The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Challenge for Ethiopia

Jonathan Dimbleby

published 2003

The following address was given to Society members by Jonathan Dimbleby after the 2003 Annual General Meeting. One of the Society’s policies is to publish Occasional Papers whenever it has interesting or significant Ethiopia-related material. While the Society must remain strictly non-political and cannot therefore endorse everything which appears in its Occasional Papers we believe in this case that what Jonathan Dimbleby said on May 8th ought to reach a wider audience. We feel that although parts of it might be deemed controversial by some it has a message of obvious importance which deserves our considered thought.

Richard Snailham (Chairman Anglo-Ethiopian Society, June 2003)


It is a daunting prospect for me to address the Anglo-Ethiopian Society. I look around and see that collectively - and in many cases individually - you know far more about the subject than I do.

I must remind you of the essential difference between a specialist and a journalist. The specialist starts off knowing a lot about a little; the journalist, a little about a lot. As they go through their respective careers, the specialist knows more and more about less and less while the journalist knows less and less about more and more. By the time they retire, the specialist knows everything about nothing while the journalist knows nothing about everything.

In the case of Ethiopia, all I can say is that I will yield first place to no-one in my concern for and delight in this remarkable country. Ethiopia eats into the soul and the country and its people have eaten in to mine to lasting effect.

For me, this relationship began 30 years ago this September. Then, in 1973, I was a ‘fireman’ reporter - covering political crises, wars, earthquakes and famines all over the world. I was working for This Week which was ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Panorama - where my father, Richard Dimbleby, had been the founder anchorman and where my brother, David, then worked as his successor.

In the early summer of 1973, I reported from Senegal in the midst of a serious drought. This was at the time when people were beginning to worry about the southward movement of the Sahara. This was my first visit to Africa and my first contact with what everyone used to think of as ‘natural’ disaster.

Then in September, by chance, I stumbled on something which has had even more influence on my life - professionally and personally - than any other: I got a ’phone call from a friend of mine from university. She was Sri Lankan and doing a PhD in Amsterdam. She had met a group of Ethiopian students there who told her about what they said was a terrible famine in the northern part of Ethiopia. They were desperate for someone to take an interest, but no newspaper or politician in Holland could be persuaded to take notice. Students in the town of Dessie had allegedly been shot and killed by the military authorities for drawing attention to what was happening. On This Week, we decided to send a researcher to Addis Ababa. We knew that the Ethiopian authorities had acknowledged that there was a ‘problem of drought’ but they had made no request for international aid.

Our researcher met a remarkable Catholic priest working for the Irish agency, Concern, which had long been established in Ethiopia. Kevin Doheny took him to the north and he then got in touch with our office in London. The message that he wired from Addis was couched in very discreet language to protect Kevin Doheny and to ensure that we had some chance of getting into the country.

I thus became the first foreign journalist to witness what became known as the 1973 Famine.

I will never forget the journey up from Addis to Dessie. The beauty and majesty of the country was breathtaking. And it still has the same effect, even though I have now made that pilgrimage many, many times.

And then in Dessie: stumbling upon human suffering on a scale that I could scarcely believe. People dead and dying on the road side and in make-shift camps in the towns and villages round about. I saw piles of bodies waiting to be buried, entire families: mothers and fathers, children and tiny babies. In that famine, 200,000 people perished.

One image I shall never forget: three little children, lying entwined on a wooden pallet of branches, naked, eyes wide open, skin like parchment over empty bellies, the flies tormenting their dead bodies.

There was no-one - or almost no-one - to help. There were no relief supplies and virtually no food or medicines. That was the price of calling it a ‘drought’ and not acknowledging that it was a famine on a massive scale.

Later I discovered that key ministers knew what was going on, though I remain convinced that they had kept the bad news from the Emperor until it was too late.

No less disgraceful was the fact that five months before my arrival the UN agencies in Addis had a pretty good idea of the looming catastrophe. A good friend of mine in UNICEF travelled in the region and discovered overwhelming evidence that cholera had broken out in a variety of locations. Cholera is, of course, a notifiable disease but the Ethiopian government refused to acknowledge the facts. As a result, UNICEF failed to report this grim news. As a direct consequence of this, scores of thousands died who might otherwise have survived.

It was not ‘a natural disaster’. In fact hardly any so-called ‘natural disaster’ is really natural. It is true the rains had failed. But the soil was also eroding fast. Trees and forests had been cut down to provide fuel. Water storage and irrigation systems were conspicuous by their absence.

