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Tiny Eritrea turns down aid in bold quest for self-reliance

ASMARA, Eritrea - This struggling 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 tiny, secretive nation on the Horn of Africa, has walked away from more than $200 million in aid in the past 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 postcolonial 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 its 3.6 million citizens, the program has shown promising results. Measured on a variety of UN 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 receiving 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.

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 United States 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 US officials say has links to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

A recent UN report accused Eritrea of sending arms shipments to the Islamist fighters last year.

"They're creating a lot of problems in Africa," US 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 US recently closed Eritrea's consulate in Oakland, Calif.

Isaias was once heralded in the United States.

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.

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 US 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.

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.

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 past two years, and the childhood mortality rate has dropped by nearly two-thirds since 1995.

He 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."

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