The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

What Ethiopia Teaches Us

Peter Gill

published 2014


The following address was given by Peter Gill after the 2014 Annual General Meeting of The Anglo-Ethiopian Society. Peter Gill is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in development affairs.

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It is a real pleasure and a privilege to be with you this evening. I can tell you, though, that I have been anxious about it for the best part of a year. Many of you are much more knowledgeable and more familiar with Ethiopia than I am. 'Daunting' was the word one of your past speakers used of this occasion. That speaker was Jonathan Dimbleby, a more notable journalist than I am.

I am not sure that the organisers were aware of this when they invited me, but there is an extraordinary symmetry at work here. Jonathan addressed you on this exact occasion 11 years ago. That was 2003, for him the 30th anniversary of his very first visit to Ethiopia and of his famous film 'The Unknown Famine,' made for Thames Television, and shown on the ITV network.

That film unveiled suffering and death on an acute scale - so stark, so shocking, so raw I do not believe it would be shown in that form on British television today. We live more protected lives these days where the horror of real events has to be balanced with a manager's urge not to upset people, not to send them to bed too disturbed.

'The Unknown Famine' in 1973 raised a lot of money for famine relief, of course, but its most profound impact was political and in Ethiopia itself. I have traced the story here, and there is no question in my mind that that one film set the scene for, I'd argue led directly to the overthrow of the Emperor Haile Selassie the following year.

On the night when the so-called 'creeping coup' became the coup de grace, military officers of the Derg arranged for the film to be shown, for the very first time, on Ethiopian television. They intercut it with scenes of celebration and high living at the Palace. They even erected a mighty screen in Addis Ababa so that the populace at large could see it. They forced the old Emperor to watch, and in the morning, they came again to the palace and read the act of dethronement to him. The last time he was ever seen in public was when he was driven away that morning in a Volkswagen Beetle.

Here, beyond those big political events, is the symmetry on the media front. I also worked as a reporter for Thames Television, and on the same programme as Jonathan. It was 11 years later, in 1984, exactly 30 years ago this summer, that I started seeing little stories in the papers about intensifying food shortages in northern Ethiopia. I began a reporter's siege of the Ethiopian Embassy in London for visas. The answer came back, NO.

The Derg was by then marking the 10th anniversary of its overthrow of the Emperor, and the North Koreans were in town to help stage a military spectacular in Meskel Square. They certainly didn't want pictures of poor, hungry, probably now starving Ethiopians to spoil the party. There was a drought, Colonel Mengistu declared in the course of one of his speeches, and that was the only acknowledgment of the gathering catastrophe. The response to visa requests was NO, and remained NO.

But I persisted with my personal embassy siege. We were making a documentary, I argued, we didn't just want news pictures of starving people, we were planning to contrast the plight Ethiopia's rural poor with Europe's bumper harvests that year, we would report on the embarrassing grain mountains of the European Community and how Brussels was refusing to ship any of its surplus grain to the Horn of Africa. We filmed in RAF hangars in East Anglia that were full of grain. It was that argument, in telex form, that reached the desk of Dawit Wolde-Giorghis, a member of the politburo and the man who ran the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

Dawit emerged as a somewhat unlikely hero of the 1984 catastrophe. He risked his position, he possibly risked more than that, by giving us permission, finally, to travel to the North. By now, many critical weeks had passed, weeks stretching into months, months of inaction and neglect. It was not until early October that my Thames crew and I reached the town of Korem, the location of the single largest famine relief camp. I was the first foreign journalist to get there in three months.

Two things stand out in my memory of that first morning in the relief camp at Korem. One is an image. It is of bodies, in tightly wound shrouds, waiting in rows in the sunshine to be carried off for burial. They were the bodies of those who had died in the feeding centres overnight, people who had arrived too late to be saved. Many were adults. My eye was drawn most sharply to the little family groups of shrouded bodies, of a mother and a child here, maybe there a mother and two of her children.

The other recollection is of my exchange with the young official in charge of the camp. He wore a black jacket, and carried a little black notebook in which he recorded the camp's vital statistics. As we spoke, he consulted his notebook. He looked more closely. Over the period of the past 24 hours, he told me, and for the first time in the crisis, the number of people who had died of starvation in the camp had exceeded one hundred. That, by any reckoning, is the definition of an appalling famine.

Before I continue this narrative and before you conclude that I am lost in 20th century history, I want to assure you I am here to talk about the 21st century as well, where Ethiopia stands today, and how much relationships have changed and are continuing to change - between Ethiopia and Britain, between Africa and the West, between the poor world and the rich world, between aid-recipient and aid-giver.

