April 24, 2014 | by William Easterly Print

Western sympathizers with Ukraine might be surprised to learn that the U.S. government is supporting Russian-backed autocrats against the opposition in other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

An example is Tajikistan, the fief of long-standing dictator Emomali Rahmon. U.S. economic aid to Tajikistan has totaled more than $1 billion since President Rahmon took power in 1992. Aid from all Western donors accounts for nearly 10% of Tajikistan's economy and covers most government spending by Mr. Rahmon—whose brutal repression of the opposition was condemned by the State Department, not for the first time, in its annual rights report earlier this month.

Tajikistan illustrates a wider phenomenon in which Western foreign aid is often on the wrong side of the battle for freedom and democracy. Some philanthropists and aid agencies act as if they believe that "benevolent autocrats" drive economic development. Although they are well meaning, these humanitarians overlook abuses and give these same rulers credit for any positive things that happen while they are in power.

Consider Ethiopia, which ranks near the bottom of rights and freedom measures. Human Rights Watch documented in 2010 how Ethiopia's ruler at the time, Meles Zenawi, systematically withheld aid-financed famine relief from anyone not belonging to the ruling party. The donors of this relief, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (Usaid) and the World Bank, promised to investigate, but nothing came of those promises.

Meles, who died from an illness in 2012, was a serial rights abuser whose record while in power included killing demonstrators after rigged elections in 2005, seizing farmers' lands at gunpoint to sell to foreign investors for government profit beginning in 2010, and sentencing a peaceful blogger, Eskinder Nega, to 18 years in prison in 2012.

Donors and philanthropists still found reasons to support and praise Meles. A Usaid report in 2012 praised the Ethiopian ruler for making "tremendous progress" transforming "its economy and society toward middle income status" (even while acknowledging that part of Ethiopia's recent economic growth was simply recovery from a drought). World Bank President Jim Kim joined the chorus in a 2012 speech by celebrating Ethiopia's "transformational change," which he attributed to a "stable" government that pursues "prudent economic policies" and takes "a long-term perspective."

Bill Gates, whose foundation has spent more than $265 million on health and agricultural development in Ethiopia over the past decade, has said that he "had a great working relationship" with Meles, whose policies "have made real progress in helping the people of Ethiopia." He said this after Meles's death, as Mr. Gates was already embracing his equally autocratic successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, whom he praised for "his commitment to continuing the policies of Prime Minister Zenawi."

Another example of donor blindness is China. The most recent State Department human-rights report noted gross rights violations in China in 2013 including: "extrajudicial killings . . . enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention, including prolonged illegal detentions at unofficial holding facilities known as 'black jails'; torture and coerced confessions of prisoners; . . . a coercive birth-limitation policy that in some cases resulted in forced abortion."

Yet the World Bank under Mr. Kim has followed the usual donor pattern of overlooking these abuses. During a visit to China in November 2012, Mr. Kim praised China's leaders for meeting "the challenge of actually delivering on truly aspirational goals." The Chinese government had been "explicit in writing them down and looking at itself in terms of what more it needs to do, and also looking at its great accomplishments."

Attributing development success to autocrats misreads the evidence on autocracy and development. Academic researchers running statistical tests on historical data find that prosperity in the West is largely due to individuals realizing their own political and economic rights.

Yet many aid agencies and philanthropists prefer to embrace the fantasy that there is a technocratic shortcut to development imposed by a benevolent autocrat who will implement the solutions proposed by philanthropists and aid agencies, such as the use of malaria medicines and bed nets, vitamin A capsules to alleviate malnutrition, or fertilizer for agriculture. Part of the seductive appeal of this vision is that it exalts the central role of donors.

These donors are given a prominent voice on Africa's future, while local dissidents—like the jailed Ethiopian blogger—receive little attention. These humanitarians have not learned what persecuted democratic activists experience every day: Autocrats are never naturally benevolent. Governments are only benevolent when they are forced to be democratically accountable and citizens have the rights to replace malevolent rulers with better ones.

What then should donors do? Democracy cannot be imposed by force from outside, nor induced or micromanaged by Western experts. Aid from Western governments or international organizations should support homegrown transitions toward freedom like Ukraine's and not go to governments that repress and abuse their citizens.

The good news is that the long-run trend is toward the spread of freedom, as people assert their own rights. Western humanitarians should support them in the battle of ideas, not fight against them by giving spurious intellectual justification and financial support to their oppressive rulers.


*This article has been republished with author's permission. The original story was published on the Wall Street Journal, March 1oth  2014 

Mr. Easterly, a professor of economics at New York University, is the author of "The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor" (Basic Books, 2014). Learn More about William Easterly >