In 1987 when Time Magazine featured a famine-stricken Ethiopian mother on its cover page, it failed to ask the most important question of all: What should Ethiopians do and not do to help themselves?
It is the privilege of those who give to pity those who receive. One of the great indignities of being a perennial object of charity and handouts is the perception by those lending a hand that handout recipients are not only moneyless and helpless but also hopeless and clueless about what they need to do to help themselves. Well-intentioned donors and benefactors often mistakenly assume that recipients of charity should “ask what the world can do for them, and not what they can do for themselves.” But history shows that all societies that have succeeded economically, socially and politically had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a little help from friends. Ethiopians are no exception; they must do all of the heavy lifting by themselves if they are to permanently cast off the burdens of poverty, famine, disease, dictatorship and corruption. What should Ethiopians do to save themselves?
Ten Things Ethiopians Can Do to Help Themselves 
It is all about humanity, community and civility, NOT ethnicity, nationality, sovereignty, animosity or disunity.
If Ethiopians have a chance of overcoming their enormous economic and political problems, they must first make fundamental choices. They can choose the politics of their common humanity and collectively build a harmonious civil community, or remain trapped in the dungeon of identity politics and become pawns in the ethnic chess game of uber-dictator Meles Zenawi. If Ethiopians affirm their common humanity, they will see that human rights abuses do not have an ethnic face, nor poverty a nationality. They will understand religion is not a weapon of animosity but a way to divinity. National disunity will never produce prosperity, but it will surely keep the people in perpetual poverty. Ethnicity and identity add diversity in a genuine democratic system. Under a dictatorship, they become powerful tools of dehumanization breeding fear, hatred and distrust among the people. Ethiopians must choose to climb up and steer the Ship of Ethiopia into the horizon or remain lost in their ethnic boats on a sea of tyranny, poverty and famine. That is why I believe Ethiopians need a new unifying civic ideology that transcends ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, language and other classifications susceptible to insidious use. Ethiopians inside the country and in the Diaspora must build a civic culture based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most translated document in the world. If the values of the UDHR are widely accepted and practiced, Ethiopia will be able to overcome poverty, famine and internal division and achieve prosperity and greatness within a generation.
Ethiopians must become a little bit utopian.
Ethiopia is today a dystopia– a society that writhes under a dictatorship that trashes human rights and decimates all opposition ruthlessly. Last year, Zenawi told two high level U.S. Government officials what he will do to his opposition: “We will crush them with our full force.” All Ethiopians, regardless of ethnicity, language, religion, class or region must be able to imagine an Ethiopia where no petty tyrant will ever have the power or even the audacity to say he will “crush” another fellow citizen, or has the ability to use “full force” against any person just because he can. Ethiopians must be able to dream of a future free of ethnic strife, famine and oppression; and strive to work together for a little utopia in Ethiopia where might is NOT right but the rule of law shields the defenseless poor and voiceless against the slings and arrows of the criminally rich and powerful. It is true that Utopians aspire for the perfect society, but Ethiopians should aspire and work collectively for a society in which human rights are respected, the voice of the people are heard and accepted (not stolen), those to whom power is entrusted perform their duties with transparency and are held accountable to the law and people.
Learn from the past, prepare for the future.
More often than not, many Ethiopians tend to dwell on the past than imagining an alternative future. The past is a great teacher; we must learn from past mistakes and do things better and differently. But the past can also be a mental prison. Zenawi always reminds us how we have been wicked to each other in the past and waxes eloquent on the alleged crimes, cruelty and inhumanity of long gone kings and princes. He never tires to tell us how this king, that aristocrat or soldier has been cruel and barbaric. He thinks he can make himself angelic by demonizing past leaders. Perhaps he does not see it, but when one points an index finger outwards, three fingers are pointing inwards. The moral lesson is that we need to find a way out of the mental prison of past grievances and liberate our minds with a new civic ideology to embrace a brave new democratic Ethiopia under the rule of law. As the old saying goes, “One can’t drive forward on the road of life if one is fixed looking in the rear view mirror.” So, we have to make another simple choice: Live in the past chewing on the cud of historical grievances or hold hands, learn from the past and put our collective shoulders to the grindstone and forge a new Ethiopia. If we fail to do that, those who cling to power will entrench and enrich themselves and laugh at the rest of us who remain trapped in the dungeons of our historical grievances.
No country or society ever got prosperity by begging or receiving alms.
No country or society ever got prosperity by begging or receiving alms. But recent evidence from Wikileaks cablegrams shows that Zenawi plans to bulldoze his way into economic development at an annual growth rate of 15 percent by panhandling the West. According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of Treasury Andy Baukol, the “Government of Ethiopia (GoE) has become more vocal about its need for sustained aid flows from the West and more recalcitrant about implementing any reforms or liberalization of key sectors such as banking and telecommunications.” A recent IMF report, which Zenawi wants kept hidden from public scrutiny, concluded that Ethiopia’s “macroeconomic performance has deteriorated markedly” because of loose monetary policy which has fueled stratospheric inflation and mindless government control and regulations which have undermined confidence in the private sector.
Foreign aid as a development vehicle has been thoroughly discredited. As Dambissa Moyo has argued, the “evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment.” Countries that have achieved rapid economic development have managed to create favorable politico-legal environments for business, industry and commerce, maintained low state debt and accumulated substantial fiscal reserves to meet emergency needs. The spirit of official mendicancy in Ethiopia must be replaced by a public spirit of unfettered entrepreneurship.
As long as Ethiopia remains under a dictatorship, there will always be famine, and not just of food.
