Tiny Eritrea Says 'No Thank You' To Foreign Aid That Has Strings

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ON a scorchingly hot day, a group of youths chisel a boulder to repair a war-blasted road, filling potholes with the chips of rock by hand. Several miles away, pensioners supervise the laying of rusted rails to rebuild an abandoned railroad, receiving only food as payment.

It is not only rocks that these Eritreans are breaking: They are also shattering the mold of how African nations develop.

Eritrea has emerged from 30 years of war with neighboring Ethiopia determined to rebuild with no dictates from Western donors. It is an ambitious experiment on the world's most impoverished continent. Some say it is a model that gives hope for ways to end the cycle of dependency in many African countries.

"These guys are challenging the modalities of aid. They are forcing us to ask pertinent questions," says the chief representative of the United Nations agencies in Eritrea, Martyn Ngwenya.

The tiny country of 3 million resounds with the din of construction - hammering, drilling, sawing - much of it by volunteers or demobilized soldiers. Eritrea's vision is to harness armies of the unemployed to build low-income housing and highways, lay telephone cables, and plant trees.

The sacrifices extend to all, a rare sign on a continent rife with corruption, handouts, and thievery. Several ministers have not received salaries since the 1993 referendum, which resoundingly brought the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) government to power two years after winning a war of independence from Ethiopia.

Many government officials bicycle to work, their shirts frayed and shoes worn. Unlike most African capitals, virtually no beggars or rubbish are seen in the spotless streets of the capital, Asmara.

Eritreans explain this phenomenon by the fact that, spurned by the Soviet bloc, the West, and Arab states while fighting for freedom, the rebel Eritrean People's Liberation Front (as the PFDJ was then known) had to be self-sufficient to survive.

In the process, it became one of the most disciplined and cohesive rebel forces in modern history. The 100,000-strong army raised its own funds and built its own factories that manufactured everything from plastic sandals to weaponry. This self-reliance and a certain suspicion of the outside world continue in peacetime.

"International financial agencies are too obsessed with conventional ways of looking at things," says Finance Minister Haile Woldense in an interview. "We have developed our own vision that is peculiar to the history of our struggle."

This vision translates into an equal partnership with donors. It also means an emphasis on lifting up the poor while courting private and foreign investment.

For instance, Eritrea turned down several construction projects offered by foreign-aid groups, deciding it was cheaper to hire its own people. It declined $75 million in European aid to build a road because the government felt the project would have benefited only the rich. Officials from the UN World Food Program were kicked out last year for what was seen as acting out of line.

There is much work ahead. The country has virtually no physical or institutional infrastructure. Decent roads, telecommunications, a trained civil service, and a private business sector are lacking. Work must be found for 60,000 demobilized soldiers and 500,000 refugees from Sudan.

WHILE Eritrea is still very poor, some say it has the potential to develop economically like an Asian tiger. "I have been working in the region for 35 years and have never seen such a unique situation. These people have a remarkable long-range vision and dedication," says US Ambassador to Eritrea Robert Houdek.

Why does Eritrea's approach seem to work? The government is extremely popular and has easily mobilized people after winning the independence they fought so hard for. Unlike many other African countries, corruption is frowned upon. And unlike next-door Sudan, wracked by civil war, Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully.

Ministers admit the luxury of a new nation is to start from scratch. "We learned from others' mistakes," says Mr. Woldense. "We could design things as we wanted."

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