By Helen Epstein – The New York Review of Books
Parts of southern Ethiopia resemble the scenery in a Tarzan movie. When I was there last fall, the green forested hills were blanketed in white mist and rain poured down on the small farms and homesteads. In the towns, slabs of meat hung in the butchers’ shops and donkeys hauled huge sacks of coffee beans, Ethiopia’s major export, along the stony dirt roads. So I was surprised to see the signs of hunger everywhere. There were babies with kwashiorkor, a disease caused by malnutrition, which I’d assumed occurred only in war zones. Many of the older children were clearly stunted and some women were so deficient in iodine they had goiters the size of cannonballs.
This East African nation, famous for its ancient rock-hewn churches, Solomonic emperors, and seemingly intractable poverty, has a long history of famine. But I had always assumed that food shortages were more common in the much drier north of the country than in the relatively fertile south. Although rainfall throughout Ethiopia had been erratic in 2008 and 2009, the stunting and goiter I saw were signs of chronic malnutrition, which had clearly existed for many years.
What was causing it? Ethiopia’s long history of food crises is shrouded in myths and political intrigue. In 1984, famine killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions destitute. At the time, the UN attributed the famine to drought. But most witnesses knew it had far more to do with a military campaign launched by Ethiopia’s then-Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam against a rebel group based in the northern province of Tigray, known as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).1 Government forces isolated the peasantry, destroyed trade and markets, and diverted food aid to their own troops.
Western governments were slow to respond to this humanitarian crisis, but a global charity campaign led by the rock singer Bob Geldof’s Band Aid concerts and albums raised more than $100 million for relief organizations like Christian Aid and Oxfam. Because Tigray was under assault, these organizations established bases in neighboring Sudan. They handed food shipments over to the TPLF, which was supposed to deliver them to starving peasants in Tigray. However, it now appears that the TPLF may also have been using some of the aid to feed its soldiers and purchase weapons. In a March 2010 BBC report, a former TPLF fighter described masquerading as a Sudanese merchant and selling bags of “grain”—many containing only sand—to the aid workers, who then passed the sacks on to other TPLF cadres, who returned them to the “Sudanese traders,” who resold them to the aid workers, and so on. In this way, bags of grain/sand circulated back and forth across the border, as money poured into TPLF coffers. The CIA apparently knew about the scam.2
The TPLF’s political leader at the time is now Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi. Since it ousted Mengistu and took power in 1991, Meles’s government has received some $26 billion in development aid from Western donors including the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the European Union, and Britain’s Department for International Development. Meles, along with Geldof, has vehemently denounced the BBC’s report and demanded a retraction. But many aid workers who were around then have indicated that there is probably some truth to the story.3 Either way, it’s worth asking where Ethiopia’s development aid is going today, bearing in mind the theatrical inclinations of its prime minister.