Western aid bureaucrats like to sugarcoat the famine in Ethiopia in the politically correct bureaucratese of “extreme malnutrition”, “food crises”, “green drought” and so on. Interestingly, in a recent official blog and testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto and presently Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State acknowledged “famine [is] spreading across the Horn of Africa.” That should not come as a surprise as Yamamoto had long concluded that Ethiopia is trapped in a permanent and unbreakable cycle of famine and starvation. In a recently released Wikileaks cablegram,Yamamoto advised his superiors: “Ethiopia’s perennial emergency food dependence is, de facto, a permanent condition.” He outlined that the U.S. has three choices in light of the permanence of famine in the Ethiopian political economy: 1) “continue to provide massive food aid, which is unsustainable, in meeting Ethiopia’s permanent state of emergency food need each year,” 2) “provide significantly greater assistance for sustainable agricultural productivity”, or 3) “robustly to push for a shift in economic and agricultural policies (regarding land tenure, agricultural technologies and practices, agricultural inputs, etc.) to increase domestic agricultural productivity.” The bottom line is that as long as Ethiopia remains in the chokehold of the current dictatorship, there will always be a famine not only of food but also of democracy, human rights, rule of law, accountability, transparency and vision. Western donors must stop supporting oppression, corruption, persecution and repression in famine-stricken Ethiopia.
Plant and water the seeds of genuine multiparty democracy on the parched landscape of famine.
It is oft-repeated that “there has never been a famine in a functioning multi-party democracy” with a robust free press. In a competitive multi-party political process, there is a much higher degree of political and electoral accountability. A government that ignores or fails to prevent famine is surely destined to lose power. A free press will mobilize public opinion for official and civic action to deal with the problem. Multiparty democracy does not mean the six dozen ethno-tribal “parties” organized by the Zenawi dictatorship to serve as a Tower of Babel and facilitate its divide and rule strategy. It does mean the functioning of political organizations that compete for electoral support and have appeal across ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional lines. Ethiopia can learn a great lesson from Ghana in this regard in light of shared socio-economic and political experiences. Article 55 (4) of the Ghanaian Constitution expressly mandates political parties to have “national character”: “Every political party shall have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious, regional or other sectional divisions.” Any multiparty system to be established in Ethiopia must be guided by such constitutional language.
Ethiopia’s youth are the flowers of today and the seeds of hope tomorrow.
The old Ethiopian saying that the “youth are the flowers of today and the seeds of tomorrow” is true. They need to be carefully cultivated and grown. But the the data on these seeds of hope are discouraging. Forty six percent of Ethiopia’s 91 million population in 2011 is estimated to be under the age of 18. UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. An estimated 5 million children are orphans, a little less than one-fifths from AIDS. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent. The vast majority of Ethiopian adolescents live in rural areas. Some regions in the country have extremely high rates of early marriage. Frustrated and in despair of their future, many urban youths drop out of school and engage in risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency. The ruling dictatorship’s youth, sports and culture agency concedes that youth issues have been long neglected: “In Ethiopia, because of the fact that proper attention has not been given to addressing youth issues and their organizations, therefore, mutual cooperation and networking among youth, family, society, other partners and government had hardly been created.” Much needs to be done to give Ethiopia’s youth hope in the future. Whatever is to be done to help the youth, the starting point must necessarily be a de-marginalization of youth through an explicit acknowledgement of their role in solving problems affecting them. They must be included in all decision-making concerning youth issues and consulted extensively in the policy planning and implementation stages. The bottom line is that without the youth, Ethiopia has no future. Those who ignore the youth should understand that hungry children grow to be angry children and a ticking demographic time bomb.
Empower Ethiopian women.
Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner until her release last year and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, enjoyed talking about an allegorical ‘future country of Ethiopia’ that would become an African oasis of democracy and a bastion of human rights and the rule of law in the continent. In Birtukan’s ‘future Ethiopia’ women and men would live not only as equals under the law, but also work together to create a progressive and compassionate society in which women are free from domestic violence and sexual exploitation, have access to adequate health and maternal care and are provided education to free them from culturally-enforced ignorance, submissiveness and subjugation. But if the situation of women in the ‘present country of Ethiopia’ is any indication, Birtukans “future country” is in deep trouble.
The 2000 US State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in appallingly disheartening terms: “The Constitution provides for the equality of women; however, these provisions often are not applied in practice… Discriminatory regulations in the civil code include recognizing the husband as the legal head of the family and designating him as the sole guardian of children over five years old. Domestic violence is not considered a serious justification under the law to obtain a divorce. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage has existed, the number of children raised and the joint property, the woman is entitled to only 3 months’ financial support should the relationship end.”
The 2010 US. State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in similar stark terms: “The constitution provides women the same rights and protections as men. Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) such as FGM (female genital mutilation), abduction, and rape are explicitly criminalized; however, enforcement of these laws lagged. Women and girls experienced gender-based violence daily, but it was underreported due to shame, fear, or a victim’s ignorance of legal protections. Domestic violence, including spousal abuse, was a pervasive social problem. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey found that 81 percent of women believed a husband had a right to beat his wife. Sexual harassment was widespread [and] harassment-related laws were not enforced.”
The current dictatorship in Ethiopia manifested its latent misogyny not only by giving lip service to women’s issues but also by dehumanizing the symbol of women in Ethiopia, young Birtukan Midekssa. During her incarceration, the U.S. Government regarded Birtukan a political prisoner because she was imprisoned for her political beliefs as did all other major international human rights organizations. But Zenawi threw Birtukan straight into solitary confinement after arresting her on the streets, and boasted to the world: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” He later literally added insult to injury by mocking her that she was in “perfect condition” in solitary confinement and was eating and sitting around idly and likely to “have gained a few kilos”.
Ethiopian women need to be empowered in all spheres of life. But without young women leaders like Birtukan who can fight for Ethiopian democracy and human rights, and women’s rights, talk of improving the status of women in Ethiopia is a mockery of women.
