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Peace tomorrow, repression today?

September 29, 2011

A post by Madeleine Bunting on the Guardian’s PovertyMatters blog today explores the political fragility of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with reference to a recent Human Rights Watch briefing. Bunting is right to draw attention to the risks linked to the coming elections in the DRC, and she shows very clearly how difficult it will be to build peace there until many of those who currently benefit most from and control the political economy are either removed from power, or can themselves see more peaceful ways to maintain their positions of power.

Bunting then moves on to discuss the difficult fact that two of the states most supported by the British government in East Africa, while making good progress in terms of health, education and livelihood outcomes, are also highly repressive: she refers to Rwanda and Ethiopia.

If the UK along with other donors is bankrolling and providing technical support to the regimes in Kigali and Addis Ababa, then it follows that the UK can claim some of the credit for their good development outcomes: better health, more educated children, higher household incomes, and so on. But if so, surely it also follows that it has to shoulder some of the responsibility for the harm which they do: for their human rights abuses.

It’s also logical that the UK and other donors to such regimes must be both aware of and – to some degree – accept the nature of governance there. A governance based largely on patronage and the one-party state. Surely in some respects this means that the UK taxpayer bears some share of responsibility for any resulting harm in Rwanda or Ethiopia?

To some, this is a clear case of bad donorship: they see it as out-and-out wrong for UK taxpayers to support regimes which are clearly undemocratic, and which also reputedly practise torture and in which opposition activists have died or disappeared in murky circumstances.

But as I have explored in other blog posts on this site, things are not so cut and dried. The difficulty for British aid officials and politicians is that we simply do not know the way Ethiopia and Rwanda – much less the DRC – will evolve over the coming years. We can, yes, look back at the UK’s own history, and try to figure out how it traversed that difficult terrain between feudalism and the democratic and accountable governance enjoyed by British people today, under which human rights are largely respected and the ruling regime operates within the rule of law. There are indeed many lessons there, and a fuller exploration can best be found in the wonderful book Violence and Social Orders by North, Wallis and Weingast. But that story shows us that human progress made under repressive regimes is an important step towards the kind of peaceful and prosperous future which we might wish for Rwandans and Ethiopians. So how do we know if Ethiopia and Rwanda are on “the right” path towards peace and prosperity, under their own repressive regimes, or if we are simply supporting and reinforcing an unacceptable status quo in which repression and patronage will continue to trump human rights and good governance?

While we cannot predict the future path these countries will take, that doesn’t mean we should pull the plug on our support; but nor does it mean we should simply close our eyes to the problem. Surely we need to have a more open discussion about these difficult aspects of  providing aid to countries which we hope – but cannot guarantee – are moving in a democratic direction.

Bunting has done us a service with her statement that it is “worrying … how aid has been used extensively in both Ethiopia and Rwanda to develop repressive states”, because she raises this as a concern full of nuance, without a clear and easy resolution, and thus deserving of continued and broad debate in the institutions of the donor nations, in this case the UK: parliament, the media and civil society. It’s complicated, so we need to explore it in discussion and debate.

Those of us who support overseas aid are still by and large too scared to have this debate out in the open, for fear that the Daily Mail will seize on our nuanced questions and turn them into a crude but clear argument to “stop supporting African dictators”. But if activitists in places like Ethiopia and Rwanda are courageous enough to stand up against repressive regimes, surely we can find the courage and the wit to stand up to the Daily Mail?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011 6:40 pm

    As someone who works in development too, I struggle to find a single example of a state that, in the last 50years has developed from devastation without huge foreign investment such as the Marshall Plans, small populations and an abundance of resources. They dont exist and yet Asia has developed with benevolent dictators under Cold Ear conditions and South America is only just coming good and again without development.

    I think we have to accept that putting our human right agenda first is a political ploy in many ways and not helpful. We have to accept some forms of authoritarianism. Asia shows us as countries get wealthier, they move towards democracy as the middle class demands more of a say. We need to develop middle classes rather than kleptocracies and focus on developing civil societies of truly empowered (social and economic capital) rather than aid agencies band-aiding Africa while the elites in Africa and the West continue to rip off the place.

  2. September 29, 2011 6:42 pm

    You might be able to tell I come from a critical theory background!

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