The writer is executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a professor at Tufts University.
This month, Ethiopia, a low-income country facing economic difficulties, is making its case for a financial bailout at the spring meetings of the World Bank and IMF.
It is also conducting a war of starvation in the northern Tigray region. Week by week soldiers are destroying everything essential to sustain life — food and farms, clinics and hospitals, water supplies.
How should the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development treat a government engaged in widespread and systematic destruction and impoverishment, not to mention killing and rape? Bank staff don’t like to make political judgments, but in this case the directors — representing the shareholders including the US and UK — cannot shirk their obligation to acknowledge the political realities in Ethiopia.
Despite an information blackout, evidence of mass atrocities is coming to light. A Belgian university group has documented more than 150 massacres. Health workers are treating hundreds of victims of rape. The aid group Médecins Sans Frontières says that 70 per cent of health facilities have been ransacked and vandalised. The US State Department reports that militia from the Amhara region have ethnically cleansed the western part of Tigray. The huge army of neighbouring Eritrea has rampaged through the region — invited in by Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed.
On April 6, the World Peace Foundation published evidence that a tripartite coalition of the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies plus Amhara militia is using starvation as a weapon of war. Before the outbreak of conflict in November, Tigray was largely free from hunger. Today, three-quarters of its 5.7m people need emergency aid. Just over 1m are receiving support — but it is routinely stolen by soldiers after it is distributed. We can expect death rates from hunger already to be rising.
The scorched earth campaign is undoing decades of development. Fruit orchards have been cut down and industries employing tens of thousands have been looted. Hotels that once hosted tourists visiting Tigray’s historic obelisks and cave churches have been stripped bare. Fertile lands in the western lowlands have been annexed by the Amhara region and Tigrayans expelled.
This looks like a concerted plan to reduce Tigray to poverty and leave its people dependent on food handouts. Regardless of who started the war and why, these actions go far beyond legitimate war aims. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has promised to investigate allegations of war crimes.
Alongside the human rights violations, donors will assess the reconstruction needs and compile an inventory of stolen or vandalised assets. On the list will be schools, clinics, water supply systems and university research departments, among other things — many of them paid for by multilateral agencies and governments. Who will foot the bill for rebuilding? At a time of straitened aid budgets, taxpayers in donor countries will balk at paying a second time around. Shouldn’t reconstruction be the responsibility of those who inflicted the damage?
This debate takes the World Bank into the troubled water of political conditionality on economic assistance. Ethiopia will raise objections, arguing that the conflict is a domestic affair and donors have no business interfering. It will also say that there are millions of people elsewhere in the country who need donor-financed assistance, such as through the flagship productive safety net programme, which helps poor farmers. An implicit threat lurking is the potential shockwave across Africa and beyond should a country of 110m people lurch into nationwide crisis.
But the war in Tigray isn’t a regrettable bump on the road to reform. A long war will devour Ethiopia’s resources, harden its authoritarian turn and deter investment.
It is not too late to turn the country back from its track towards famine, protracted conflict and impoverishment. It starts with a ceasefire, so that aid can reach the hungry and farmers can plant. The agricultural calendar means this can’t wait. Next is peace negotiations including the agenda of restitution and reconstruction. Rebuilding will be an expense for the cash-strapped government of Ethiopia, but essential to restore its reputation as a credible partner for investors and donors.
The directors of the World Bank and IMF cannot shy away from these hard issues when they consider Ethiopian requests for additional funds over the coming weeks. They should not fund Ethiopia’s self-destruction, but instead use their leverage to insist on an end to war and starvation.
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