Only Ethiopians can save themselves.
Ethiopians should know that the West and its billions in aid and loans will help but not save them from a famine of food and democracy. Ethiopians in the Diaspora can help by becoming the voice of Ethiopia’s voiceless. But only Ethiopians can save themselves from famine, poverty, dictatorship and division. Only they can solve their problems by creating common cause, building consensus and forging genuine brotherhood and sisterhood among themselves regardless of ethnicity or other factors. Only when they are able to forge unity of purpose and are irrevocably committed to democracy and the rule of law will they be able to cast off the boots of dictatorship from their necks. There is no need to look for answers to what troubles Ethiopia in Washington, D.C., London, Bonn or Beijing. The solution for Ethiopia’s problems is in Ethiopia.
Give hope. Always keep hope alive.
The old saying is true that “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” When dictators swagger arrogantly to show the people that they are omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, they are telling them they have no hope. Their message is the same as the one inscribed on the gates of Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But Ethiopians must never abandon hope. To abandon hope is to lose faith in Ethiopia’s children. When the dictators say, “Look how powerful we are. Give up!”, hope says “keep on keeping on. Tyrants for a time seem invincible but in the end, they always fall.” As Martin L. King said, “We are now experiencing the darkest hour which is just before the dawn of freedom and human dignity.” That is why it is important to keep hope alive in Ethiopia.
Tyrants always fall, but what happens the morning after?
Gandhi spoke an eternal truth: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall — think of it, ALWAYS.” In just the past few months, Ben Ali fell in Tunisia; Hosni Mubarak fell and is standing trial in Egypt. Moammar Gadhafi fell and is hiding out in a spider hole somewhere in southern Libya. Bashir Al-Assad is teetering as he continues to butcher Syrians who have kept up the pressure through acts of mass civil disobedience. He too will fall. The question is never, never whether tyrants fall. The question is always, always what happens after they fall!
Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Time Magazine on its cover page asked two weighty questions about recurrent famines in Ethiopia: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? What should the world do and not do” to help them? In my commentary last week, I gave ten reasons in response to the first question; here I offer ten more for the second.
For the past one-half century, the “Western world” has been the principal source of charity and handouts in Ethiopia. For the last two decades, the West has been feeding the regime of dictator Meles Zenawi with billions of dollars of development and humanitarian aid while filling the stomachs of starving Ethiopians with empty words and emptier promises. Now that another famine is spreading like wildfire in that country, the question remains: “What should the Western world do and not do to help Ethiopians permanently escape the endless cycles of famine described in the sugarcoated language of the self-serving international aid agencies as “acute food insecurity, extreme malnutrition, green drought and food crisis”.
Ten Things the World Should Do and Not Do to Help Starving Ethiopians
Take the moral hazard out of Western aid in Ethiopia.
Western taxpayers have been footing the bill to provide a fail-safe insurance policy for the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi on the theory that he is too servile to fail (not unlike the notion of corporations that are too big to fail). Zenawi has proven to be a reliable proxy warfighter for the West in the Horn. He has received hearty congratulations for a “fantastic Somalia job” even though his invasion created the worst humanitarian crises in Africa in the last decade. Tony Blair appointed him to his Commission for Africa. He has been the West’s man in Africa on climate change. In return, the West has provided Zenawi billions of dollars in “safety net” aid, multilateral loans and a perpetual supply of relief handouts to insulate his regime from the natural consequences of a mismanaged economy, debilitating corruption and proliferating poverty and famine. The West should now stand back and let Zenawi face the consequences of chronic budget deficits, galloping inflation, corruption and empty grain silos. Turning a blind eye to gross human rights violations and Western complicity in the regime’s denial of democratic rights to Ethiopians presents not only a moral hazard but also irrefutable evidence of moral bankruptcy.
Put humanity and human rights back in Western humanitarian aid in Ethiopia.
The West should treat the starving people of Ethiopia as human beings, not as pawns in a strategic regional chess game or as pitiful objects of charity and handouts. The root cause of the food famine in Ethiopia is an underlying political famine of democracy, rule of law, lack of accountability and transparency and flagrant human rights abuses. More democracy and greater respect for human rights necessarily means less famine and starvation because a government that is not able, willing and ready to feed its people will be swept out of office by a hungry and angry electorate. The West should tie its aid to specific and measurable improvements in human rights observances and properly functioning democratic institutions. If Western aid and loans are decoupled from human rights and good governance, they become powerful tools of oppression, persecution and subjugation in the hands of dictators.
Promote and support a stable and healthy Ethiopian society through aid, not entrench an iron-fisted and malignant dictatorship.
Western donors believe that they can buy “stability” in the Horn of Africa region by spending billions of aid dollars to support the Zenawi dictatorship. But they remain willfully ignorant of the lessons of history. Supporting a dictator is as risky as carrying an open powder keg at a fireworks festival. As we have recently seen, the West for decades supported dictators Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubark in Egypt and Gadahafi in Libya. For a time, these dictators staged the illusion of stability, control and permanence for the West. But they all went up in smoke when young Mohammed Bouazizi torched himself to end a life of oppression and indignity. In the long run, the West knows no amount of foreign aid or loans could possibly buffer Zenawi’s dictatorship from a tsunami of popular upheaval. Shouldn’t they stand on the right side of history as President Obama often exhorts?
Never bankroll bad actions by dictators with good Western taxpayer money.
