By Steven E. Levingston
The image most of us retain of Ethiopia is one of mass starvation and a glittery rock concert intended to ease the suffering. That famine and concert was 25 years ago, and Ethiopia has tried to move on. But just as the world at first overlooked the famine, it is now not aware of progress in the country. Economic and political strides have been made, but still many Ethiopians struggle just a bad drought or flood away from disaster. Peter Gill, who covered the famine and wrote “A Year in the Death of Africa,” now looks at Ethiopia over the past 25 years in “Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid,” out this month from Oxford University Press.
By Peter Gill
Ethiopia is desperate to live down its past – but not the story of an ancient empire founded in a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; nor the tale of a Christian culture established before the conversion of much of Europe; nor the country’s crushing defeat of European colonizers. Rather Ethiopia is trying to get past its more recent history of famine and suffering.
The world has an image of Ethiopia based on the terrible events of 1984-5 when up to one million died of starvation and when rock stars in the United States and Britain sang ‘We are the World’ and ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’ to raise money for famine relief. All that has now changed, say the Ethiopians. But Western commentators are out of touch with the new reality. The former famine lands of the North have been at peace for the past 20 years and a stable government with a commitment to agricultural development has brought about real improvements. Overall the Ethiopian economy has boomed over recent years, with only a temporary check brought about by rocketing international commodity prices in 2008.
The big problem with the old image, officials complain, is that it is an active obstruction to Ethiopian progress. Every time a starvation story gets into on to television, potential investors think again about where they putting their money. The West’s relentless focus on the aid relationship and how best to help relieve hunger and poverty dominates the official relationship and those same old tales of suffering discourage tourists from discovering the treasures of one of the world’s greatest cultures. Friends of Ethiopia can sympathize with this impatience to shrug off the old and get on with the new. But in the memorable words of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe (he was actually referring to ‘tribe,’ not ‘famine’) ‘a word will stay around as long as there is work for it to do.’
For all Ethiopia’s determination to live down the recent past, the unfortunate truth is that far too many of its people live on the margins of existence, that just one shock such as a drought or a flood tip them into destitution and the risk of death from starvation, and that upwards of ten million of them are dependent on an almost annual basis on foreign food aid. A quarter of a century on from the rock star mobilization of the mid-1980s, the twin problems of backward agricultural practices and galloping population growth remain the same.
At the time of the great famine Ethiopia had a population of 40 million. It now has 80 million people and that figure could double again in the next 25 to 30 years. Yet Ethiopia’s own efforts in family planning and agricultural development have not always been endorsed by the aid-givers. The fashion-conscious rich world moved away from these development fundamentals to concentrate instead on the showier provision of education and health, and then more recently on democracy and ‘good governance.’
In the 20 years after the famine, western agricultural aid to Africa fell by almost two thirds, and in the past decade, thanks largely to Washington’s distaste for contraception, aid expenditure on family planning in Africa has also fallen. According to the United Nations, it now amounts to just one fortieth of spending on HIV/AIDS. Not everyone rails against the injustice of Ethiopia’s characterization as the land of famine. Often in my discussions with him, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi took me by surprise. When I asked him about the western image of his country, I expected a politician’s defensiveness.
The answer I received was this: “Humiliation can be a very powerful motivation for action and therefore I don’t hate the fact that we get humiliated every day provided it’s based on facts … if we feel we deserve to be treated like honourable citizens of the world, then we have to remove the source of that shame. There is no way round it.”