I pause also because of the word 'famine.' I call it the six-letter F-word. It offends and embarrasses many Ethiopians, particularly Ethiopians living abroad. The western media - along with the NGOs, it has to be said - is widely blamed, and with some justice, for perpetuating the use of the word and the image of famine. I was not very popular in some circles for calling my recent book 'Famine and Foreigners,' though there was more criticism intended of the 'foreigners' of the title than of Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

Part of my defence here is that there is still hunger in Ethiopia, too much of it, and there is starvation, too. In some areas, in some seasons, when conditions conspire with oversight or with neglect, there can be very widespread starvation. Depending on your definition, that can still lead to localised famines. I accept, though, that there never will be, certainly never should be, another famine on an historic scale. I would add that the EPRDF's greatest single achievement in its 23 years in power is that the lands of the North where famine was endemic for centuries can now really anticipate a famine-free future. If the lands of the South were as much a political priority as the North, they too could and should enjoy the same prospect.

My other defence for using the F-word is that the late Meles Zenawi was himself an offender. In the several hours of interview I was fortunate to have with him for my book, he acknowledged there was sometimes a damaging North-South divide in the official response to a food crisis, he accepted there was sometimes neglect and oversight on the part of his own government, and he had this to say on the broad matter of Ethiopia's reputation and the F-word:

'If we feel we deserve to be treated like honourable citizens of the world, then we have to remove that source of shame. There is no way round it. For me what has been the most powerful motivation to work daily for economic development is the humiliation of poverty.'

That observation about motivation takes on eloquent significance in the light of his death two years ago. Meles was only 57 - with much still to give Ethiopia and the world - and it's widely accepted that a punishing and relentless schedule of focused daily work contributed to the premature collapse of his health.

When news of the 1973 'Unknown Famine' first broke, Meles was a first year medic at Addis Ababa University. He abandoned his studies in the second year and went to ground in Tigray as a student fighter and revolutionary. When the great famine of the next decade struck the North, he was a full-fledged guerrilla leader. It was that war between the Derg on one side and Eritrean and Tigrayan guerrillas on the other that both deepened and intensified the suffering in the 1980s. These were the circumstances in which some 600,000 people died of hunger and to which the world finally awoke exactly 30 years ago this autumn.

We had filmed in Korem for our ITV documentary, and Michael Buerk and his BBC News team were still kicking their heels in Addis Ababa when we returned. It was our project that the authorities were determined to favour. I remember being asked by officials of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission back in Addis when I thought they should allow the BBC to travel northwards.

I like to think that my response was the right as well as the judicious one. I said the decision was entirely theirs, and absolutely not mine. The result was that Michael Buerk was soon filming in the North, and he put together two news reports of immense power and eloquence. He's described them himself - immodestly but with some justice - as 'by far the most influential pieces of television ever broadcast.'

Our current affairs documentary - we called it 'Bitter Harvest' because of its focus on European grain mountains as well as Ethiopia - went out later the same week as Michael's reports, and so we played our part in exploring and explaining the international background to this calamity.

We gave Brussels bureaucrats a hard time, not to mention Margaret Thatcher's minister of agriculture. This was the era of the Cold War, and western leaders were reluctant to provide even humanitarian aid to starving people under communist control and thus in the Soviet camp. It was the British aid minister at the time Timothy Raison who observed later with studied understatement, 'It's well known that Mrs Thatcher didn't regard the aid programme as one of her top priorities.'

Ethiopia changed all that. There's no doubt at all that the famine of 1984-5 totally transformed the aid world. Notably in this country, but elsewhere as well, unheard of sums of money flowed and policy was overhauled. You can tell the whole history of aid and development over the past 30 years from the starting point of Ethiopia in October 1984. 'Dawn,' said Michael Buerk in the evocative opening to his first report, 'and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the 20th century.'

Just think what those words led to. Bob Geldof, Bono, and the era of celebrity aid. 'Do they know it's Christmas?' Of course they did - most of them were Christians. Oxfam and Save the Children each doubled - DOUBLED - their income in the course of a year. The Comic Relief - SportAid phenomenon was created. A host of excellent smaller charities were born. Three names just by way of example - Ethiopiaid, founded by the employment agency boss Sir Alec Reed; St Mathews Children's Fund perhaps represented here tonight; even one of the best UK charities on which I'm focusing at present - Islamic Relief. That was because an Egyptian doctor in Birmingham thought the British Muslim community should be mobilised in the cause.