The West has a bad habit of rewarding the bad acts of African dictators with more and larger amounts of Western taxpayer-supported aid and loans. After Zenawi stole the 2005 elections in broad daylight, jailed nearly all of the opposition leaders, human rights advocates, civic society leaders in the country and mowed down nearly two hundred unarmed demonstrators and wounded nearly eight hundred, the West gave him billions in aid and loans. In 2008 alone, Zenawi received $3 billion, the largest amount of aid in Africa. Zenawi must indubitably believe that there is a linear cause and effect relationship between his human rights abuses and increased foreign aid and loans. It seems to be a simple case of operant conditioning in which behavior and actions follow a system of rewards and disincentives. If human rights violations are always reinforced by the positive reinforcement of increasing amounts of aid, there will be more and more outrageous abuses committed to obtain that outcome.
Make partnership with the Ethiopian people, not the Zenawi dictatorship.
There is documentary evidence from Wikileaks cablegrams to show that the West basically wants a “guy they can do business with” in Ethiopia. The core business of the West in Ethiopia and the Horn is counterterrorism. Zenawi invaded Somalia in 2006 and neraly three years later packed up and left. Today Al Shabab and the other warlords still operate in Somalia with impunity. A partnership with a dictator on a single issue is not only short-sighted but also counterproductive to the long-term strategic interests of the West in Ethiopia and the Horn. That is why the West should nurture a long-term partnership with the Ethiopian people based on a demonstrable commitment to good governance, the rule of law, accountability, anti-corruption practices, private sector development, basic education and health services and so on. The easiest way to sever a relationship with the people is to give a fat welfare check (free money) to a depraved dictatorship year after year.
Hold the local paymasters of aid accountable.
Zenawi’s regime today is accountable to no one for the famine that is spreading throughout the country or the aid that it receives from the West. The international aid bureaucrats dare not question Zenawi fearing his legendary torrent of scorn, mockery and insults. They are mere rubberstamps of Zenawi’s regime. Recently, when Ken Ohashi, the World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia said Zenawi’s economic plan (“Growth and Transformation Plan”) is unsustainable, Zenawi derided him as a neocolonial overseer: “The World Bank [country] director is used to having other developing nations simply listen to his orders and is not used to nations refusing implement policy based on their wishes.” Last year Zenawi called the European Union Election Observers’ report “garbage”.
Whenever questions are raised about the misuse and abuse of aid money, the international aid bureaucrats run for cover or get into high gear to deny any improprieties and wrongdoing. For instance, Human Rights Watch and more recently BIJ/BBC have made serious and well-supported allegations of political weaponization of the so-called “safety net” aid. In July 2010, the Development Assistance Group, a coordinating body of 26 foreign donor institutions for Ethiopia, issued a whitewash report which concluded that the administration of the aid programs is the “supported by relatively robust accountability systems.” In the past couple of weeks, USAID Deputy Administrator Gregory Gottlieb spoke to the Voice of America and declared, “There is no famine in Ethiopia.” Yet an audit report by the independent Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of US AID in March 2010 came to the distressing conclusion that USAID has no idea what is happening to its agricultural programs in Ethiopia. By rejecting the data generated by the regime and local USAID officials, the OIG implicitly indicts them for manufacturing data to make things look good. The West must call a spade a spade, insist on the truth and let the chips fall where they may!
Condition aid and loans on the implementation of comprehensive family planning programs in Ethiopia.
Recently, the U.S. Census Bureau had frightening predictions for Ethiopia. By 2050, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Ethiopia’s population growth has been spiraling upwards for decades. Since 1995, the average annual rate of population growth has remained at over 3 percent. Comprehensive family planning services are essential to avoiding the predicted doomsday forty years from now. Such services educate, train and prepare couples and families when and how many children to have, provide them contraceptive counseling and help them acquire skills to prevent and manage sexually transmitted diseases, among other things. A decade ago, the World Health Organization and the World Bank estimated that $3.00 per person per year would provide basic family planning, maternal and neonatal health care to women in developing countries, including contraception, prenatal, delivery and post-natal care and postpartum family planning and promotion of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections. A decade or two from now when it is too late, providing such services in Ethiopia will be prohibitively expensive.
To help the starving people of Ethiopia, help Ethiopian women.
The distressing status of women in Ethiopian society has been documented over the past decade. The U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (2000) reported: “Violence and societal discrimination against women, and abuse of children remained problems, and female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread.” The situation remains pretty much the same in 2011. Western aid should seriously focus on improving the status of women and go beyond empty rhetoric. For instance, there is a lot of talk and window-dressing by the USAID about the empowerment and advancement of women in Ethiopia, but the rhetoric falls short of demonstrable outcomes. USAID claims to have helped thousands of rural women obtain microfiance, and through its extension services enabled hundreds of families adopt better technologies to improve their productivity. USAID also claims to have helped remove “road blocks to development” by improving gender integration, expanding educational opportunity, increased awareness of legal rights and so on and by “providing high-impact, results-oriented technical assistance that promotes participation and transparency.” There is little convincing evidence in the public reports of USAID to support any of these claims. In any case, given the chummy and cozy relationship between the local USAID operatives and Zenawi’s regime and the OIG’s audit referenced above, one would have to take USAID’s word not just with a grain but a big sack of salt.
To help the starving people of Ethiopia, help Ethiopia’s youth.
Seventy percent of Ethiopia’s population is said to be under the age of thirty. This past May, USAID announced that it will partner with Pact (an NGO) and UNICEF to implement five-year, $100 million program to benefit over 500,000 Ethiopian orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV and AIDS. The program “will support efforts by the Ethiopian Government and civil society to standardize comprehensive care and support services for vulnerable children and their families.” Reliance on a combination of donor-funded NGOs, regime-managed and –owned civil society organizations and bloated bureaucracies to implement such a program is manifestly unconvincing. The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia’s youth need access to better educational and employment opportunities now. Youth alienation, joblessness, nihilism breed despair and anarchy which the country can ill-afford.
The West should know that aid and loans will not save Ethiopia.
