The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 8th May 2003

The Challenge for Ethiopia

Given by - Jonathan Dimbleby

Reviewed by - John Hester

The Annual General Meeting of the Society held on the 8th May was the best attended for many years. But then, we were very fortunate to have the distinguished television journalist and commentator, Jonathan Dimbleby, to address us.

He spoke of “The Challenge Facing Ethiopia Today.” He began by saying he felt daunted speaking on this topic to such a knowledgeable audience. However, he quickly dispelled any doubts.

He expressed his “concern for and delight in this remarkable country.” His relationship with Ethiopia began in September 1973 when he was the first foreign journalist to witness the famine of that year. He talked with great feeling of the impact the suffering he witnessed had upon him, describing in vivid detail the scenes he saw and the background and causes of the disaster. The failures of governments, UN agencies and other aid organisations to act had been a scandal.

His subsequent television documentary film, made under a great deal of suspicion and opposition, was a sensation.

Since making that film, Mr Dimbleby has returned to Ethiopia many times. He witnessed the early days of the revolution and denounced the Mengistu regime on ITV and the BBC World Service. As a result, he was banned for almost a decade. After the regime crumbled in 1990, he was welcomed back.

Mr Dimbleby then went on to talk about the position of Ethiopia in the world today. This “beautiful and beleaguered country is still one of the poorest states in the world. It is also by far the largest...” He is of the opinion that mass famine now is less likely so long as the supply of relief is continued. The statistics he gave are stark: per capita income of $100 per year and getting poorer; 25% with access to safe water; 15% to adequate sanitation; 49% (more than 30 million) undernourished; and so on.

While Ethiopia is still not a democracy and human rights are not yet honoured, Mr Dimbleby believes there is progress. People there are talking openly and the country is moving in the right direction. He urged patience because “it is not easy to transform an autocracy into a democracy with the speed Ethiopia's friends might wish.”

He then turned to his broader thesis, the challenge of “sustainable development”. He talked of AIDS in Africa causing more devastation than all wars and famines of the last thirty years. His most forceful argument was that the war on terrorism cannot succeed unless we wage war on poverty. We live in a world which “is not only blighted by human suffering but in which we collectively lay waste to our very means of survival.”

He quoted from a UN document called the Living Planet Report which concludes that “at some time in the 1970's humanity passed the point at which it lived within the global regenerative capacity of the Earth.” Despite the forecasts of doom, Mr Dimbleby insisted he remains an optimist believing we have the capacity to save our planet.

He ended his talk by describing a festival of drama and poetry he had witnessed in an Ethiopian town which is probably the poorest in the world. There a group of young amateur actors explored a whole range of personal, social and political issues to a packed, rapt audience. The Director of the Festival told Mr Dimbleby: “We are transforming ourselves, provoking dialogue, entering a new era. Our young people are poor but not primitive. They are not victims. They know a lot. I am an optimist because we are creating awareness. From awareness comes strength. These young people are the future.”

The Chairman presenting Mr Dimbleby with Society ties
Photo - Anne Parsons

Jonathan Dimbleby concluded, “They are, and we owe it to them that they should have a future. As W.H.Auden wrote in the autumn of 1939 'we must love one another - or die' There is nowhere in the world of which this is more true than Ethiopia.”

Following his interesting, informative and thought provoking talk, Jonathan Dimbleby answered questions and entered into dialogue with various members of the audience, covering a wide range of issues and opinions.

First Published in News File Summer 2003

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
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