Then there is the impact in the policy field, and I assure you this is not a fanciful list. Two young Labour MPs, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, were just starting out on their Parliamentary careers when famine in Ethiopia overwhelmed the public imagination and the public conscience. It was still over a decade before New Labour came to power. But then, one of their first acts, and I would argue one of their most significant and most positive, was to split aid out of the Foreign Office and create the Department for International Development. Its first Secretary of State - and its best to date, in my view - was Clare Short. British aid got a life of its own.

On the morning of Tony Blair's new dawn in 1997, I was hanging around with a TV crew, this time from the BBC, on a pavement in Victoria Street outside the old ODA, the Overseas Development Administration. Part of the Foreign Office, but then in a grim 60s block down in Victoria. Since then, incidentally, they've come up in the world - first next to Buckingham Palace, and now in glorious prominence in Whitehall itself.

The idea that morning back in 1997, and it was all arranged with her office, was to wait for Clare and see her sweep in to the newly christened DFID. We then stuck with her for several months, and the result was a BBC 2 documentary called 'Clare's New World.'

It was Clare and New Labour who really put aid on the political map in Britain. She got lots more money from Gordon Brown, and she gained acceptance, sometimes pretty grudging acceptance, from the Mandarins in Robin Cook's Foreign Office.

She did big things on the international stage. The famous Millennium Development Goals which reach their deadline next year, 2015, were in fact a Clare Short-DFID idea - driven through the UN bureaucracy with great energy. It was through processes like this that modern British soft power was invented, or at the least effectively promoted. A good thing, surely, except for the fact that British soft power was twinned by Tony Blair with some increasingly reckless displays of British hard power.

Then, remarkably, under the present Coalition, the era of Big Aid got even bigger - with David Cameron making a real political investment in the business of aid. We've now joined the virtuous Scandinavians in committing 0.7% of our national income to international aid. That's a UN target of 30 years standing which most of the big aid-givers have not yet reached, and frankly never will. For Cameron and the Tories, this was originally conceived as a neat, and not overwhelmingly expensive way of laying the harsh ghosts of Thatcherism - or as their marketing people put it, 'detoxifying the brand.' Just adopt the Oxfam agenda wholesale, they said - job done!

The collective memory of Ethiopian hunger - allied to Ethiopia's modern development achievements and its strategic significance in the Horn of Africa - have played a big part in completing this virtuous circle. Which country has just become the biggest recipient of British aid? Ethiopia, of course.

But - and here comes the but - Britain's pride in its links with developing countries, its determination to do something about poverty in those countries have been accompanied by a generous measure of hubris. It's something of British characteristic, I think, and you don't have to go very far to account for it - back to Empire, in fact, and this residual feeling that we know the world so much better than others, and we know what's good for it. Anyone who travels the aid world as I do sees this in action - DFID reckons it simply has better answers to world poverty than anyone else, and our big NGOs display the same self-confidence, some would say arrogance.

You see this in the public face presented by British aid. DFID entitled a succession of White Papers 'Eliminating World Poverty' - admirable as a one-off rhetorical flourish, less realistic as the list of these publications lengthened. Ten years ago, British NGOs were searching for the campaign theme that would sum up their purpose around the 20th anniversary of the famine. They chose 'Make Poverty History.' It sounds great. The problem is that we've been making these promises year after year, decade after decade throughout the development era. It hasn't delivered. Indeed, in terms of inequality between and within nations, that horizon seems to be receding.

You certainly see this new aid world in action in Ethiopia. That's why I called my book 'Famine and Foreigners.' I remember my time with DFID in Addis Ababa. They're accommodated in newly-built offices in our huge, ancient and beautiful embassy compound. Our aid people greatly outnumber our diplomats, of course. I haven't done my homework on this, but I'd reckon by a factor 3 or 4 at least. I asked a senior official there - this is back in 2009 - what DFID's biggest priority was in Ethiopia. 'Governance,' she said firmly.

What this means is that we have a good idea of how Ethiopia should be run, from top to bottom, and we intend to tell them all about it. For their part, the Ethiopians are an extraordinarily courteous people, courtly almost sometimes, but they also have an historically well-founded aversion to being told what to do. For them, the issue of 'governance' was the second of two so-called aid 'conditionalities' and it has been firmly resisted. The first aid conditionality, also resisted, dated from the 1990s when the EPRDF government came to power. This was the free market philosophy of the era - the opening up of Ethiopia's economy to the West, including the finance sector.

This was the way Meles Zenawi described their reaction to me about that first aid conditionality. I thought he put it charmingly. 'We in Ethiopia very nicely and politely have rejected a number of neo-liberal prescriptions given to us, and we have lived to tell the story.'