The West should know that neither aid nor loans will save Ethiopia. Only Ethiopians, poor and famished as they are, can save Ethiopia and themselves.
The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness. It is this rigid focus on the ‘backward masses,’ rather than the unique human person, that typically justifies appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.
On December 21, 1987, Time Magazine on its cover page featured a downcast and crestfallen young Ethiopian mother as a symbol of famine victims in that country. Time asked two timeless questions: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? What should the world do and not do?”
In its analysis, Time wrote something that should strikes us all as déjà vu today.
Three years ago , a famine began to strike Ethiopia with apocalyptic force. Westerners watched in horror as the images of death filled their TV screens: the rows of fly-haunted corpses, the skeletal orphans crouched in pain… Today Ethiopia is in the midst of another drought… Ethiopia, which has earned the unhappy honor of being rated the globe’s poorest country by the World Bank (average annual per capita income: + $110; infant mortality rate: 16.8%), is on the brink of disaster again. At least 6 million of its 46 million people face starvation, and only a relief effort on the scale of the one launched three years ago will save them… As the cry [for aid] goes out once more for food and money, the sympathetic cannot be faulted for wondering why this is happening all over again. Is the latest famine wholly the result of cruel nature, or are other, man-made forces at work that worsen the catastrophe?…
In 2011, Ethiopia is the second poorest country in the world despite fanciful claims of 15 a percent annual economic growth and fantasies of building the largest hydroelectric dams in all of Africa by dictator Meles Zenawi. According to official statements of the Zenawi regime, 4.5 million of the estimated 90 million Ethiopians need 380 metric tons of food at a cost of USD$400 million. Jason Frasier, mission director of USAID in Ethiopia recently cautioned that Zenawi’s regime “may be underestimating the country’s needs in its drought crisis, even as the government announced that 4.5 million Ethiopians need food aid, 40 percent more than last year. We are concerned that we are underestimating the situation, especially in the southern provinces.” We are back to the future in 1984!
On August 17, 2011, Wolfgang Fengler, a lead economist for the World Bank, weighed in with a definitive answer to Time’s question: “The [famine] crisis is man made. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.” In other words, it is bad governance that is at the core of the famine problem in Ethiopia, not drought. This is a rare and refreshing departure from the all-too-common bureaucratic mumbo jumbo about the causes of famine often spouted by international aid agencies and multilateral organizations.
TEN REASONS WHY ETHIOPIANS ARE STARVING AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN…
Reason #1: Famine is not merely a humanitarian catastrophe in Ethiopia; it is a powerful political and military weapon.
There is a long and ignoble history of political and military weaponization of famine in Ethiopia. In the mid-1980s, the military junta government of Mengistu Hailemariam used famine to punish civilian populations perceived to support rebels in the northern part of the country. The junta prevented delivery of food aid in rebel-held areas (as did the rebels themselves) and implemented a cruel policy of forced migration of civilians in an effort to drain recruits and deny support to the rebels. Zenawi’s regime pursued the same policy to defeat alleged rebels in the Ogaden region and has further used humanitarian aid to consolidate power and starve out his opposition as documented recently in a BIA/BIJ report. Mao Zedong taught that “Guerrillas are like fish, and the people are the water in which fish swim.” Both Zenawi and Megistu understood that by militarily and politically weaponizing famine, they can poison and drain the water in the lake. No water! No fish! No problem!
Reason # 2: Famine is a recurrent fact in Ethiopia because that country has been in an endless cycle of dictatorship for decades.
Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen argues that “there has never been a famine in a functioning multi-party democracy.” In a competitive political process with a functioning free press, there is a much higher degree of political accountability. No freely elected government could afford to ignore famine or abstain from doing all it can to prevent it. Opposition politicians will make famine a major political issue to win elections. A free press will mobilize public opinion to hold those in power accountable for letting “famine occur on their watch.” In Ethiopia, opposition political parties are non-existent. In 2005, Zenawi jailed the entire leadership of the opposition for nearly two years. He even jailed the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, Birtukan Midekssa, and with sadistic indifference declared, “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” No opposition, no multiparty democracy, no free press, no accountability equals recurrent famines.
Reason # 3: Famine in Ethiopia is an annual crisis because dictators do not give a damn if the people die one by one or by the millions.
The current rulers of Ethiopia, like their junta predecessor, continue to derive spiritual guidance from their patron saints: Stalin and Mao (Chinese financial support today is one of the cornerstones of Zenawi’s regime). Stalin was blasé and arrogantly dismissive of the Ukraine famine of the early 1930s. He said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” In 1959 during China’s Great Famine, Mao was equally matter-of-fact: “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” Mengistu said there was no famine when millions of Ethiopians dropped like flies from starvation in 1984-85. But Zenawi is more cunning and pretty slick when it comes to public relations. He said there are emergencies, but no famines. “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch – emergencies, but no famines.”
Reason #4. Famine is a structural part of the Ethiopian economy because the “government” owns all the land.
It is said of the golden rule that he who controls the gold makes the rules. The same can be said of land in Ethiopia. Those who own the land makes the rules for those who till the land. Article 40 (1) of the Ethiopian Constitution provides that “the right to ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia.” For all intents and purposes, that means the ruling regime and its supporters own the land. The regime controls who gets what plot of urban or farm land. The regime sells, leases or otherwise traffics in land without any accountability. Recently, the regime sold a large chunk of the country’s most fertile land to Indian companies for pennies: “For £150 a week (USD$245), you can lease more than 2,500 square kilometres of virgin, fertile [Ethiopian] land – an area the size of Dorset, England – for 50 years, plus generous tax breaks.” The bottom line is that those who own the land are more interested in meeting the needs of other people in other places than the Ethiopian people. Zenawi has condemned Ethiopian developers who were transferring their leaseholds in urban land in Addis Ababa as “land grabbers” and “speculators” who should be “locked up”. The old feudal landlords are today replaced by new landlords in designer suits.
