or Africa or Africans palatable to the West. It should not be about trying to prove Ethiopian ‘competence’, ‘development’ or ‘civilisation’ in the Western image. It should not even be about demonstrating that ‘we’re all the same.’ What matters is how Ethiopia, and Africa as a continent sees itself.

Africa and the ‘developing world’ doesn’t need Western approval or documentaries. And actually, it doesn’t need aid, or ‘saving’, or ‘civilising’, or ‘enabling’. What is needed is a speedy withdrawal of Western self-interested intervention in foreign affairs. What is needed is a level playing field. No looting of countries for billions of pounds of resources; no underrepresentation and marginalisation in international institutions; no unfair structural adjustment policies; no unequal trade agreements; no crippling debt repayments, and, eventually no aid and no Oxfams. The West needs to right the wrongs it has done to those it has built on the backs of, and then back the hell off, leaving countries to operate and grow and change in whatever way they see fit, existing in the world with mutual respect and asking for support and cooperation as and when they decide.

I’ll wait to see what ‘The Tribe’ brings. The best outcome for the programme is that develops empathy in viewers, bringing more Brits on board with the idea that all humans are of equal value and deserve equal opportunity and autonomy. The worst outcome is that it presents a disingenuous, disempowering, sensationalised portrayal of Ethiopian family life. Either way, how much does it matter?

You can watch the trailer for ‘The Tribe’ here.