Britain has been accused of allowing hundreds of millions of pounds of its aid to be used to extend state-led repression in Ethiopia, as the country voted in national polls widely seen as deeply flawed.
More than £385 million of British money has been channelled to projects in the country in the last two years, making it the largest recipient of bilateral aid in Africa.
The majority goes directly to Ethiopian government projects across the country, despite concerns over how and where it is being spent.
The party of prime minister Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain to win the most seats in Sunday’s vote, after claims of intimidation of opposition leaders and supporters.
Foreign aid has largely been given with “no questions asked”, campaigners say, because Mr Meles has positioned himself as the West’s key ally fighting the spread of militant Islam in the region.
The country borders Eritrea and Somalia, which Ethiopian troops with Western backing invaded in 2006 to overthrow the ruling fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union.
But international donor money to Ethiopia has helped its government to enact laws restricting international aid agencies’ work, to muzzle the press and regularly to imprison high-profile opponents, campaigners claim.
“Britain is in the lead as one of the largest bilateral donors, and they bear a large part of the responsibility for driving this very pro-Meles, sympathetic picture,” said Ben Rawlence of Human Rights Watch.
“Britain has adopted a position of head down, carry on, keep spending money and don’t ask any questions.
“It’s unsustainable. You can’t lock up the leader of the opposition and keep squeezing the population in the way that Meles has been doing without there being consequences at some point.” British officials are understood to have launched investigations into claims that aid is being misspent.
Mr Meles’ supporters point to policies which have produced double-digit economic growth over the last seven years, investments in hydropower and rural electrification, and an end to a long-running border war with Eritrea.
But army crackdowns against opposition protesters after the last election in 2005 left 200 people dead, and tens of thousands of people were imprisoned in the following months.
Since then, there have been regular complaints that Mr Meles’ party is entrenching its control over all areas of national and local government, right down to village level.
Those outside of the party find they cannot apply for government jobs, or are ineligible for food aid or national development funding.
A 2009 law, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, heavily restricted the work of international aid agencies and local civil society organisations.
Ethiopia is still desperately poor, with 80 per cent of its 85 million people – most of them in rural areas – living below international poverty red lines.
“The fact is that we all know there are myriad problems here, but if we speak out then we get kicked out, and all programmes helping millions of ordinary Ethiopians come grinding to a halt,” said one European aid worker in the capital, Addis Ababa.
“We have to self-censor, just to get our job done. Do we like it? No, but there is no room to manoeuvre.”
A spokesman from the Department for International Development said: “UK programmes in Ethiopia include a range of rigorous checks, including regular financial audits, independent surveys and field visits, to make sure aid is reaching those who need it,” said a spokesman for the Department for International Development.
“We do not give general budget support to the [central] Ethiopian Government.
“We take allegations of corruption extremely seriously and have already commissioned a multi-donor study into accusations of aid misuse, which will report soon.”