Photo: Dana Smillie/World Bank

Ethiopia has great success in its work to eradicate poverty. Yet, the human rights situation in the country makes cooperation a challenging task for the international community. Norway should support the country´s human rights work by strengthening Ethiopia's internal debates on human rights, says CMI-researchers. -The best way to do this is through institutional cooperation, and close collaboration with Ethiopian partners.

Ethiopia is a recurring theme in Norwegian aid politics, last brought to the fore by the Norwegian Conservative party during their electoral campaign. How to strengthen human rights in Ethiopia has turned out to be a real headache, partly because the debate on Ethiopia is extremely polarised, says Johan Helland, senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI). The debate is so confrontational that it is hard to have a constructive discussion concerning development and the human rights situation in the country.

-At the core of the debate is the question of which human rights we are discussing. Ethiopia has a long history of poverty, starvation and hunger. The Ethiopian government argues that the right to food  is one of the most fundamental human rights, and for the past few years they have lifted millions of people out of poverty. Hence, they have made enormous progress.  On the other hand, international human rights activists argue that as long as civil and political rights are not at the center of attention, the Ethiopian government is not making an effort. On the contrary, they find that the human rights situation in the country is deteriorating, says Helland.

The Ethiopian government's success in alleviating poverty makes the question of how to relate to Ethiopia harder. Ethiopia is one of the few countries on the African continent that has any chance of actually reaching the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

- For international donors, it is a country that gives value for money in terms of poverty reduction and sustainable development, says Espen Villanger, senior researcher at CMI. The solution is not to reduce development aid to Ethiopia, but to work with the Ethiopians and support their efforts to strengthen human rights.

The Ethiopian stance that international donors are not to meddle in internal affairs, complicates donor activities and has caused trouble for Norwegian relations to the Ethiopian government in the past. When the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out in 1998, Norwegian authorities temporarily stopped signing new agreements with Ethiopia. When aid relations resumed in 2000 Norway decided to focus on regional peace, stability and reconciliation rather than bilateral agreements with Ethiopia. The relationship between Norway and Ethiopia reached freezing point in 2007  when almost all Norwegian diplomats were expelled from the country due to Ethiopian perceptions of improper Norwegian activism during and after the controversial 2005 elections and the with the conflicts in Somalia and Eritrea.

Internal mobilisation
The clear message from Ethiopian authorities to international donors and partners narrows the scope of human rights work in the country. Initiatives need to come from within, from Ethiopian actors like civil society organisations, NGOs, universities, state- or non-state organisations. After the implementation of a civil society law in 2009 which prohibits organisations receiving more than 10 percent of their funds from international donors from involving themselves in advocacy work, including human rights work, there are few Ethiopian organisations working with human rights.

One of them is the Ethiopian Commission for Human Rights. This commission is state-owned and thus not classified as a human rights organization according to the Paris Principles, which requires organisations working on human rights to be independent from the state.

-The Ethiopian Commission for Human Rights have a focus which is different from that of many international human rights activists, but they are well aware of the debates and  have the technical skills, says Helland.

The government has developed a national plan for human rights, and takes pride in obviously important features like the ethnic diversity, stability, peace and security in the country, in addition to its development record with regard to the MDGs.

The University of Addis Ababa has an independent institute working on human rights. The Centre for Human Rights’ mandate is to follow new research and interact with the international research community. Its researchers actively cooperate with international researchers and frequently invite guest researchers and lecturers. The Centre for Human Rights currently receives funding from the Norwegian Embassy.

-Other civil society actors, like the Forum for Social Studies, have maintained a good relationship with the government. They are seen as national Ethiopian organisations which raise critical questions on a professional basis. What characterizes these actors is their emphasis on dialogue rather than confrontation with the government, says Helland. 

Strengthening institutional cooperation
International donors, including Norway, should find new partners and strengthen cooperation with current institutional partners in Ethiopia. Norway is fortunate in that they already have close cooperation in education and research established and cultivated over decades. Close connections with Ethiopian partners is invaluable, not only because cooperation gives voice to Ethiopian concerns, but also because knowledge about the situation, the needs and the distinctive features of different regions is paramount for achieving goals that are important to the international donor community.

-For policymakers and researchers working on Ethiopia, it is important to understand the prevailing paradigms and rhetoric from the Ethiopian government. Their  primary agenda is economic growth and development, and the government mobilises internal support around this agenda. Hence, the development of democratic institutions along Western, liberal lines is not their first priority. Donors and other external actors with an interest in the country must accept and relate themselves to this agenda too, says Lovise Aalen, senior researcher at CMI.

Knowledge about local context is crucial. It is easy to be blinded by the impressive economic growth figures. The government builds new schools, improves infrastructure and a new middle class is clearly emerging. At the same time, Ethiopians face increasing prices on basic commodities. The international community needs to find the most sustainable approach to its human rights support, says Aalen and continues:

- In a complex donor environment like this, knowledge on local context is imperative. All aspects of the Ethiopian society must be considered when working jointly on development and human rights issues.