Britain has threatened to withhold aid from Uganda if it fails to guarantee gay rights, after continued stories of abuse of gay people and attempts in parliament to criminalise gay rights campaigners. The issue of homosexuality was also raised in explanation of the breakdown in the UK’s fraught aid relationship with Malawi. In both cases broader concerns about the authoritarian direction of the government were simmering below the surface.
Other countries, such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, are also the subject of increasing criticism in human rights and governance issues. A growing number of journalists and experts insist that the gains made in terms of health and education in these two countries should not mask the deterioration in human rights. The government of Rwanda has even been accused of sending cronies to intimidate and even kill opponents based in the UK.
The use of aid to pressure recipient governments to respect human rights appears to be on the increase. Whereas once donors sent aid to the most despotic of regimes to secure strategic national interests, now they appear to want to use their aid power to stand up for the rights of citizens in other countries. For example, in its latest development strategy – An Agenda for Change – the EU recognises the “enhanced importance of human rights, democracy and good governance trends in determining the mix of instruments and aid modalities at country level”.
While this approach is sometimes described as conditionality, that is probably an unhelpful term to use – it is not very much like the conditionalities of the past. Setting specific policy changes as triggers for aid releases, especially controversial economic policies like privatisation, is very different from insisting on a general adherence to internationally agreed human rights.
So should donors shut off money to countries whose governments repeatedly abuse human rights?
The answer, in short, is that they should not act unilaterally. Donors and others whose decisions have significant consequences need to be multilateralist about this, rather than seeking to present themselves as unerringly principled. Why? There are two reasons.
First, donors should not set themselves up as moral arbiters – it won’t wash. While they may rail against some regimes, others escape their ire – when it’s convenient. We liked Pinochet and Saddam in the 1980s, and Mobutu in the 1990s, and Gaddafi in the last decade, and then when it didn’t suit us, we turned against them. The west has a long and continuing history of working closely with some very abusive regimes.
Not only that, donors themselves engage in egregious human rights abuses, such as in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. The UK and the US invaded Iraq, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, in direct contradiction of the wishes of the world, expressed in the UN and elsewhere.
All in all, the patronising tone sometimes adopted by western governments when discussing human rights is inappropriate. Nowhere more so than in Africa. The countries that pretty much invented racism are now preaching to its victims about human rights.
Second, the consequences of a decision to shut off aid can be severe. Assuming for a moment that aid is doing what it is meant to in Malawi, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia (this is a heroic assumption), then shutting it off may have tragic consequences.
Without downplaying the seriousness of the kind of abuses suffered by gay rights activists, or the danger faced by the political opposition in many countries, these do have to be weighed in the balance with the positive outcomes of a continued aid relationship, in the same way as they are when trade relationships are continued with despotic regimes. Engagement is sometimes better than isolation – it is a legitimate decision to remain engaged and seek to influence change.
That doesn’t mean donors should not seek to influence events for the better, using the tools they have available. While pulling out may appear safer in terms of risk management, staying involved may be the best way to make a change for the better.
So what should donors do when they think human rights are being seriously violated?
They should work within the international system, via due process. In the EU’s trade agreements there is a human rights clause which, if triggered, can lead to trade preferences being cancelled. It came into force when concerns emerged over the Sri Lankan tactics to end the conflict with the Tamil Tigers. What is significant about it is that there are clear procedures and norms to follow, and that there are a number of countries involved, rather than a simple bilateral relationship, in which diplomatic difficulties such as the one between Malawi and the UK assume a stature beyond their actual importance.
In the case of aid, the obvious arbiter is the UN. Other donors should be involved, as should other countries from the recipient’s region. The key is to treat poor countries with the same respect accorded to countries that are more strategically important, and to take moral grandstanding and petulant bilateral spats out of the equation.
Decisions as important as these should be made by a competent and independent body, which follows internationally agreed procedures – and all donors should stick to them. While this route can be frustrating and time-consuming, it will ultimately be more effective.
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