Reason # 5: Famine persists in Ethiopia because massive human rights abuses persist.
The Zenawi regime is well-known for trashing the human and constitutional rights of Ethiopian citizens. Perhaps unknown to many is the regime’s flagrant violation of its affirmative legal duty to provide a “standard of living adequate for the health and well-being… including food for its citizens.” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 25(1); The International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Article 11(2) [“fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”]; Ethiopian Constitution, Article 90 of the Constitution, [“provide all Ethiopians with access to public health and education, clean water, housing, food and social insurance”]. Weaponizing hunger to decimate one’s opposition is a crime against humanity. But hunger is the new weapon of choice in human rights violations in Ethiopia. Those who oppose the regime are not only denied humanitarian food and relief aid, they are also victimized through a system of evictions, denial of land or reduction in plot size as well as denial of access to loans, fertilizers, seeds, etc. In the case of the people of Gambella, entire communities are forced off the land to make way for Indian investors in violation of conventions that protect the rights of indigenous peoples. Zenawi’s regime believes that the most effective way of crushing the hearts and minds of the people is by keeping their stomachs empty.
Reason #6: Famine persists in Ethiopia because Zenawi has succeeded in keeping the famine hidden.
Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 pretended there was no famine until the documentary “the Hidden Famine” by Jonathan Dimbleby was aired to a shocked and angry Ethiopian public. Former junta leader Mengistu was arrogantly dismissive during the 1984-85 famine. He asked, “What famine?” Zenawi is far more cunning. His solution is to clampdown on the press and shut the country down to all foreign journalists and media representatives. If any foreign journalists should somehow manage to get through, jail them. That is exactly what he did recently to two Swedish journalists, photojournalist Johan Persson and reporter Martin Schibbye, who were arrested in the Ogaden region where the regime has committed massive human rights violations for years. Regime representative Dina Mufti explained that the two journalists “will be tried according to the national law … for the terrorist activities they were planning to undertake.” Woubshet Taye, deputy editor of Awramba Times (a struggling weekly paper) and one of the few female journalists in the country, Reyot Alemu of Feteh (another struggling weekly paper) newspapers were recently jailed on bogus charges that they were “organizing a terrorist network.” Since there is no independent press in the country and those trying to offer an alternative voice are subject to intimidation, arrest and detention, the famine remains hidden not unlike the days of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Reason #7: Famine persist in Ethiopia because there is a “conspiracy of silence” by Western aid agencies and timid NGOs.
Zenawi has made it clear that anyone who disputes his claim of 15 percent annual economic growth and rosy picture of the country will be thrown out of the country, vilified or not allowed to operate. Recently, when Ken Ohashi, the World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia said Zenawi’s economic plan (“Growth and Transformation Plan”) is unsustainable, Zenawi unleashed his legendary vitriol on him: “The World Bank [country] director is used to having other developing nations simply listen to his orders and is not used to nations refusing implement policy based on their wishes. He left here after we refused to let him tell us what to do and wrote this article to get back at us.” In other words, attack the man’s integrity savagely to divert attention from the man’s message.
But all NGOs and international aid agencies know never to use the “F” word, unless of course they use it to deny there is no famine. That is precisely what USAID Deputy Administrator Gregory Gottlieb did last week on a VOA broadcast. He said, “There is no famine in Ethiopia.” The strange thing is that it does not seem Gottlieb had spoken about the “situation” to Jason Fraser, mission director of USAID in Ethiopia, before making his glib declaration. Fraser said, “We are concerned that we are underestimating the situation, especially in the southern provinces [in Ethiopia].” So the conspiracy of silence goes on to keep the famine hidden by using euphemisms. It is not FAMINE, it is the “situation”, severe malnutrition, food insecurity, food crisis [when Zenawi recently visited China, Premier Wen Jiabao called the famine “crisis”], green drought and so on. The “crisis” is not the result of lack of preventive or long-range planning, official incompetence, corruption, criminal negligence, etc., but the effect of “erratic rains damaged or delayed crops, deforestation overgrazing” and other ecological, environmental, and climatic disasters.
The international poverty mongers are so slick that they have even invented a “scientific” classification system for famine: “Acute Food Insecurity, Stressed, Crisis, Emergency and Catastrophe.” They want us to believe that famine is some sort of neatly-staged transitional process. For a mother and child who have not eaten for days or scrimp on ten kilograms of grain a month, the famine taxanomy is meaningless. It would be interesting to hear what famine victims would say when they are told that they will not be in a famine state until they drop dead! The fact of the matter is that a famine by any other name is still famine and just as deadly!
On the other hand, the international agencies and NGOs have a manifest conflcit of interest because by revealing the truth aboout the famine, they are likely to run the risk of a severe tongue-lashing (See Ohashi above), exoposure that their programs are a waste, or if an NGO, deceritifcation and expedited removal from the country. They would rather turn a blind eye and remain silent than use the “F” word.
Reason # 8: Famine persist in Ethiopia because the regime in power for 20 years has failed to devise and implement an effective family planning policy.
In 1993, Zenawi’s “Transitional Government of Ethiopia” in its “National Population Policy of Ethiopia” (NPPE) declared that “its major goal [was] the harmonization of the rate of population growth and the capacity of the country for the development and rational utilization of natural resources thereby creating conditions conductive to the improvement of the level of welfare of the population.” It aimed to reduce “total fertility rate of 7.7 children per woman to approximately 4.0 by the year 2015 by mounting an effective country wide population information and education programme, expanding clinical and community based contraceptive distribution services, raising the minimum age at marriage for girls and removal of unnecessary restrictions pertaining to the advertisement, propagation and popularization of diverse conception control methods.” In 1993 Ethiopia’s population was estimated at 53 million. In 2011, the population is estimated at 91 million. The numbers speak for themselves!