And, most notably to me, it was notable that only the poor succumbed while the rich - the landowners, the merchants, the officials, the ministers and the generals - continued to prosper.

This was a country where one in five children died before they reached their fifth birthday; where there was very little clean water and almost no medical services; and where only a tiny proportion of the children went to school.

It was also a country in which cruelty and corruption flourished. Where human rights were flagrantly violated. And where freedom of speech was denied.

It was the poorest country on earth.

To witness the suffering and the courage and dignity in adversity was - for me - an unforgettable and terrible experience.
Then, as now, Ethiopia was a country which relied on coffee as its main export. It was dependent on coffee for its foreign exchange - without which it could not purchase from abroad the means required - equipment, the tools or the skills - to escape the vicious circle of poverty and degradation.

It was a country which was at the mercy of international cartels which controlled and manipulated the global market in coffee to drive DOWN prices for producers while always putting them UP for consumers.

Ethiopia was part of the global economy but a victim of the way in which it operated. It was on the losing side of a grotesquely distorted and outrageously unfair and unequal global market.

I came to realise that so far from being ‘natural’, most disasters are usually the product of a complex set of interwoven causes - among the most obvious of which are poverty, injustice, corruption, repression and war.

As I say, I only came to appreciate this later.

In and around Dessie we were free to film what we wanted, essentially because our minder was so shocked by what he witnessed that he stayed in the hotel and said, “Do what you can and let us hope we can save some lives”. We returned to Addis with our film. By this time, news of what we had seen had filtered back to the Ministry of Information. The Minister berated me for my distorted filming. We had a furious row and though I did not fear for myself, I suspected that they might try to take the film away. We devised a variety of ruses to get the film out of the country, but in the end, I took it myself. I had a huge sense of relief as we taxied down the runway with the film safe in my hands. Then suddenly the plane braked and we went back to the apron. I assumed at once that the government had finally decided that the film would do such damage to Ethiopia’s reputation that it would have to be confiscated. In fact, our departure had been arrested by the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

We finally left a day later.

In their ignorance and innocence, the Ethiopian government sent an envoy to London in the hope of persuading ITV to drop the programme. Their envoy was Tafari Wossen who knew he was on a fool’s errand and merely went through the motions. He subsequently became a very good friend and I am delighted that he now plays such a prominent part in the Anglo-Ethiopian Society.

When the film was transmitted, the Ethiopian Ambassadors were instructed to write identical letters to leading newspapers in Britain, Europe and the United States, denouncing the film as fiction. Mercifully, they were ignored. Our film, which we called The Unknown Famine, had a huge impact, first in Britain and then around the world. The film was, of course, not a concoction, nor was it in any way political. It was in effect a simple plea for urgent assistance. As it happened, it worked. People all over the world responded and within six months, in today’s money, it raised in excess of £75,000,000.

Later, The Unknown Famine became a catalyst in the downfall of the Emperor, edited - crudely doctored - by some of those who later formed the Dergue. The Hidden Hunger as they called it, juxtaposed images of famine and death with the imperial high life. On the eve of the Emperor’s overthrow, this film was transmitted round the clock on Ethiopian television. It provoked fury, despair and shame - precisely the atmosphere the new guard required to ensure that there would not be a popular uprising against their removal of the Emperor from his palace.

I have been back to Ethiopia many times since. I witnessed the first years of the revolution - and, to my embarrassment, I was regarded as a hero. I met Menghistu and used the opportunity - to no avail - to urge the release of other members of the royal family and an end to the war in Eritrea. Though I was free to report, I became increasingly dismayed by the course of events. Finally, I witnessed the horror of the ‘Red Terror’ and denounced the Menghistu regime, not only in my film for ITV, but - probably more damagingly - on the BBC World Service. As a result, I was banned for almost a decade. Because I retained friends in Ethiopia, I knew all about the encroaching famine of 1984/85 but, despite strenuous efforts, I was forbidden a visa.

When I was finally allowed in again in 1987 I witnessed the worst excesses of the land reform programme - villagisation and the forced transfer of people from one part of the country to another. I also committed the cardinal sin of filming in Eritrea with the EPLF. Once again, I was banned by Menghistu. As you know, the regime finally crumbled in 1990, and I was welcome to return once more.

I was there most recently last summer to make a couple of radio programmes for the BBC and as President of VSO, to visit our volunteers and to promote our work in Ethiopia.

Today, 30 years on, this beautiful and beleaguered country is still one of the very poorest states in the world: it also by far the largest in that desperate category - a state which, by many millions, has the largest number of the poorest people on earth. And the population that has more than doubled in the last 30 years to more than 65 million.

