I thank members for the opportunity to discuss this very important topic. As they know, Ethiopia has, for a number of years, been one of the priority countries for the receipt of Irish bilateral aid. It ranks 170th on the world human development index and has a population of just under 73.8 million. Its citizens have a life expectancy of under 48 years. The quantum of Ireland's bilateral aid contribution last year was approximately €28 million.
Self Help Development International has been operating in Ethiopia since 1984. Its current programme consists of eight projects with an average annual budget of €3 million. There are probably three major issues underlying the current debate surrounding Ireland's continuing support of Ethiopia, namely, the delay in promulgating and accepting the results of the 2005 general election, the detention of opposition politicians and activists and the ongoing border dispute with Eritrea. It is important to recognise, however, that there is no evidence of any high level economic or financial corruption in Ethiopia, as may exist elsewhere in Africa.
Ireland, through DCI, must face decisions on how to react to these issues in the short and longer term. Its range of options span from the extreme of taking no action of any kind to withdrawing all official bilateral aid. To do nothing could be construed as endorsing or authenticating actions that should be regarded as reprehensible to all democratic and humanitarian societies. However, Self Help Development International would counsel strongly against the other extreme of withdrawing of aid for the following reasons.
Independent evaluations, including the DAC reports, indicate that Ireland's aid interventions in Ethiopia are effective and contribute to both change and development. Any discontinuation in this regard should be avoided, if at all possible. It is not the purpose of official Irish aid intervention to support any particular regime in the countries receiving such aid. Ireland should, however, be an advocate and supporter of good government, humanitarian standards and the peaceful resolution of disputes. We should, therefore, work co-operatively with regimes to channel support to the poorest of the poor in the respective countries. Nothing should be allowed to detract from the focus on those who are in such desperate need.
As a matter of principle, Ireland totally subscribes to the policy of separating aid from trade, that is, aid being used as a vehicle to generate trade. Should it, at the same time, subscribe to a principle of using aid to the poorest of the poor as a threat to require specific action from the government of a recipient country? Withdrawal of aid is unlikely to affect a regime. If such a policy were adopted by the entire aid community, it would risk hardening the resolve of an existing regime, which might then regard itself as the victim. By remaining involved, we can continue trying to influence change from the inside rather than be seen as a hostile force trying to impose change from the outside. History suggests that we may be right in this view.
Historically, sanctions have been ineffective in achieving their objectives, while at the same time having significant and unwanted consequences. The breakdown of civil society in Zimbabwe and the inability to treat ill children in Iraq are but two examples.
There is also the risk of retaliatory action in respect of the withdrawal of aid through the counter-withdrawal of registration of Irish operational NGOs active within a particular country. The NGOs are, in the main, working at the level of the people. Zimbabwe may also serve as an example in this regard. The main downside in aid withdrawal is that it places at risk the welfare and future of the very people who are the object of the aid in the first instance. The withdrawal of aid should only be a solution of last resort.
Having outlined some of the reasons the possibilities at the two extremes of potential action should be eschewed, it is fair to ask what other options are open to Ireland to express, in a concrete manner, its disapproval and dissatisfaction, while continuing to try to influence change. We suggest three possible lines of action that could be seen to comprise a structured and step-by-step approach. These lie in the areas of diplomacy, economics and examining channels.
Within the diplomatic sphere of action, a number of steps could be taken including: encouraging and being seen to be supportive of the diplomatic pressure being exerted by the major international political and multinational organisations and agencies; exerting diplomatic pressure through the respective embassies in Dublin and Addis Ababa; and requiring high level direct Government-to-Government discussions on the relevant issues and direct contact and discussions at parliamentarian-to-parliamentarian level, with a view to the exercise of upward pressure on Governments. Contact at the latter level could have a further valuable dimension in the longer term in the development of the understanding of both the elements and the application of democratic principles and of the merits of resolving serious differences by way of peaceful discussion, dialogue and negotiation. The potential of such contact could be immense and may be undervalued.
The main instrument of economic action, apart from the reduction or withdrawal of aid, would be the withdrawal of aid focused on budget support. However, in the case of Ethiopia, this is not of any great significance. DCI's review of its aid modalities in Ethiopia shows that only 1% to 2% of the 2002-04 support is being given as direct federal budget support.
The third option for action lies in the possibility of diverting aid through channels other than the direct federal Government channel. These channels could be the regional governments or the provincial or local authorities. The NGO sector — both international and local — could be another vehicle. In considering this, care would need to be taken to avoid the potential retaliatory action to which I have referred. While there is undoubtedly capacity in the NGO community to absorb additional funds, there must also be some limit to that capacity. However, it should be a long time before we reach the stage where these options need to be considered. We counsel a measured step-by-step approach and reject pre-emptive or knee-jerk reactions.
We must always remember that the adoption of democratic systems of government in the developed world — our world — was a long, difficult and tortuous journey in which so many social and cultural barriers had to be breached. Democracy, as understood and practised by the western world, is still a new concept to many other parts of the world, including Africa. Its full maturity will take time and it will take a greater measure of support and patience than would be represented by a harsh and hostile action from which the most vulnerable would be the greatest sufferers and victims.
We are generally supportive of the policy and practice of DCI of working through a variety of channels, including supporting African Governments. We appreciate the challenges this represents but are confident in the systems of accountability and in the calibre of the personnel responsible for the administration of these kinds of programmes. We are confident that, through its continued support to the Ethiopian Government, DCI is exerting a positive influence.
Self Help Development International's programmes have been in operation since 1984 and the organisation has operated through a range of political changes in Ethiopia and with a variety of funding mechanisms, including the very successful and flexible MAPS process. Our focus is very clearly on the needs of poor rural communities and we believe their interests are best served by continuing to strengthen our rural development programme. We do not intend to make changes in response to the political climate at this time but obviously we will continue to monitor the situation.