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Ethiopia, 25 years later

Guest Blogger

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.”

By Steven E. Levingston  |  August 4, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: ethiopian famine; live aid; 25th anniversary of ethiopian famine and live aid  
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Its kind of sad how you neglect to mention how the dictatorship gov't is adding to the misfortunes of the Ethiopian people.

Posted by: hobman | August 4, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

The Economist rated Ethiopia in top five fastest growing economies in the world, and UN says Ethiopia will half poverty rate by 2015. This is good governance we can count on, and less from opposition critics living comfortably abroad.

Posted by: AdvTrek | August 4, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Being a person of Ethiopian origin and very privy to daily developments in the country, this article comes as a hogwash of first degree.

No doubt Ethiopia has a very tragic recent history. The downfall of Dergue, the socialist regime that was in power some 25 years ago, was a very welcome news. But if we we critically see what has transpired in the last 25 years and the current state of the country, the reality is far from the meretricious depiction of the article.

I will say why:

For the last successive several years, there are at least 5-6 million people who are on safety net(euphemism for hunger) on year to year bases. If it wasn't for the generosity of the west, these people wouldn't have a thing to live on. So, kudos for the people in the developed world for keeping this people alive, not Zenawi. On top of this there are some 3-7 million that go hungry depending on the availability of rainfall. If you sum it up, for the last 5 years or so we have since just about 10% of the country going hungry. Which is rather a very large number compared to the famine of 1970s.

One final note, Zenawi is known for his slickness. He knows how to win hearts when ever he wants to, but the truth of the matter is he is a dictator of first degree that is comparable to Ceausescu of Romania.

If the writer wants to gauge the current state of the country, I will suggest him to read all sorts of statistics published in the world and see where Ethiopia stands. It is far from the scintillating portrayal of this article.

For now we will have to live with the spurious glamorization of the big boys of the west who are whitewashing suffering of Ethiopians. But you mark my word, the true nature of Zenawi and the seemingly unending suffering of Ethiopians will see the day of light. Somebody will speak Ethiopians' hopes, dreams and aspirations not that of their moribund oppressor.

Posted by: hope3000 | August 4, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse

I would like to get Peter Gill's recent book on Ethiopia. Unlike many who write superficially about ethiopia, he sounds rational and reasonable in his assessment.

The country is indeed growing fast in all levels of measurement. The political space is gradually improving. There is a sense of hope in the air. People seem to be motivated to eradicate poverty. This newly found sense of optimism will go a long way in motivating Ethiopian to do that.
One thing that a candid observer can say about the current leaders of Ethiopia is that they are very much in the lead in fighting against poverty. The old opposition is now realizing that they can't reverse the hands of time and going along with the current trend.


Posted by: kesmeneh | August 5, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Ethiopia - In Ethiopian Desert, Fear and Cries of Army Brutality


The New York Times

Published: June 18, 2007

NY Times Video

IN THE OGADEN DESERT, Ethiopia — The rebels march 300 strong across the crunchy earth, young men with dreadlocks and AK-47s slung over their shoulders.

Often when they pass through a village, the entire village lines up, one sunken cheekbone to the next, to squint at them.

“May God bring you victory,” one woman whispered.

NY Times Video

This is the Ogaden, a spindle-legged corner of Ethiopia that the urbane officials in Addis Ababa, the capital, would rather outsiders never see. It is the epicenter of a separatist war pitting impoverished nomads against one of the biggest armies in Africa.

What goes on here seems to be starkly different from the carefully constructed up-and-coming image that Ethiopia — a country that the United States increasingly relies on to fight militant Islam in the Horn of Africa — tries to project.

In village after village, people said they had been brutalized by government troops. They described a widespread and longstanding reign of terror, with Ethiopian soldiers gang-raping women, burning down huts and killing civilians at will.

ONLF rebels. Video image by Courtenay Morris for The New York Times

It is the same military that the American government helps train and equip — and provides with prized intelligence. The two nations have been allies for years, but recently they have grown especially close, teaming up last winter to oust an Islamic movement that controlled much of Somalia and rid the region of a potential terrorist threat.

The Bush administration, particularly the military, considers Ethiopia its best bet in the volatile Horn — which, with Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea, is fast becoming intensely violent, virulently anti-American and an incubator for terrorism.

But an emerging concern for American officials is the way that the Ethiopian military operates inside its own borders, especially in war zones like the Ogaden.

Anab, a 40-year-old camel herder who was too frightened, like many others, to give her last name, said soldiers took her to a police station, put her in a cell and twisted her nipples with pliers. She said government security forces routinely rounded up young women under the pretext that they were rebel supporters so they could bring them to jail and rape them.

“Me, I am old,” she said, “but they raped me, too.”

“Me, I am old,” she said, “but they raped me, too.”

Moualin, a rheumy-eyed elder, said Ethiopian troops stormed his village, Sasabene, in January looking for rebels and burned much of it down. “They hit us in the face with the hardest part of their guns,” he said.

The villagers said the abuses had intensified since April, when the rebels attacked a Chinese-run oil field, killing nine Chinese workers and more than 60 Ethiopian soldiers and employees. The Ethiopian government has vowed

Posted by: afeey2008 | August 5, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

NY Times printed Jeffrey Gettleman's article, giving voice to usual propaganda from brutal Islamists who machine gunned over 70 civilian Chinese and Ethiopian oil workers asleep in their beds. These same Islamists, funded by Eritrea, have recruited Somalis from Minnesota and elsewhere to form Al-Qaeda in East Africa, publicized recently for raping and stoning to death 14-year-old girls for adultery...Girls were actually raped. You have to peel the layers to get to the truth, not all reporters have the time.

Posted by: AdvTrek | August 6, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Dear writer.
I'm an Ethiopian and I'm very disappointed with your report, you may be paid to write for TPLF regime but you have to think of millions of Ethiopians suffering from this brutual regime. If you have been to Ethiopia and If you want to know the reality on the ground, go by your own and ask Ethiopians in the street, They will tell you how bad the government is.

Posted by: woygud | August 6, 2010 8:57 AM | Report abuse

Dear Steven Livingston, I advise you to visit Ethiopia and measure the living condition of the people in Ethiopia by yourself. You don't ask a fake "prime monster" who killed, Arrest, tortured citizens for voicing their opposition to his Ethnic based and elite controlled economy. Do you know who own most of the companies in Ethiopia? It is ‘EFFORT’ which is simply a criminal organization controlled by Meles which robbed National bank of Ethiopia and the money collected in the name of starved Ethiopians from western donors. So when you are talking about development in Ethiopia think about the development in South Africa during Apartheid Era. When it comes to good Governance, you are out of reality .Today in Ethiopia if you are a student and wished to go for higher education, you should have a membership card of the ruling party check the link. .If you are employee and want to be promoted you need to be their member too. Today in Ethiopia people arrested w/out court order and sentenced in fake Government controlled legal system. Is that good governance to you? Today the corruption in Ethiopia is high, even the fake government couldn't hide it. The reality is the American government doesn't care about human right in Africa. America prefers dealing with dictators like meles zenawi and Hosni Mubarak. The reason is simple Africans and Americans interest doesn't match. Our freedom is your headaches. Your Government and servers like you prefer hiding the ugly side of ruthless GVT for your short term interest. We have seen what you did with saddam when refused to take order from washington.We have seen how USA gives blind eyes to Chinese government brutality for economic interest. So please don't call yourself a journalist. You are like a type writer anybody can rent you

Tupak Amaru

Posted by: laibela1 | August 6, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

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