Reason # 9: Famine in Ethiopia is good business.
There are many who profit from economic emergences created by famines. There is much money to be made from trafficking in famine relief aid. According to FAO’s Global Food Monitor for August 2011, in Ethiopia and other Horn countries “prices of cereals have reached record levels… well above their levels a year earlier, substantially reducing access to food by large numbers of population and aggravating the food insecurity in the subregion.” Who benefits from the high prices? Regime-allied middlemen buy massive amounts of grains from farmers at low prices (by offering what appears to be a generous price at the time) and eliminate legitimate small businesses that deal in grain. The same middlemen have an absolute monopoly on the acquisition, sale and distribution of agricultural commodities, and it is not hard to imagine how profitable famines could be. It makes perfect economic sense from the perspective of famine profiteering to place low policy priority on famine prevention and control. It’s the old supply and demand curve. High demand for food and less supply and a chokehold monopoly on the market, and complete control on the distribution of international food aid equals to “mo’ money, mo’ money, and mo’ money” for those in power. Grotesque as it may sound, famine is good for business.
Reason # 10: It is true “a hungry man/woman is an angry man/woman.” Is it not?
The great Bob Marley sang:
Them belly full, but we hungry;
A hungry mob is a angry mob.
Cost of livin’ gets so high,
Rich and poor they start to cry:
Now the weak must get strong;
Now the weak must get strong.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
“Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” said Sir Walter Scott, the novelist and poet. Is there “famine” in Ethiopia, or not? Are large numbers of people “starving” there, or not? Is convulsive hunger a daily reality for the majority of Ethiopians, or not?
No one wants to use the “F” word to describe the millions of starving Ethiopians. In August 2008, the head of the dictatorship in Ethiopia flatly denied the existence of famine in a Time Magazine interview. Meles Zenawi explained, “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch – emergencies, but no famines.” Last week, the dictatorship’s “Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development”, Mitiku Kassa, reacting defensively to the latest Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) projections, was equally adamant: “In the Ethiopian context, there is no hunger, no famine… It is baseless [to claim famine], it is contrary to the situation on the ground. It is not evidence-based. The government is taking action to mitigate the problems.” This past October, Kassa claimed everything was under control because his government has launched a food security program to “enable chronic food insecure households attain sufficient assets and income level to get out of food insecurity and improve their resilience to shocks… and halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.”
But there is manifestly a “silent” famine and a “quiet” hunger haunting the land under Zenawi’s “watch.” In April, 2009, Zenawi gave an interview to David Frost of Al Jazeera in which he openly admitted that famine is rearing its ugly head once again in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. Frost asked: “Is there any danger that as a result of this [current] crises there could be famine like there was famine in 1984?” Zenawi responded:
Well, the famine of 1984 was precipitated by drought in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in general. The famine that could emerge as a result of this [current] crises is likely to be silent across the continent in terms of not swaths of territory that are drought affected but people suffering hunger quietly across the continent. That is the most likely scenario as I see it.
So, if the famine Horseman of the Apocalypse is haunting Ethiopia and the continent, “silently” and “quietly”, why are we not sounding the alarm, ringing the bells and hollering for bloody help? Why are we quiet about the “quiet” hunger and silent about the “silent” famine enveloping Ethiopia today? Why?
It is mind-boggling that no one is making a big deal about the fact that famine and hunger are back in the saddle once more in Ethiopia. Ethiopians need help, and they need a lot of it fast and now. Of course, nothing more depressing than the sight, smell and experience of famine and hunger. For the second part of the 20th Century, much of the world believed the words “Ethiopia” and “famine” were synonymous. But it is unconscionable and criminal for officials to avoid using the “F” word to describe the forebodingly bleak food situation in Ethiopia today because they are concerned it would cast a “negative image” on them. Even the international experts have joined the local officials in boycotting the use of the “F” word. Just last week, the U.S.-funded FEWSNET declared that the majority of Ethiopians will be facing “food insecurity” (not hunger, not starvation, not famine) in the next six months. According to FEWSNET, because of poor harvests from the summer rains in 2009
as well as poor water availability and pasture regeneration in northern pastoral zones” [and coupled]with two consecutive poor belg cropping seasons… high staple food prices, poor livestock production, and reduced agricultural wages, [there will be an] elevated food insecurity over the coming six months [particularly in the] eastern marginal cropping areas in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia, pastoral areas of Afar and northern and southeastern Somali region, Gambella region, and most low-lying areas of southern and central SNNPR…. In most areas of the country, food insecurity during the first half of 2010 is projected to be significantly worse than during the same period in 2009… Food security in eastern marginal cropping areas will likely deteriorate even further between July and September 2010. Overall, humanitarian assistance needs are expected to be very high.
Is it not a low-down dirty shame for international organizations, political leaders, officials and bureaucrats to use euphemisms to hide the ugly truth about famines and mass-scale hunger? These heartless crooks have invented a lexicography, a complete dictionary of mumbo-jumbo words and phrases to conceal the public fact that large numbers of people in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa are dying simply because they have nothing or very little food to eat. They talk about “food insecurity ”, “food scarcity”, “food insufficiency”, “food deprivation”, “severe food shortages”, “chronic dietary deficiency”, “endemic malnutrition” and so on just to avoid using the “F” word. FEWSNET has invented a ridiculous system of neologism (new words) to describe hungry people. Accordingly, there are people who are generally food secure, moderately food insecure, highly food insecure, extremely food insecure and those facing famine (see map above). Translated into ordinary language, these nonsensical categories seem to equate those who eat once a day as generally food secure, followed by the moderately secure who eat one meal every other day, the highly insecure who eat once every three days, the extremely insecure who eat once a week, and those in famine who never eat and therefore die from lack of food.
