In a stinging rebuff to the United Nations and its anti-poverty efforts, Eritrea, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has told the world body that it wants out of its long-term development agreement because the U.N. makes the problem worse, not better.
The reason, given in a January 26 notification letter from the country’s powerful Finance Minister, obtained by Fox News, is that “aid only postpones the basic solutions to crucial development problems by tentatively ameliorating their manifestations without tackling their root causes. The structural, political, economic, etc. damage that it inflicts upon recipient countries is also enormous.” In other words, the government argues, U.N. aid does more harm than good.
Whether that critique, which echoes the complaints of many critics in wealthy donor countries, is the true reason behind the U.N.’s rejection is unclear. Fox News tried to contact the Eritrean finance ministry for further explanations, but was told that the finance minister, Berhane Abrehe, was “unavailable.”
For its part, a spokesman for the United Nations Development Program, which coordinates U.N. activities in the small but strategically placed nation, said that the U.N. and the government “are currently discussing what are the best possible arrangements for post June 2011, taking into consideration the government’s recently-articulated priorities. No decisions have been taken.”
The Eritrean rebuff is another blow for the United Nations in a desperately poor and strife-ridden area of East Africa where the world organization has been struggling to maintain its presence, effectiveness and credibility.
Eritrea (population: 3.6 million) has been a significant factor in the Islamic upheaval that threatens to convert the entire region into chaos. Since 2009, Eritrea has been under U.N. Security Council sanctions, mostly aimed at arms trafficking, for its role in supporting the Islamic insurgency in nearby Somalia. The Somali civil war, in turn, puts pressure on Eritrea’s closest rival, Ethiopia, which occupies areas that Eritrea claims as its own.
Whether the Security Council sanctions have, in turn, provoked the latest clampdown on U.N. humanitarian activity is unclear.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton (a Fox News contributor) held that position while a U.N. peacekeeping operation failed to maintain a neutral zone between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Bolton says: “There is always a possibility of war breaking out again between the two countries, and instability generally in the whole region a la Somalia. I suspect this is about reducing the international presence in Eritrea so they can do in greater secrecy whatever it is they have in mind.”
More than a dozen U.N. agencies work in Eritrea on a wide variety of programs covered by a United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), an umbrella agreement that covers their integrated operations, and also provides for monitoring and evaluation of their programs. The current Eritrean UNDAF runs from 2006 until June 2011.
Under the five-year plan, the U.N. was supposed to spend about $90.3 million (in a country with a per-capita income of about $700 annually) on everything from vaccination programs to HIV transmission education to education and food production to civil service reform.
According to the finance ministry letter, most of those activities will be discontinued, though the document says the government will stay engaged with “a few, select U.N. agencies,” which are unnamed. Most of the acceptable U.N. activity will be aimed at seeking and improving water supplies in the drought-stricken nation, and improving sanitation.
A UNDP spokesman said the organization hoped to make lemonade out of that limitation by gaining “an opportunity for the U.N. system to scale up its support in these sectors.”
Just which U.N. agencies would be allowed to keep operating is unknown. Several approached by Fox News said their position was still unclear.
No U.N. personnel, however, would be allowed to “freely and directly approach” Eritrean individuals or organizations that would benefit from their activities, according to the finance ministry letter.
Whether the rejection will have any spillover effect on other countries in the region is equally unknown
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News