The true objectives of Ethiopia’s resettlement programs

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27 July 2014

A British court’s decision that the support of the UK’s Department for International Development to Ethiopia should be scrutinized for compliance with the organization’s human rights policy was reported recently in The Guardian. In a case brought to a court under the name of “Mr. O”, it was claimed that the person in question was evicted from his farmland in the Gambella Regional State in 2011. The allegations included claims that he himself had been beaten and witnessed rape and assaults committed by government soldiers. The court decided “Mr. O's case deserved a full hearing” which apparently implies a full judicial review of DFID’s assistance to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s resettlement programs are among subjects that international human rights and advocacy groups have frequently claimed are responsible for extensive human right violations. The evidence for these accusations has consistently been fabrications by people living outside the country, often for many years. It has been accepted without regard for any possible political affiliations of informants. The allegations have been almost universally contradicted by all independent investigations on the ground, by donors and by NGOs working in these and related projects in the region. One reason for these distorted views clearly lies in the failure to understand the objectives of the resettlement program or indeed to make any effort to do so. This has been further compounded by what can only be described as shoddy analysis of the programs on the basis of flimsy, politically-motivated or even non-existent evidence.

The resettlement program, which critics repeatedly refer to with the politically loaded term “villagization”, is a program that has impacted the lives of millions most positively in the regions in which it has been undertaken since its launch in 2003. Its primary objective, as has been said repeatedly, is all about easing the provision of basic services to rural populations. To anyone acquainted with these areas, it is clear that the pattern of settlement, particularly in the lowlands, is widely scattered, often involving no more than a dozen or even less houses scattered widely across the countryside. These small groups of houses, barely even villages, in almost every case are devoid of medical facilities, educational services and other social benefits as well as being disconnected from any main or even feeder roads to connect them to large villages or towns. It has been difficult to provide administrative, judicial or social services of any kind to these disconnected groups of houses which barely qualify even as hamlets. Indeed, given such pattern of settlement, it is impossible to carry out any meaningful development activity. The objective of the resettlement program is therefore to bring the people living in such scattered groups into more sizeable units of population and make it possible to provide health, education and social service, and improve child and maternal death rates. In other words, the overall objective of the program is to create a situation which will allow positive change in the livelihood of rural populations and improve overall social developments.

This was the aim of the program launched in 2003 for these scattered settlement patterns in the areas in the Afar, Gambella, Benishangul Gumuz, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples, Somali, Amhara and Tigrai Regional States. The program had four important elements which have largely contributed to the success of the program and the wellbeing of the beneficiaries. The first dictated firmly that all resettlements must be made on a voluntary basis after conducting consultations with the people to be relocated through the resettlement program and the people in the areas to which they moved. This, it might be noted, was a fundamental departure from earlier forced resettlement carried out during the military dictatorship of the Derg which were carried out with consultation, and which were, as a result, a total failure. One of the legacies of that failure has been that some external critics haven’t bothered to try and evaluate the current resettlement programs but merely responded with a knee-jerk reaction based on their memories of the previous Derg-era disaster. The current resettlement program is done entirely on a voluntary basis by conducting lengthy consultations with those involved well before any relocation begins. It also includes the provision that people can move back again if they are dissatisfied with the area to which they move, and can also continue to farm on their previous land if they wish.

The second underlying principle is that all resettlement is only carried out within the same regional state with people moving from one woreda to another woreda. This is to prevent any inter-ethnic problem, something that occurred during the Derg resettlement efforts. The third principle underlining the program relates to new settlements. These are set up and implemented in places where there is unutilized land and no prior settlement. Finally, last principle and one of the most important is that all resettlement must be preceded by the provision of an adequate supply of basic public services including schools, roads, water and sanitation and health clinics as well as the provision of agricultural implements and agricultural services.

On the basis of these principles, Ethiopia has gone a long way towards extensive practical changes to the lives of millions. People who had no access to health posts, schools or other social services have become beneficiaries of the program and this has, in turn, brought about a real change in their livelihood.

