America waits, Ethiopia's new conflict, and Uganda's cash crackdown: This week in development

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Poll workers process absentee ballots on election night in the U.S. state of Wisconsin. Photo by: Bing Guan / REUTERS

America holds its breath in a consequential election, Ethiopia raises fears of a civil war, and Uganda freezes GiveDirectly’s COVID-19 cash transfer program. This week in development:

Poll workers continue to count votes in a U.S. election with big implications for the country’s global development, global health, and humanitarian role. While Democratic nominee Joe Biden appeared to be leading over incumbent President Donald Trump on Thursday, the close results will almost certainly be subjected to further scrutiny, and key races that could affect the balance of power in the U.S. Senate are still to be determined. In the lead-up to Nov. 3, groups that monitor election and political integrity had warned about increased risks of violence or attempts to undermine the process. These seemed largely not to materialize, but as officials worked to tally an unprecedented number of ballots — many received via mail due to the coronavirus pandemic — Trump and his allies lobbed unsubstantiated criticisms of the process on social media and promised legal challenges in several key states. On Wednesday, the day after the election, the U.S. became the first country to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a move that Biden has pledged to overturn if he wins the presidency.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed alarmed international observers this week by launching a military operation against the country’s Tigray region and sparking fears of civil war in a country that had garnered praise for peace-building and democratic reforms. Abiy, who announced the military operation on Facebook at 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, said it was in response to an assault by the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which governs the region, on an Ethiopian military base. It also came after Tigray defied a government order in September by holding elections even though the vote had been canceled in the rest of the country because of the coronavirus pandemic. The national government has cut internet and telephone service in the region and declared a state of emergency. In 2019, Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the long-running conflict between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. However, the 44-year-old leader has struggled to resolve internal tensions between Ethiopia’s ethnic groups, with the latest response threatening a violent escalation, which many warned could jeopardize the country’s role as a stabilizing force in the Horn of Africa.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has terminated a $10 million cash transfer program run by GiveDirectly in Uganda, after the government opened an investigation into the COVID-19 response effort and then decided to indefinitely suspend the organization’s operations. The time frame around the probe is unclear, as are its merits. The program launched in August in partnership with the Ugandan government and targeted 120,000 people in six cities, with plans to deliver each of them approximately $27 per month for three months. The use of direct cash transfers has increased dramatically in response to COVID-19 as a means of social protection that can be deployed rapidly to counteract income losses and stave off food insecurity and other harms. This cash transfer program was vetted by Uganda’s Cabinet of ministers, but the National Bureau for NGOs, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in September announced it was opening an investigation. The bureau questioned GiveDirectly about its registration and approvals, the source of the $10 million, and the potential impacts of a cash transfer program, including whether it might lead to laziness, according to Joe Huston, managing director at the organization. Last week, the U.S. Embassy issued a press release stating that while GiveDirectly had addressed all of the government’s concerns, the suspension made it unlikely the program would be able to meet its objective of preventing “COVID related economic backsliding of the most vulnerable Ugandans,” and the U.S. therefore terminated the program permanently. GiveDirectly’s country staff members in Uganda are now caught in limbo, the organization told Devex, as employees attempt to support other countries’ programs until the situation is resolved.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.