Staff editorial: Houston-area donations to Ethiopian government ill conceived

The portion of the Greater Houston Partnership Web site detailing how the remains of Lucy came to Houston is adorned with pictures of prominent Texans mingling with Ethiopian officials accentuated by laudatory stories of the good nature of Ethiopia’s leaders.

Included in these photos is one of a beaming Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who the GHP describes as "relaxed" and "extremely pleased" about Lucy’s travel plans.

No mention is made of Zenawi’s background, much less of his ranking on Parade magazine’s 2007 list of the world’s worst dictators.

The GHP paid the Ethiopian government $80,000 to support Ethiopian museums, and analysts speculate that the Houston Museum of Natural Science paid Ethiopia millions of dollars to secure Lucy’s remains, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Lucy’s travel to Houston has been highly important for the scientific and civic community, but the museum and the GHP should not have forked over large sums of money to a government that multiple human rights organizations allege is as corrupt as Syria and Pakistan – which are hardly examples of transparent, efficient governments.

Some might argue that the scientific and cultural merit of the exhibition outweighs the sum paid to such a corrupt and brutal regime, and they might be right in a limited sense. That doesn’t, however, absolve the GHP and museum from the wrongs that might have been created or perpetuated by their financial contribution.

The level of accountability for these funds is slim; there is no absolute guarantee that the funds will go directly to museum support. The funds could just as easily be funneled into the Ethiopian military, which is busy occupying substantial portions of Somalia and combating ethnic separatism in the Ogaden.

After all, the World Bank has cited Ethiopia’s institutionalized political favoritism, weak media, lack of financial accountability and weak economic enforcement mechanisms, among other shortfalls, as hindrances to Ethiopia’s economic development.

The Ethiopian military, in turn, has a less than stellar track record. Multiple reports have directly faulted Zenawi’s forces for fatally shooting and strangling 193 unarmed civilian protestors in the wake of a 2005 election. The Independent has documented allegations of abuse recently conducted by the Ethiopian military in the ethnically Somali region of the Ogaden, including the lynching of three teenage girls and the kidnapping of four others in retaliation against alleged rebel attacks.

In some instances, village women were mass-raped by as many as a dozen Ethiopian soldiers at once.

Human rights watchdogs have further estimated that up to 200,000 civilians have been driven from their homes in the past year alone in the turbulence of Ethiopia’s violent bid to stamp out Somali separatism.

To further complicate matters, the Ethiopian government expelled relief workers from Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross from the Ogaden after both organizations expressed concerns regarding human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ethiopian military. Only a small U.S. contingent based in neighboring Djibouti remains to render aid.

In light of Ethiopia’s lack of economic transparency, it’s possible that some of the funds provided by the GHP and the museum will be used to continue the nation’s crackdown on political dissidents and further exacerbate the worsening human rights disaster in eastern Ethiopia.

The GHP and the HMNS should not be quick to forget that thousands of opposition supporters were systematically arrested by Ethiopian police in the wake of the 2005 elections, and jail stays aren’t free. While the money may indeed help Ethiopian museums flourish, it could also be used to repress countless innocent individuals.

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