U.S. leverage on Ethiopia is limited – Ambassador David Shinn

November 7, 2009

shinn150As a reader during the past 25 years of political commentary by the Ethiopian diaspora and based on my own contacts with that community, I am struck by the prevailing belief that the U.S. government has the ability to change Ethiopian polices and alter the fundamental direction of events in Ethiopia. This view is misguided.

The policy conundrum came to my attention again recently as I read an opinion piece in The Hill by Mesfin Mekonen, chairman of the All Ethiopia Unity Party International Advisory Board.

Ato Mesfin begins by urging a hastened review of U.S. policy towards Ethiopia. This is a reasonable request. Every new American administration should review its policy with counties that are as important as Ethiopia and where there is controversy about the nature of the bilateral relationship. The opinion piece goes on to state that “Congress should hold hearings and enact legislation to help Ethiopians create the conditions that are necessary to ensure that food aid is never needed again.” The implication is that the U.S. government can resolve Ethiopia’s governmental, demographic, political and social issues.

I beg to differ.

The United States can impact the situation on the margins, but it does not have the power to force fundamental change even if there was agreement on what that change should be.
While the United States does have influence in Ethiopia, in fact, more than most countries, there are distinct limits to that influence. Not only is Ethiopia a sovereign state but it interacts with dozens of other important countries and organizations.

Those in the Ethiopian diaspora who oppose the Ethiopian government usually suggest that American assistance to Ethiopia can and should serve as the leverage for forcing change in the country. The level of U.S. assistance in recent years has been impressive. In fiscal year 2007, it was about $474 million and in fiscal year 2008 about $456 million. It is important, however, to look more closely at this assistance.

In an essay in the November/December 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs, three former administrators of USAID — J. Brian Atwood, Peter M. McPherson and Andrew Natsios — wrote that in fiscal year 2007 about 50 percent of U.S. assistance to Ethiopia went to HIV/AIDS prevention, 38 percent to emergency food relief and 7 percent to child survival, family planning and malaria prevention and treatment. Only 1.5 percent went to agriculture, 1.5 percent to economic growth, 1.5 percent to education and 1 percent for improving governance.

In fiscal year 2008, by my calculations, 73 percent of USAID’s budget for Ethiopia went to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention, 12 percent to child survival and health, 9 percent to development assistance, 5 percent for food aid and less than 1 percent for a combination of foreign military financing (FMF) and international military education and training (IMET). The amount for FMF was $843,000 and for IMET $620,000.

This is not an assistance program that has significant political leverage. In 2007, almost 95 percent of the assistance program went to HIV/AIDS, emergency food aid and child survival. In 2008, the figure was about 90 percent for these programs.

There are very few members of Congress and even fewer in the Executive Branch who are interested in cutting funding for HIV/AIDS, child survival and emergency food aid in an effort to change governmental policies in Ethiopia.

While Ethiopian officials also listen to the United States for reasons unrelated to foreign aid, the fact is that U.S. leverage is much more limited than most in the Ethiopian diaspora believe.