The same thing happened on 'governance.' Ethiopia's leadership has consistently emphasised it is committed to good governance, but its approach will be its own and conducted at its own pace. Meles told me there had been a cost to their resistance - less aid from the West in exchange for more space for doing it their way. That's a rather shocking equation, you might think. Even then there could be tensions, he said, as when foreign embassies raised opposition demands with the Government long before they'd been brought to the government itself. That was, in Meles' phrase, the 'externalisation of accountability.' One of the many gifts that Meles had was to speak the language of development better than the professionals.

This is another of the problems with the world of aid - like the rest of the West, it is very fashion-conscious. One day, all the focus will be on women's rights as the key to development, then it will be the free market and privatisation, the next day it will be the universal threat represented by AIDS, then it will be governance, next it will be climate change, now it is fragile states. Underlying the shifting ideologies of aid have been the Millennium Development Goals, what Meles Zenawi called the welfare model of development, aimed, he suggested, more at managing the phenomenon of extreme poverty than resolving it.

Ethiopia, I should add is doing well in its progress towards some of the key Millennium Development Goals. MDGs 4 and 5 cover child and maternal mortality, and Ethiopia has cut them both by around two thirds since 1990.

With all these new ideas about aid succeeding each other, I sometimes wonder what happened to the old ones. Cast your mind back, if you can - as I can, I'm afraid - not just a single generation to the famine of the 1980s, but two generations ago to the 1960s. This was the decade of decolonisation, the decade of the Organisation of African Unity, the decade when Addis Ababa was both a proud imperial capital and the natural home of a free continent. I was young enough and lucky enough to catch the mood of that decade. I was a volunteer teacher in neighbouring Sudan, and travelled over the land border to Tessenei and Asmara, now in independent Eritrea, and arrived by sheer fluke in Lalibela on the Ethiopian Christmas Day, 1967.

In those long-lost Sixties - the Development Decade, may I remind you? - we believed there was simply a gap between rich and poor, between Europe and Africa that could and would be rapidly closed. What was needed was some judicious assistance, useful people as much as money, and the new world would soon catch up with the old. What we had not foreseen with any clarity was that the divisions and inequality were endemic and enduring, that the rich world's capacity and willingness to do anything radical about them would prove limited and that they would instead be perpetuated.

On the aid front, it was very apparent in the 1960s and 1970s what the priorities were. They were practical and to the point. Two topped the list. One was agricultural production, the other was family planning. Two decades later when the EPRDF took over a shattered country, its own development strategy document also emphasised 'the extreme backwardness of agriculture which constitutes the backbone of the economy.' It also emphasised 'the spectre of accelerating population growth.' 'Ethiopia,' said the population policy document, 'finds herself in a vicious circle of failure and defeatism.'

To its credit, the EPRDF has sustained a steady focus on agriculture. I've attended a number of Farmers Rallies in my time, with Meles himself spending whole days in the regions listening to speeches, and handing out prizes. The aid-givers have not held that focus. There has been recent and belated acknowledgment that we should have done much more over the years, but the facts speak for themselves. From 1983 to 2006 the West's aid to farmers in the developing world actually fell by 77 per cent.

I remember a few years ago meeting a group of British agriculturalists once employed by DFID's predecessor, the old ODA. They'd been unceremoniously privatised by the new Department and banished to Chatham, of all places, for some reason. They said there was then just one qualified agriculturalist left at DFID. I wonder how many there are now. Given Britain's historical expertise in tropical agriculture, this was not Clare Short's finest hour.

The failures on family planning are starker still. At the time of the big famine, Ethiopia's population was around 40 million. Even with the loss of independent Eritrea, it is now well-over twice that, around 85 million. It will top the 100 million mark around 2020. It is true that fertility rates are beginning to come down, and that's good news. But a very large unmet need for contraception remains, and just consider the last 30 years. A generation where America and American aid ruled the world and where bible-belt Republicans regarded contraception as suspect at best, immoral at worst. Ethiopia's leading NGO provider of contraception is the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia, and they had all their US funding cut off because they dared believe that women had the right to abortion. They performed no abortions themselves, but they were prepared to refer patients to agencies that would. In their own words, that criminalised them in US eyes.

The Family Guidance Association approached a number of other aid-givers to fill the gap. The British were approached, and I've never quite understood what happened next. All I do know is that it was the Dutch, not us, who finally helped out.

There are clever people in the aid world who will assure you that development provides its own answer to dramatic population growth. In the longest term, that may well be true. I'm not convinced, though, we have all the time in the world. In the years that it will take, the impressive economic growth recorded in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa is surely undermined for poor families by all the extra mouths they have to feed. It helps here, I think, to be better at mental arithmetic than at development economics. Even a growing national cake divided by 80 million provides more modest shares than one divided by 40 million.

