August 27, 2012
This is a joint post with Casey Dunning.The death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi after twenty-one years in charge raises fresh questions about the future of US foreign aid to the country – including all three of President Obama’s development initiatives – and the conundrum of focusing aid in countries whose leaders hang on to power for more than a decade. Could a new rule banning foreign aid to long-serving heads of state help?Ethiopia is:
- The largest aid recipient in Africa.
- A selected partner country in all three US presidential development initiatives: Feed the Future, Global Health Initiative, and the Global Climate Change Initiative.
- One of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition’s three focus countries, announced by President Obama in the run up to this year's G8 Summit. (Some attendees may recall the outburst of one participant while Meles was on stage.)
The risk of losing power for a head of state declines over time: the longer a leader is in power, the less likely he is to lose power in the next year, no matter how long he has been in power (and, he is the right pronoun here: they are nearly always men). Over time, they get better at staying in power. Nonetheless, it is also true that the longer a dictator is in power, the less well he governs.That is why I have long argued that the imposition of presidential term limits is perhaps the single most important measure to improve the governance and economic performance of developing countries. I have recommended that the Western donors send a strong signal that “presidents for life” are no longer acceptable by withholding foreign aid to any low-income country with a leader in power longer than three terms or 12 years. Such a policy would directly concern such close US allies and aid recipients as presidents Meles in Ethiopia (in power since 1995), Museveni in Uganda (since 1986), or Biya in Cameroon (since 1982).Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré (in power since 1987) and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (in power since 2000) could be added to the list. Right now, Burkina Faso has an aid compact with the Millennium Challenge Account and Rwanda is a partner country in Feed the Future and the Global Climate Change Initiative. (There are fifteen African countries whose leaders have been in power for more than twelve years; thirteen receive some form of US foreign assistance; although in several cases the aid is primarily for humanitarian purposes and delivered outside government channels.)In an era of budget austerity and given the Presidential Policy Directive on US Global Development that urges greater selectivity in US development spending, could this be a good place to start changing the way (or where) the United States gives aid? At a minimum, the MCC board could, and should, consider the 12-year rule when selecting countries as eligible for its good-governance-approved assistance.
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