The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Book Review - Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid
Reviewer - Tony Diggle
I should perhaps begin by stating my qualifications for writing this review. My experience of Ethiopia is limited to two visits about ten years ago when I had the great good fortune to travel over a considerable part of the country, including the tribal areas of the South-West where a very traditional way of life is still practised. Since then I have maintained my interest in the country through membership of this society. I also have a general interest in world affairs and global issues from both a personal and professional perspective. Nevertheless I am mindful of the limits of my own direct experience in approaching the task of appraising a book written by a developing world specialist who was present in Ethiopia during the worst of the famine years.
In essence, what the book does is to follow the forces that have affected poverty in Ethiopia over the last twenty-five years, as they have variously come to the fore and dropped back, both those that have improved the situation, and those that have exacerbated it. Government policy, the state of democracy in the country and the freedom (or lack of it) of the press are all debated. The ravages of war, the ongoing rise in the population, the impact of AIDS and the effects and potential effects of climate change are duly discussed. The approaches and attitudes of major international institutions, such as the IMF and the UN's World Food Programme, as well as NGOs and other aid organisations in turn come under the spotlight. The policies of foreign countries and regions, particularly China and the United States, are brought before the reader. Mr Gill is more tentative on where all this leaves Ethiopia after twenty-five years, and what its prospects are, but the book is sober and, as important, easy to read while presenting a diversity of views. For those who want a compelling narrative, this is it.
Rather than try to review how well the author has balanced the various forces, I feel it is more apposite to take a view on his overall approach. The sub-title, "Ethiopia since Live Aid", tells us that the book is about Ethiopia in the last twenty-five years. Yet the main title suggests that natural disasters, which are universal, and people outside Ethiopia, rather than Ethiopians themselves, are the two poles around which the analysis should revolve. This should give us pause for thought. The first sentence of the introduction reads: "Ethiopia is one of the richest countries on earth - in its civilisation, history and culture." Its aspects of "poorness" arise from its current stage of evolution, and its location in a given adverse environment. When we read, "For hardy Ethiopian peasants, famine is natural phenomenon, an act of God, even a punishment for sins on earth" (p.52), why should we be surprised, let alone shocked, that a government official, elected or otherwise, should shrug off outside concerns about the situation in 1973 with the statement that "We've always had localised food shortages in Ethiopia." (p.30). That is not to say that nothing should be done: quite the reverse once there is a wider awareness of the situation. Rather the issue becomes how the country as a whole should move forward. As the economist, Benny Dembitzer, has written:
"In dealing with the countries of the South, the North should start not from where it would like them to be or what it would like them to achieve, but from where they are now and address challenges at their level of need." 1
A good indication of what the people themselves want was given by the major World Bank study, "Voices of the Poor from Many Lands", published in 2002. The first priority was physical security: the next two were the desire to work their own plot of land, and access to some sort of healthcare and education. Unfortunately, the international community (including the World Bank) seems to have taken very little notice of this. Instead it favours globalisation and a world agenda set through the World Trade Organisation. Yet the agricultural products that Africa can export are decreasing in value against their industrial imports: the terms of trade are adverse. And to return to the title of the book: in the year of Live Aid (1985), the economic system that allowed rock stars to earn vast sums of money in the North and promote such enterprises was also taking $10 billion out of Africa because of worsening terms of trade while only $2 billion was going in as new aid money. The situation has not changed since then, and last year Christian Aid estimated that about $5 leaves the African continent for every $1 that arrives. 2
Thus in my view the most interesting parts of the book are those that deal with issues where the developed world could help countries like Ethiopia at a level they could accommodate. Population, the issue that no-one wants to talk about, would be one. Ethiopia is currently in the demographic trap: its economic growth is continually undermined by a population that is growing even faster. Resources for reproductive healthcare and education in this area are desperately required. Support for more modern agricultural practices to increase yields even under the existing system of land tenure would be beneficial.
I fear, however, that the real issues go way beyond the scope of Peter Gill's book. Put simply, we are living in an era of weak international governance. In his final chapter, the author quotes Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University as concluding that the rich would now suffer from the severe consequences of a less just and more unstable world. He views this as "a lack of moral imagination, leadership and awareness." This book is a step forward in improving our awareness. But while the lack of moral imagination and leadership remains, the outlook is decidedly unpromising for all of us, not just Ethiopia.
Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid by Peter Gill, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2010.
1 Dembitzer, Benny, The Attack on World Poverty, Ethical Events Ltd., 2009, Chapter 8,
2 False Profits: robbing the poor to keep the rich tax free, Christian Aid, 2009.