Montana and Ethiopia share little in common. The Yellowstone is part of the longest river system in North America. Africa’s longest river has a source in Ethiopia’s Blue Nile. Both places also have rugged mountains with many peaks over 11,000 feet.
However, the similarities may end there.
Ethiopia has 3,000 years of history. Today, barefooted shepherd boys play together in the mountains while tending their flocks. A kindly, middle-aged scout takes his first automobile ride. A waterfall cascades 1,500 feet into darkness.
Yet starvation and disease are rampant. According to Parade Magazine, America’s most-read weekly, Ethiopia ranks among the world’s 20 poorest countries and has one of the 20 worst dictators: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
America could be the most generous nation in history. A noble label, yet U.S. aid has not always supported the right people – Saddam Hussein, the Taliban. American benevolence should persist, but it must be coupled with prudence.
One place where the U.S. might revamp its aid policy is Ethiopia, whose “government is waging a sustained attack on its opponents in the run-up to an election [on 23 May], US-based Human Rights Watch says,” noted the British Broadcasting Corporation in April.
America provides $500 million in aid to Ethiopia annually. However, cabdrivers, lawyers and businessmen alike denounce their leader as being despotic. If they are right, U.S. aid needs to change. Americans and Ethiopians deserve proof that Washington only endorses honorable and responsible parties.
On my 15th day in Ethiopia, I boarded a midday taxi with a local resident for a 45-minute ride to an airport, en route to the capital: Addis Ababa. He and the driver asked several questions one typically asks foreigners, but they soon digressed to American-Ethiopian relations.
Condemning U.S. “leniency” toward Mr. Zenawi’s “corrupt” government, the men boldly asserted that America intrudes in Ethiopian affairs whenever it grants money to Addis. “America should cut its aid to our country,” they stated, certain that only the government would suffer.
Foreign relief could help their land under good leadership, they felt. Until then, ostensible generosity would little assist them. They literally feared for their nation’s future.
These gentlemen were not peasants or unskilled laborers. Educated, they assisted the local nonprofit organization, engaged provincial politics, and followed current events. They wanted aid cut, that the lifeline of tyranny might be severed. As such, they confided that they wondered each day whether they would return home alive.
As we neared the airport, the men asked how America could be so great and Ethiopia so poor. They pled for help, but alone, I can only make ripples in the ocean.
Fifty Ethiopians told me about their leader – three defended him. Most lamented him as a former hero lapsing into totalitarianism. This seemed obvious, with armored vehicles conveying Mr. Zenawi’s domination everywhere.
In May 2005, former President Jimmy Carter lauded what he felt were Ethiopia’s free and fair elections. Weeks later poll discrepancies were common knowledge, scores of protesters were massacred, hundreds of political prisoners were taken, and streets and shops were eerily vacant.
Mr. Carter could not have known this would happen. Still, his praise convinced many that Mr. Zenawi’s “democratic” government had earned foreign aid privileges. Today, Human Rights Watch concludes that another slaughter “will not be repeated when the country votes on 23 May, because there is no longer any way to protest.”
Last year in The Los Angeles Times, Lori Pottinger critiqued the Zenawi administration’s disrespect for its own laws on foreign aid. Defying constitutional mandates, she noted that Addis only consulted or informed “a tiny proportion of the people” about how it intended to use certain U.S. donations.
Still, hope tarries in this precious corner of the globe. For all his wrongs, Mr. Zenawi has achieved much in Ethiopia. But after 16 years, his citizens need “liberty and justice for all.” With encouragement – or pressure – America can help him do this.