ASMARA, Eritrea — This struggling, low-profile nation is doing something virtually unheard of in Africa. It's turning down foreign aid.
With a president who vows not to lead another "spoon-fed" African country "enslaved" by international donors, Eritrea, a small, secretive nation on the Horn of Africa, has walked away from more than $200 million in aid in the last year alone, including food from the United Nations, development loans from the World Bank and grants from international charities to build roads and deliver healthcare.
Eritrea can scarcely afford to say no. As one of the world's poorest nations, it has struggled to feed its people.
But President Isaias Afwerki, a former Marxist rebel who has led Eritrea since its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, defends the nation's exercise in self-reliance, even if it results in short-term hardships. He says it is crucial not only to the long-term survival of his country, but also to that of his continent.
"We need this country to stand on its two feet," Isaias said in an interview. Fifty years and billions of dollars in post-colonial international aid have done little to lift Africa from chronic poverty, he said.
"These are crippled societies," Isaias said of neighbors whom he described as relying on donors rather than developing their economies. "You can't keep these people living on handouts because that doesn't change their lives."
But can Eritrea's government fill the void without an increase in hunger and disease?
The self-reliance program began a decade ago but accelerated sharply in 2005. Relying on its meager budget and the conscription of about 800,000 of the country's citizens, the program so far has shown promising results. Measured on a variety of U.N. health indicators, including life expectancy, immunizations and malaria prevention, Eritrea scores as high, and often higher, than its neighbors, including Ethiopia and Kenya.
It might be one of the most ambitious social and economic experiments underway in Africa.But Eritrea isn't getting much credit. Instead, the government increasingly finds itself in the international doghouse, largely because of its poor human rights record, isolationism and belligerent stance toward its neighbors and the West.
In a world moving toward globalization, Eritrea is turning inward. The government has sealed its borders and halted most imports, expelled several diplomats and aid groups, and withdrawn from the leading East African intergovernmental alliance.
"It's like they have self-imposed sanctions," said one diplomat, who like many interviewed feared government retribution if identified. "They're turning into an Albania or North Korea."
Tensions are particularly high with Ethiopia, with which Eritrea fought a bitter border war from 1998 to 2000. In recent months, both nations have beefed up troops along their border in a disputed region, threatening to resume hostilities.
Now the U.S. is threatening to make Eritrea even more of a pariah by adding it to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, alleging that Eritrea is supporting Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, an insurgent alliance that U.S. officials say has links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
A recent United Nations report accused Eritrea of sending arms shipments to the Islamist fighters last year.
"They're creating a lot of problems in Africa," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer said recently, criticizing the government's support for rebel groups in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. In a diplomatic tit-for-tat, the U.S. recently closed Eritrea's consulate in Oakland.
Isaias was once heralded in the United States as the George Washington of Eritrea. Now, many in Washington portray him as a budding Fidel Castro or Kim Jong Il. Foreign diplomats worry that the escalating tensions may only further alienate the country.
"Eritrea shouldn't be the bad boy in the corner," said Carl Lostelius, charge d'affaires for the European Union here. "It's not good for Eritrea and it's not good for the region."
Isaias said he was being punished for opposing Ethiopia's troop deployment to Somalia last year, which helped oust the Islamic Courts group from Mogadishu. The U.S. government supported the overthrow of the Islamists.
The Eritrean leader insisted he was not trying to isolate his country but was attempting to protect it from foreign influences that he said hurt developing countries. He said Eritrea would rejoin regional and global markets once it developed a manufacturing and production capacity and could compete on an equal footing. Until then, he added, "we say, leave us alone. Let us do our work."
As part of the self-reliance campaign, the government last year abruptly stopped the World Food Program's free distributions to 1 million people. This year, government officials refused a proposed $100-million development loan from the World Bank.
"It would seem that this government is less concerned and careful about protecting its own people than the international community," said one aid official in Asmara, the nation's capital.
Since 2005, the number of foreign aid agencies here has fallen to nine from 37 and many aid officials have complained they have little to do.
"They've cut off our limbs," one said.
Isaias insisted his country was doing fine without the aid. Education and healthcare are free, he said. Measles and polio have been nearly eradicated in the last two years and the childhood mortality rate has dropped by nearly two-thirds since 1995. Evaluating food production has been more difficult. Eritrea, with its hostile climate and rugged terrain, has a history of famine. But Isaias said his cold-turkey approach to halting food aid was making farmers work harder, without increasing hunger or malnutrition.
"It's provoked people to do more to feed themselves," he said, predicting Eritrea would produce an agricultural surplus in three years. "We are fed better than anyone."
Aid officials say they can't verify the progress or measure malnutrition rates because the government won't permit independent assessments. The last survey, in 2006, found 20% of children malnourished in some rural areas.
Most agreed that food levels during the last two years have been stable, thanks largely to adequate rainfall.
"They're surviving on favorable weather right now," said one aid worker, "but there is no guarantee that will last."
Critics accuse Isaias of autocratic rule. He canceled presidential elections in 1997 and 2001 and won't say when he plans to step down. A draft constitution was never ratified.
A September 2001 crackdown against opposition groups led to the dismantling of a free press and arrests of several dozen politicians, journalists and others. Some are feared to have died in custody.
Isaias rejects criticisms, calling the constitution "only a paper," dismissing those in jail as "crooks," and bristling at the suggestion that he's worried about holding a free vote.
"Do you think I'm scared of elections in this country?" he said. "What have I done wrong to be scared of elections? I'm moving in the right direction."
On the streets of Asmara, some citizens are less sure. Though many still view Isaias as a national hero, some of those who fought for independence say they had hoped to enjoy more prosperity by now.
"He has lost his vision," said one former fighter who is unemployed. "These days, we feel that every door is shut for us."
With little production and few exports, the government and citizens rely heavily on remittances from Eritreans abroad, including a 2% income tax on expatriates collected through the nation's consulates. Although the tax is voluntary, not paying jeopardizes rights and property in Eritrea, so compliance is fairly good.
The government's economic program is an odd mix of socialism and capitalism. Commodities such as bread and milk are subsidized and rationed, but gasoline sells for $11 a gallon. Closed borders mean frequent shortages. The local Coca-Cola factory, for example, recently closed because it didn't have enough foreign currency to buy syrup.
Asmara is one of Africa's cleanest and safest cities, with Art Deco architecture, palm-lined avenues and bustling street cafes, all remnants of Italian colonial rule.
But beggars and the homeless are beginning to appear on the streets for the first time in recent years. The government strictly controls access to cellphones and citizens can't leave the country without exit visas.
"We feel trapped," said a 22-year-old student in Asmara.
By far the most unpopular government program is "national service," in which every able-bodied person between the ages of 20 and 40 is drafted into a standby military force in case border clashes resume. The service is supposed to end after 18 months, but in practice can last a decade or longer. Most participants are deployed in public-service jobs, working in government ministries, building roads and irrigation systems, or teaching in schools. Salaries are $1 a day.
"What's the point of school?" the student asked. "There won't be any job for me. This is a time in my life when I should be working for my future. Instead, I feel hopeless." He said he was trying to raise $2,300 to pay an underground smuggler to help him out of the country.
Isaias offered no apologies. He said this generation's sacrifices would pave the way for Eritrea's future. "People will either learn the easy way or the hard way," he said. "If you aspire to become someone in this society with a good quality of life, you work for it. You don't get it for free. It's as simple as that."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times