So where does all this leave the aid relationship with Ethiopia 30 years on from the famine that launched aid's best-funded and most ambitious era, the era of Big Aid? I believe we can discern quite clearly the end of aid, certainly the unbalanced predominance of aid in our relationship with a country of Ethiopia's size, stability and consequence. One day, perhaps not so very far way, it's going to be the historians, not the aid economists, who pick over the achievements and the costs of these development decades.

For a start, Ethiopia is progressing towards that mystical modern objective known as 'middle income status.' Ethiopia itself foresees doing without aid. It was only a few years ago that Meles gave me the date 2025, now just a decade away. There is a pitfall here, though. The figures around national income, even per capita income, may get rosier and rosier, but what of the poorest people in the poorest communities, still likely to be in their millions? Do the aid institutions wash their hands of them, and conclude they are now a national, no longer an international responsibility?

There are some troubling precedents here. DFID is in the process of closing down some excellent programmes in India because we have concluded - or rather the Daily Mail has concluded and told the Government in no uncertain terms - that India is too rich to need aid. Well, the Ethiopian leadership has a far better record than India's in its response to poverty, but good intentions, even good strategies, may not be enough. The poor risk being abandoned unless there is continuing, at least transitional aid.

The other factor is the quality of Britain's commitment to making poverty history. It's truly remarkable that David Cameron has stuck to his guns on the 0.7% target and the very big increase in aid required to reach it when every other departmental budget is being held in check or cut. The images of that catastrophic famine of 30 years ago, and more recent famines in the region, remain long in the memory. The interplay of media coverage and British charitable instincts has so far made for a uniquely powerful force for good in British politics.

How long, though, will this political consensus hold, do you think? European elections tomorrow, national elections in 2015, a new government in power in 11 months time. What price in future will we put on Britain's status in the development business, on the projection of British soft power? The international examples are not good. Most other donors in the western world are cutting, not increasing, their aid budgets, and some of their cuts are savage.

The biggest factor of all governing the future of aid is a fast-changing set of international relationships in Africa. It's symbolised of course by the role of China, a role we in the West find mysterious, distasteful and threatening. I thought as much myself before I started my research. I'd never worked more than briefly in China, and knew little about it. I didn't get anywhere with the Chinese Embassy in London, and I thought I'd get nowhere with the Chinese in Ethiopia. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I remember starting out from London with one Addis telephone number for a Chinese official that I'd written down from one commercial website I found online. Over the weeks there, as a result, I met Chinese road-builders, Chinese telecommunications experts, the Chinese commercial attaché and the Chinese Ambassador. All appeared to welcome my inquiries. In the town of Nefas Mewcha, way up in the highlands of Amhara one night, I shared a wonderfully crummy hotel with 30 or 40 Chinese engineers, overseeing not just road upgrades, but fibre optic and mobile telephone links. The links they're forging with Ethiopia are undoubtedly important for the country's development, as important I'd say as the western ones, quite possibly more so.

Chinese humanitarian aid is minuscule in comparison with the West's, of course, and of course China sees advantage in strong links with a Continent of Africa's resources. They also recognise Ethiopia's historic and contemporary importance in Africa. Ethiopia in turn has played a key role in establishing and nurturing the China-Africa forum, a process that in some ways mirrors the West's millennium development structure. And the idea of these African development forums with the big new global players is catching on. There is now an India-Africa forum, and a Turkey-Africa Forum. Not to be outdone, the biggest aid-giver of them all is getting in on the act. The United States has established a number of Forums on the same pattern in the last few years, and this year President Obama has invited 47 African leaders to Washington for three days in August.

So the world turns, and the aid relationship turns with it. Interdependency is growing, and the old one-way aid dependency is diminishing. In 10 to 20 years, it won't take long, I am sure we will be looking back on the era of Big Aid when the West still called all the shots.

One thing, sadly, we can be certain of, and that is that poverty itself will endure. For all the aid agency slogans about 'eliminating world poverty' and 'making poverty history', there will still be desperate and deserving needs to be met - in Ethiopia as in the rest of the world.

I learn that this Anglo-Ethiopian Society has recently established its own charity forum, bringing together the many charitable initiatives that its members are associated with, directly or indirectly. Sometimes I find myself calling that 'real aid,' aid that links people as much as systems and approaches, aid that responds to specific and individual needs. It's aid that doesn't involve mighty structures and mighty pretensions. Voluntary aid of that sort involves commitment and sometimes sacrifice, financial and otherwise. It is about our common humanity, and it will always be needed, it will always be welcome.


First published as an Occasional Paper in 2014

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