But there is some good news. The risk of mass famine in Ethiopia is now, I am confident, low unless there is a catastrophic breakdown of order in the form of military conflict. There is an effective system for the early warning of impending crisis and a network for the distribution of relief that can stand severe strain. The principal anxiety therefore is that the ‘pipeline’ for the supply of relief is not allowed to empty. In 2000, this system managed to provide food aid for 10 million people. In any year, the figure is at least 4 million. Last October, the government of Ethiopia, in the person of the Prime Minister, waved his shroud to warn that 12 million people would be at risk of starvation in 2003. The reason why this has not happened is that the pipeline has continued to supply the food relief required.

In parenthesis, I should say that, unlike the Anglo-Ethiopian Society, which laudably focuses on much that is fine about Ethiopia - its cultural heritage, its religions, its arts and its peoples - my focus has always been on the negative. I regret this, though I think it matters. But my urge to be positive is made more difficult by the prevailing assumptions of my trade. Ethiopia is seen by the media as a ‘basket case’. So last October I was asked by a television programme that must remain anonymous to report on the ‘impending famine’. I said that I would do so but that I thought famine was unlikely (for the reasons I’ve indicated). I also said that there were some crucial, long-term issues that I would explore. The programme concerned agreed. Then a few days later, I got the message that there weren’t enough ‘skeletons’ to justify a programme for an ITV audience.

Anyway, that is a diversion. Back to the reality of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is a state with a per capita income of around a $100 a year - which is a third less than what is regarded as starvation levels of income by the UN; and it is getting poorer by the year. It is an unendurable prospect.

Today in Ethiopia, only 25% of the people have access to safe water and only 15% have access to adequate sanitation; 49% of the population - more than 30 million people - are undernourished.

47% of the children are so grievously underweight that their physical and intellectual growth is permanently stunted. Only 40% of them are enrolled at school. And getting to schools often means a barefoot walk of perhaps three hours or more - with the ever-present risk, if you are a girl, of abduction or rape along the way.

Invariably hungry and listless from lack of nutrition, these 7 year olds finally reach their destination to find themselves crowded into a classroom designed for thirty but filled with a hundred other children, often without books or pencil and paper.

Though the government of Ethiopia is doing its best, there is precious little chance at the present rate of progress that Ethiopia will meet the UN target of primary education for all by the year 2015.

Now, I know this is a contentious statement and I have had some robust conversations with Ethiopian friends as a consequence. Ethiopia is not yet a democracy. People are not yet free. Human rights are not yet honoured. But, I do not think it is useful to judge the performance of the Ethiopian government on the basis of a snapshot. The question is whether the process of change is also progress. I believe there is progress. In Ethiopia now, as a foreigner, I find that people talk to me far more openly than ever in the past. I believe that Ethiopia is moving in the right direction. The progress is slow and we have to be patient, but when the country is still fragile, threatened by ethnic and regional conflict and by internal terrorism, it is not easy to transform an autocracy into a democracy with the speed that Ethiopia’s friends might wish.

And now - for lack of a better term - my broader thesis. For Ethiopia, you may, in these terms, substitute much of Africa and many other countries in the rest of the world where ideas of freedom, justice and fairness - wonderful concepts which trip lightly off the tongues of philosophers, preachers and politicians - are mocked by experience everywhere.

That for me is the great challenge facing humanity. It is the challenge of ‘sustainable development’. It requires us to recognise that a world in which hundreds of millions of children die before they reach the age of five is not sustainable. A world in which hundreds of millions go to bed hungry, have no access to clean water, or a basic education or even rudimentary health care, is not sustainable.

A world in which the pandemic of AIDS in Africa threatens to cause more devastation than all the wars and famines of the last thirty years put together - destroying lives (8,000 lives a day) - breaking up families, decimating communities, and disrupting the social and economic life of the nation, is not sustainable.

It is not sustainable that in Ethiopia alone, there are almost a million children who have been orphaned by AIDS - whose parents might still be alive if they had had access to the drugs which in the West are now routinely available to all.

Not sustainable either is a world in which 10% of the world’s six billion inhabitants receive 70% of its total income; and where the three richest men on earth have assets equal to the combined output of the world’s 48 poorest nations.

Which takes me - for a moment - to September 11th and much which has flowed from that terrifying horror.