For crying out loud, what is wrong with calling a spade a spade!? Why do officials and experts beat around the bush when it comes to talking about hunger as hunger, starvation as starvation and famine as famine? Do they think they can sugarcoat the piercing pangs of hunger, the relentless pain of starvation and the total devastation of famine with sweet bureaucratic words and phrases?
As officials and bureaucrats quibble over which fancy words and phrases best describe the dismal food situation, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are dying from plain, old fashioned hunger, starvation and famine. The point is there is famine in Ethiopia. One could disagree whether there are pockets of famine or large swaths of famine-stricken areas. One could argue whether 4.9, 6, 16 or 26 million people are affected by it. But there is no argument that there is famine; and this is not a matter for speculation, conjecture or exaggeration. It can be verified instantly. Let the international press go freely into the “drought affected” and “food insecure” areas and report what they find. For at least the past two years, they have been banned from entering these areas. Is there any doubt that they would reveal irrefutable evidence of famine on the scale of 1984-85 if they were allowed free access to these areas?
Obviously, it is embarrassing for a regime wafting on the euphoria of an “11 percent economic growth over the past 6 years” to admit famine. It is bad publicity for those claiming runaway economic growth to admit millions of their citizens are in the iron grip of a runaway famine. If the “F” word is used, then the donors would start asking questions, relief agencies would be scurrying to set up feeding stations, the international press would be demanding accountability and all hell could break loose. That is why the dictatorship in Ethiopia reacts reflexively and defensively whenever the “F” word is mentioned. They froth at the mouth condemning the international press for making “baseless” claims of famine, and castigate them for perpetuating “negative images” of the country merely because the international press insists on finding out verifiable facts about the food situation in the country. The fact of the matter is that unless action is not taken soon to openly and fully admit that large swaths of the Ethiopian countryside are in a state of famine, we should soon expect to see splattered across the globe’s newspapers pictures of Ethiopian infants with distended bellies, the skeletal figures of their nursing mothers and the sun-baked remains of the aged and the feeble on the parched land.
Denial of famine by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes is nothing new. During 1959-61, nearly 30 million Chinese starved to death in Mao’s Great Leap Forward program which uprooted millions of Chinese from the countryside for industrial production. Mao never acknowledged the existence of famine, nor did he make a serious effort to secure foreign food aid. Ironically, the Chinese Revolution had promised the peasants an end to famine. The Soviet Famines of 1921 and 1932-3 are classic case studies in official failure to prevent famine.
Why is it so difficult for dictatorships and other non-democratic systems to admit famine, make it part of the public discussion and debate and unabashedly seek help? Part of it has to do with image maintenance. Official admission of famine is the ultimate proof of governmental ineptitude and depraved indifference to the suffering of the people. But there is a more compelling explanation for dictators not to admit famine conditions in their countries. It has to do with a fundamental disconnect between the dictators and their subjects. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argued,
The direct penalties of a famine are borne by one group of people and political decisions are taken by another. The rulers never starve. But when a government is accountable to the local populace it too has good reasons to do its best to eradicate famines. Democracy, via electoral politics, passes on the price of famines to the rulers as well.
An examination of the history of famine in Ethiopia lends support to Sen’s theory. Emperor Haile Selassie lost his crown and life over famine in the early 1970s. He said he was just not aware of it. The military junta’s (Derg) denied there was famine in 1984/85 while it waged war and experimented with the long-discredited practice of collectivized agriculture. That famine accelerated the downfall of the Derg. The current dictators have opted to remain willfully blind, deaf and mute to the “silent” famine and “quiet” hunger that are destroying the people.
The official response to famines in Ethiopia over the past four decades has followed a predictable pattern: Step 1: Never plan to prevent famine. Step 2: Deny there is famine when there is famine. Step 3: Condemn and vilify anyone who sounds the early alarm warning on famine. Step 4: Admit “severe food shortages” (not famine) and blame the weather, and God for not sending rain. Step 5: Make frantic international emergency calls and announce that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are dying from famine. Step 6: Guilt-trip Western donors into providing food aid. Step 7: Accuse and vilify Western donors for not providing sufficient food aid and blame them for a runaway famine. Step 8: Tell the world they knew nothing about a creeping famine until it suddenly hit them like a thunderbolt. Step 9: Put on an elaborate dog-and-pony show about their famine relief efforts. Step 10: Go back to step 1. This has been the recurrent pattern of famine response in Ethiopia: Always too little, too late.
The fact of the matter is that famines are entirely avoidable as Sen has argued with substantial empirical evidence.
Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence … they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threaten by famines can have.
There is another question that needs to be answered in connection with the “severe food shortages” in Ethiopia. Why are millions of fertile hectares of land under “lease” or sold outright to foreigners to feed millions continents away when millions of Ethiopians are starving? To paraphrase Sen, such a thing would be unthinkable in a functioning multiparty democracy!
With no pun intended, the “breadcrumbs” of famine (or as they euphemistically call it the “early warning signs”) are plain to see. There have been successive crop failures and poor rainfall; water availability is limited and staple food prices are soaring; livestock production is poor as is pasture regeneration. Deforestation, land degradation, overpopulation, pestilence and disease are widespread in the land. If it quacks like a duck, swims like a duck and walks like a duck, it is famine!
If those whose duty is to sound the alarm and get help are not willing to do their part, it is the moral responsibility and duty of every Ethiopian and compassionate human being anywhere to create public awareness of Ethiopia’s creeping famine and call for HELP! HELP! HELP!
“There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy.” Amartya Sen
(Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.)