‘Famine’ in Ethiopia – and ‘Foreigners’ there to help?

A day before I will board a flight to Addis Ababa, partly to attend the bi-annual World Conference on Humanitarian Studies organised for the 4th time by the International Humanitarian Studies Association, Ethiopia is in the news again for not-yet ‘famine’. I have organised a panel for the above conference with the title ‘Obstacles to humanitarian assistance in contemporary crises’. Among the four papers on that panel, none actually deals with Ethiopia, neither in the present nor the past. But the original idea for the panel was born during a conversation in Manchester with Rony Brauman of MSF fame – MSF as the organisation that spoke out against Ethiopian government policy during the 1984 ‘Band Aid famine’ and was duly expelled. For a variety of reasons, the idea to put a focus on Ethiopia in our panel did not materialise – but at the same time it is hard not to think about historical change and continuities at a time when, as a recent contribution on openDemocracy has as its headline, ‘famine stalks the land once again’. The UN in a recent report states that Ethiopia is experiencing its ‘worst draught in 30 years’, partly due to the weather phenomenon el Niño. Numbers of millions of people in urgent need of food aid are being predicted, with children (as always) singled out as particular vulnerable victims – numbers beyond real comprehension of any individual. Anybody who was around then cannot but see the similarities with the archetypical media and celebrity famine of 1984, a famine that continues to determine how ‘Ethiopia’ and often the whole of ‘Africa’ are viewed by ‘Western’ audiences. An imaginary that the majority of NGOs did not contradict, with Oxfam on the forefront at the time among those who condemned MSF for speaking out – out of fear the fabulous new streams of charitable donations that followed in the wake of Band Aid would cease.

But this is not 1984, even if some claim similar dynamics are at work. Those include quite different estimates of the number of people affected by the Ethiopian government on the one hand and foreign agencies on the other (Ethiopian estimates being considerably lower). And it might well be the case that local officials fear to admit that production targets have not been met and thus distort the amount of food resources available in the country. In addition, it has long been observed that parts of Ethiopia in opposition to the ruling governing coalition have been disadvantaged in development initiatives more generally, and food aid distribution might follow similar patterns. At the same time, and also acknowledged by aid officials off the record (as ‘famine’ remains a sensitive theme nobody is prepared to speak on the record), the current government seems to have done a good job thus far, early warning systems are mostly effective, and quite an extensive net of safety measures are in place. We may still see pictures of starving children eventually, as that remains the most powerful tool to solicit charitable donations and to remind the general public of the importance of development NGOs, but as a matter of fact one can probably find a malnourished child somewhere in the vast expanses of the Ethiopian countryside each day of a normal year.

When news of a possible crisis and potential ‘famine’ first broke, the Ethiopian government was adamant it would not need foreign help. This stance has since shifted, but then who wants to blame a government that is justifiably proud of its developmental achievements, for not wanting to reverse back to the prototypical picture of ‘Ethiopia’, of a country were ‘nothing ever grows’ according to the Band Aid lyrics and where famine is a reality of life since biblical times, as stated in the (in)famous BBC report of 1984 that triggered the Band Aid bandwagon?

And while much is undoubtedly questionable in relation to the wider political dynamics and priorities of the current Ethiopian leadership, one solution propagated by those critical of it, to privatize land and create a proper land market, thus take ownership away from the state and abolish rules that forbid private sales, is a chimera. If such a land market did exist, those who might be close to starvation in the coming months would be left with little choice but to sell their land, often their only asset – and thus join the rural lumpenproletariat and rely on food aid and other hand-outs ever after. As Peter Gill, a reporter during the 1984 famine reminds us in his book Famine and Foreigners, one of the lasting legacies of that time has been that successive Ethiopian governments often failed to secure development partnerships on their own terms. And while much might be questionable concerning the development priorities, political dynamics and patterns of exclusion in contemporary Ethiopia, it is first and foremost for Ethiopia and its peoples to sort those out – Ethiopia being a country with a proud civilisation history much older than our own.

This brings me back to the beginning of this blog, to the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies and our panel: Questions about the legitimacy of foreign interventions in ‘emergencies’ are always complex and are too easily brushed away by a false humanitarian imperative – and in order to improve the humanitarian system more generally it needs engagement on equal terms by all sides.

If in Addis on 7 March, please visit the panel I convene with contribution on Foreign Medical Teams (Tony Redmond and Bertrand Taithe), INGO Legitimacy in South Sudan (Roisin Read), Disaster Relief and the State in Nicaragua (Lisa Ficklin) and Legacies of long-term Food Aid in Sudan (Susanne Jaspars) – further details can be found here.

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One Response to ‘Famine’ in Ethiopia – and ‘Foreigners’ there to help?

  1. Pingback: Urban development or modernist hubris? Impressions from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia | aspiration&revolution

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