It is sheer folly, self-deluding, self-indulgent blind folly, to believe that by waging a so-called ‘war against terrorism’ in Afghanistan or in Iraq - that the world will somehow become a safer place. Others have made the point: Tony Blair himself, Clinton - and most thoughtfully Chris Patten, the External Affairs Commissioner for the European Union, and the best leader the Conservative Party never had. He has written: “The idea that a rich world and poor world can co-exist without dramatic implications collapsed along with the twin towers on that day...”

He went on to say that the root causes of terrorism “go far beyond the networks of transnational crime and money laundering, drug dealing and arms smuggling... They include the de-stabilising division between haves and have-nots, the persistence of abject poverty”.

The point is this: it is not sustainable to presume both that you can exclude the poor from feasting at your table and that they will meekly submit. A sustainable future - any hope of lasting peace and security from fear - is inconceivable unless we are serious about waging war - on poverty.

So the point is: a war on terrorism will be for nothing in the absence of a war on poverty. I am not saying that you will win the war on terrorism if you wage war on poverty. But I am saying that you will most certainly lose the war against terrorism unless you wage war on poverty. Poverty is the swamp of alienation and misery in which the terrorist recruits converts to the cause.

That war - the war against poverty - has to fight at a number of levels and in many different ways. But it is even more complicated than you might think it to be.

Patten also wrote in the same context about “rising tensions over access to ever scarcer natural resources.” The point here is: 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.

Forty years ago, a great American environmentalist, called Rachel Carson, wrote a famous book called Silent Spring in which she observed that life on earth is “a complex, precise, and highly integrated system of relationships between living things which cannot safely be ignored any more than the laws of gravity can be defied with impunity by a man perched on the edge of a cliff”.

Now fast forward forty years to a United Nations document called the Living Planet Report - an update on the state of the world’s natural eco-systems and the effect of human pressures upon them. They call this impact mankind’s “ecological footprint.”

The report concludes that “at some time in the 1970s, humanity as a whole passed the point at which it lived within the global regenerative capacity of the Earth” and that today “our ecological footprint is at least 30% larger than the earth’s biological capacity”.

In short we are stamping over the planet with hobnailed boots and gradually crushing the life out of it. We tear up forests, we allow soil to erode, we extract water from rivers and lakes at a rate which dangerously depletes the water table, we pollute the atmosphere with carbon and other gases. And we do this at an unsustainable rate. And by unsustainable - in this context - I mean in a way which will, if unchecked, threaten the very basis of our survival on this planet.

The responsibility for averting that threat rests heavily on the shoulders of that minority of our species, who like you and me, live in the rich world - and who are the principal plunderers of the resources of our planet. We consume those resources at four times the rate of that majority of our fellow citizens who live in the poor world.

So: to make the world safer - from terrorism and all that flows from it - we need to be far more serious about the urgent need to combat poverty. The injustice of poverty, the gross inequalities of relative poverty between the rich world and the poor world breed resentment and anger.

But we can only wage war on poverty within the environmental and ecological limits of the planet. And that means not only that the future distribution of the world’s resources must be on a much fairer basis. It means that a growing share of the world’s wealth must go to the poorer countries and a diminishing share to the richer countries.

This is a huge challenge: but as I said before, I think it is the most important challenge facing humanity. It is the challenge of ‘sustainable development’. A challenge which embraces both the need to protect the global environment and to deliver economic development within a fair and just world order.

Fifty years ago, Albert Schweitzer, philosopher, seer, winner of the Nobel Prize wrote “mankind has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall. He will end up by destroying the world.” I don’t believe that. I am not a pessimist: I believe that just as we have the capacity to destroy our planet so, by the same token, we have the capacity to save it. And - it is an old cliché - I also believe that where there is a will there is a way.

Sustainable development is about securing a safe and sound future for life on earth, all life on earth. That means treating our planet with reverence, as if we were going to live for ever and hadn’t just dropped in for a weekend break.

And it also means sharing the great blessings of our planet equitably, with justice and fairness for all people. Not just the haves but the have-nots as well.

When I was in Ethiopia I went to a festival of drama and poetry in a town which is probably the poorest in the world. In the community hall, a group of young amateur actors were competing to make the next round of a national drama contest. They were exploring a whole range of personal, social and political issues. There was a packed audience, totally rapt.

The director of the Festival said to me “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. And from awareness comes strength. These young people are the future.”

They are - and we owe it to them that they should have a future. On our planet that means following through the diplomatic, economic, social and moral logic of what WH Auden wrote in that bleak autumn of 1939; “we must love one another - or die.”

There is nowhere in the world of which this is more true than Ethiopia.

First published as an Occasional Paper in 2003

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