The resettlement program in Gambella Region, for example, conducted in 71 development centers in 11 woredas, has provided resettlements with potable water, full health services and educational facilities for all those of school age for the first time. According to a report last year, the whole program in Gambella was based on a detailed assessments in advance and “thoroughly discussed at woreda level and by local steering committees.” The original studies were followed by consultation and agreement with local people to identify settlement villages and their demarcation. The process included ensuring the availability of infrastructure, of water, health, education and other facilities for the incomers and local community inhabitants. All the movement was local, and there had been no movement from one zone to another or from one woreda to another. 25,355 houses were built and in 2010/11, a total of 38,000 hectares of farm land distributed. In the 43 villages involved, a total of 156 water schemes were developed, with 19 additional health institutions to add to the 29 already there. 142,000 people had access to water and that health service coverage of the village sites reached 95 %. 54,000 people were provided with anti-malarial treated nets; 3,381 pit latrines had been constructed. 41 primary schools had been constructed and 21,600 students attended class in the 2010/11. One hundred and twenty eight kilometers of rural roads had been constructed. Extra staff were assigned to 27 agricultural centers, and 1,600 household heads given practical training. Seven animal health posts had been constructed, with priority given to village sites known for animal production. The regional government had distributed 4,178 quintals of improved seeds, and water pumps for all the 43 village sites, 126 oxen for ploughing and 59,760 farming hand tools, as well as 400 other pumps. Overall, significant gains were registered in food self-sufficiency and those resettled were seeing higher incomes from increased agricultural productivity as a result of agricultural extension services made possible by the program.

This hasn’t, of course, meant that there were no problems. An investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, carried out last year, noted delays in the provision of some facilities, and inadequacy in the provision of medical services and other amenities in some areas. However, it also concluded that far from resettlement being coercive or the rights of indigenous people violated, the program had been carried out with the active participation and ownership of the local populations which in many cases had requested for resettlement. They had held discussions on the strategies involved at all levels and selected sites. The choice of people to refuse to move from their native places for cultural reasons has been fully respected.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, various advocacy groups have continued to attack the program. Their allegations, however, continue to be based on alleged research that has serious problems of data collection, aggregation and analysis. It is hard to consider serious claims made by two or three individuals, usually anonymously, and usually from outside the country, against a program that involves millions of people, most of whom are apparently satisfied and have welcomed the program. The fact that there have been no serious or extensive abuses in the program has been underlined by any number of reports from independent bodies which have carried out investigations. Sir Malcolm Bruce, Chair of the UK Parliament’s Committee for International Development, who was on an official visit with a delegation of MP’s to Ethiopia, in March last year, for instance, dismissed allegations against the resettlement program as “unsubstantiated”. Sir Malcolm said DFID and other agencies had consistently monitored the program, undertaking a dozen visits to the regions: “what these review missions have concluded is that they could not substantiate the claims.” Former US Ambassador, Donald Booth, said last August that “We have also looked into villagization program for which Ethiopia has been criticized by many international organizations. We have done our own assessment regarding that program and quite frankly we have no evidence that suggests any violation”. The Donors Assistance Group, a consortium of 26 donors made similar points after conducting more extensive studies. Reports issued in February 2011 and June 2012 after visits to the regions involved squarely dismissed allegations that the resettlement program was being conducted involuntarily.

In addition to the resettlement program, the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program has also been under attack by human rights and advocacy groups which have claimed it has violated rights of indigenous people particularly in the South Omo area. Again, the facts on the ground are unequivocal and completely different from the horrifying allegations made by these advocacy groups. The primary goal of the Protection of Basic Services program is, of course, to provide basic health, education and clean water satiation, rural roads and agricultural extension services. It also has the objective of improving these where they are already available and extending decentralization of public finance and support for local civic organizations in a bid to increase accountability and transparency in government. Since its launch in 2006, the PBS has had enormous impact on poverty reduction. In conjunction with other poverty reduction policies, it has managed to achieve a sharp fall in the percentage of people living in poverty from 38.7% in 2004/5 to 29.6% in 2011. The PBS has enabled Ethiopia to deploy 38,000 health extension workers, hire 100,000 primary school teachers and 45,000 agricultural extension workers. The achievements in health and education, in particular, have helped to place Ethiopia amongst few countries on track to achieve the MDG’s in 2015. Its impressive growth trajectory was recently complimented by the World Banks’ $1.6 billion financial support for the 2014 fiscal year and a record number of approvals for poverty related and other projects.

In fact, it is very clear from all the available evidence on the ground, that none of the repeated, baseless, allegations of human rights and advocacy lobbyists provide a true reflection of the resettlement program and of the PBS or their results. These programs, supported or financed by donors, including the DFID, the World Bank and other partners, in collaboration with the Ethiopian government have had a major impact in reducing poverty and improving the livelihood of millions of Ethiopians. They will continue to do so. (MoFA)