For British politicians, foreign aid to Africa has become a cherished emblem of our idealism and generosity. But what happens when our funds harm those they are meant to help?

One day in late 2010, a farmer – I will call him Opik – woke up in his village in the remote Ethiopian province of Gambella. In this lush lowland area of savanna bordering South Sudan, the semi-nomadic Anuak people have lived for centuries, cultivating sorghum and maize, swimming in the river and gathering nuts, berries and fruits from the trees and wild honey from the forest. “It was paradise,” Opik recalled.

The Anuak have an intimate relationship with their landscape. Their highest traditional authority is a spiritual leader called the wat-ngomi, who must sanction any human intervention in nature. Some trees are deemed sacred and cannot be cut down. Spirits live in certain sites and even the boundaries of their territory are inscribed with religious meaning. Everyone knows where the land of one community ends and that of another begins. This intimacy is reflected in their language: “How are you?” in the Anuak language is piny bede nidi, which literally translates as “how is the earth?” The reply is piny ber jak (“the earth is fine”) orpiny rac (“the earth is bad”).

That morning, the earth was bad. Officials from the regional government in Gambella, accompanied by soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) had come to tell Opik and the other inhabitants of the village to leave. It was not the first time they had come. Earlier in the year there had been several meetings. The government had arrived with police and militias and informed the residents that they were to be moved to a new location. There was a national plan called “villagization” and Gambella was in the first phase.

The officials had explained that the purpose of the relocations was to cluster communities together in places where the government promised to provide a new school, a clinic, a borehole and a grinding mill. In time, the new settlements would be better-connected to the rest of the country via new roads, they said. The officials also promised to provide a grader to clear the land at the new site and make it ready for planting.

In a detailed document outlining the villagization plan, the regional government had written that the relocations aimed to “bring socioeconomic and cultural transformation of the people”. The timeframe was ambitious: in three years, starting in 2010, 225,000 people (or 60% of the population) would be relocated in Gambella. Nationwide, across Ethiopia’s fertile lowlands, the government aimed to relocate up to four million people in five years.

Ethiopia is in a race to develop. In a similar fashion to Rwanda, the authoritarian government, lacking a democratic mandate, has staked its claims to legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, and it is in a terrible hurry. During the past decade, Ethiopia has pursued a Chinese-style rush to develop its economy: locking up dissenters, crushing the opposition with a succession of 99% electoral victories, and building massive road, rail, agribusiness and hydropower schemes without pausing to conduct the necessary social and environmental impact assessments.

Nonetheless, despite still knocking along the bottom of every poverty index, Ethiopia has earned a reputation as a development success story, and donors, including the UK, are very keen to help, praising Ethiopia’s apparent strong progress towards the UN’s millennium development goals: increasing primary school enrollment and improving statistics on access to healthcare, water and so on. But donors are steadfastly silent on human rights abuses. Ethiopia receives more aid than any other African country – close to $3bn per year, or about half the national government budget. For the donors, Ethiopia is a priority, a linchpin of their development efforts, research and policy; especially so for the UK, where rising aid budgets have propelled Ethiopia into second place, behind Pakistan, as the recipient of the most British aid.

Until 2015, the main vehicle for aid spending in the country was a huge multi-donor fund managed by the World Bank called the promotion of basic services (PBS), the largest of its kind in the world, to which the British Department for International Development (DfID) was the largest single contributor. Over 10 years since 2006, the PBS scheme has invested around $12bn (including around $3bn from DfID) in five sectors: roads, water, health, education and agriculture.

In Gambella, the government’s plans for delivering these things took the form of villagization. The inhabitants of Opik’s village, though, were mistrustful of the government’s intentions. There had been no dialogue, no consultation. If the government had done little for them before, why would they suddenly start caring now? They suspected a plot to steal their land. They had heard of investors coming to test soil in certain areas.

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