Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid
By Peter Gill
(Oxford University Press, 280 pp., $27.95)

In the fall of 1994, James P. Grant, the executive director of UNICEF, sent a message in the name of his agency to the upcoming Cairo conference on population and development, in which he declared that the world had within its grasp the means to solve “the problems of poverty, population, and environmental degradation that feed off of one another in a downward spiral [bringing] instability and strife in its wake.” Grant was a great man, a giant of the development world. He was among the first senior figures within the U.N. system, not to mention national governments in either the poor world or the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), to take on board the fundamental insight that development is inextricably bound up with the emancipation, education, and empowerment of women.

Throughout his long career, Grant was as unyieldingly optimistic about human possibility as he was clear-eyed about the extent of human suffering among the bottom half of the world’s population. He would have disliked Gramsci’s celebrated injunction, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”—he stood for realism of the intellect, optimism of the will. And the fact that his optimistic scenario for what could be achieved has not come to pass does not necessarily mean that Grant was wrong to say—as, were he alive today, he almost certainly would say—that there was every reason to believe that it could do so. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,” and all that.

There are fundamentally two views of development aid, and they are incompatible. The first is Grant’s, which is essentially that, after many false starts, we now know how to do development, and that what is lacking is political commitment and money from the donor side, and political commitment and fiscal responsibility on the part of the governments and the elites of the recipient countries. The opposing view is that, no matter our good intentions, and the literally tens of thousands of people in development ministries, relief groups, international and local development NGOs, and popular movements, we still do not know what we are doing. Those who favor an emphasis on entrepreneurial assistance rather than aid-based development solutions, the subtlest of whom by far is William Easterly, who runs the Development Research Institute at New York University, argue not only that much aid is wasted—about this optimists and skeptics largely agree—but that, after five decades, outside aid, whether given by governments or by the increasingly important philanthropic sector, above all the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has done little to alleviate the condition of the world’s poor. What is needed is private enterprise, and the more the better. As Easterly has put it, “the parts of the world that are still poor are suffering from too little capitalism.”

The critique from the left has important points of overlap with Easterly’s view. Colin Leys’s classic work The Rise and Fall of Development Theory, which was published in 1996, two years after James Grant had made his sweeping claims for the effectiveness of development aid, argued that the theoretical assumptions that have underpinned development policies since the 1950s no longer hold true, if indeed they ever did. The deregulation of international trade and the free movement of capital—that is, the move away from the post - World War II regime of regulation in which economic interventions by the state could be effective, which is the signature result of globalization—means that development aid on the traditional model has had fewer and fewer positive effects. As the longtime editor of the Socialist Register, Leys would probably not endorse this view, but a strong case can be made that just as it had been a mistake for supporters of communism who nonetheless opposed the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to keep saying that not one of these actual communist regimes had lived up to the doctrine’s emancipatory potential, so it is time to admit that there is only “actually existing” development, and that it has not worked.

These debates have their arcane side, but for what Paul Collier has called “the bottom billion,” they are in fact matters of life and death. To really understand this, one needs to get down to cases. This is what makes Peter Gill’s book so valuable. Gill knows Ethiopia extremely well. He was among the first foreign journalists to cover the famine of 1984 - 1985, first in Bitter Harvest, a film he did for Thames Television while the famine was going on, and then in A Year in the Death of Africa: Policy, Bureaucracy, and the Famine, his subsequent book on the catastrophe that was far better than its dreadful title might suggest. As Gill writes, the famine of 1984 was “supposed to be the final turning point,” but of course it was nothing of the sort. He rightly observes that for all the bluff talk of “eliminating world poverty,” (the utopian phrase was Tony Blair’s), “the hunger persists, people still die of starvation, and no country in the world confronts the threat of famine more painfully and more frequently than Ethiopia.”

The irony is that in contrast to, say, Niger and other Sahelian countries, where hunger is endemic, or North Korea, where the regime of Kim Jong Il has at the very least (accurate information is almost impossible to come by) brought the country repeatedly to the brink of famine, Ethiopia since the famine of 1984 - 1985 has become quite literally the poster child for global hunger. In large measure, this was because of Band Aid and Live Aid, the globally broadcast concerts that the Irish pop singer Bob Geldof organized as the centerpiece of his massive fundraising effort in 1985 for Ethiopian famine relief.

If anything, Gill remarks, “our expectations and promises have become grander” since Geldof recorded his charity single about starving children, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with its chorus of “Feed the world/Let them know it’s Christmastime again,” and when, in the acerbic formulation of the Zambian-born neo-liberal economist Dambisa Moyo, one of the fiercest recent critics of the aid system, “Africa became the focus of orchestrated worldwide pity.” When New Labour came to power in Britain, Blair declared that one of its goals was “eliminating world poverty.” Bono, generally more sensible than Geldof (who does not seem to be able to imagine how any decent person could question either his motives or the effect of his initiatives), has popularized Jeffrey Sachs’s wildly over-optimistic view that poverty can be ended in our time—a theme taken up on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Ethiopian famine by the charity Christian Aid, with its “Poverty Over” publicity campaign.

Gill looks in some depth at what the real effects have been on the ground in Ethiopia, over the past twenty-five years, of all these well-meaning and not so well-meaning foreigners. All the usual suspects make their appearances—Western donor governments, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the relief and development arms of the United Nations system, notably UNICEF, and the mainline international relief organizations like Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders (MSF, in its French acronym). Much of this is historical. The famine in Ethiopia in 1984 was a milestone in the history of modern humanitarianism because, as Rony Brauman, who was president of MSF/France at the time and was a central figure in the controversy, later put it, the crisis was crucial in that it compelled MSF to reconsider some of its most basic ideas, and to face the cruel fact that “aid could be turned against those toward whom it was directed and those delivering the aid integrated into a system of oppression.” Obviously, serious people in the aid world had always known that relief could have perverse consequences as well as positive ones. But until Ethiopia, Brauman pointed out, there were very few in NGO circles who could accept that “we had become part of the problem, not just part of the solution.”

Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, was overthrown in 1974, and his downfall was caused to a considerable extent by his regime’s failure to confront the famine that year. A decade later, famine swept the north of Ethiopia once again. For most of 1983, it went on without much of the rest of the world paying it any noticeable heed. It was this famine that galvanized Geldof, Bono, and the Live Aid movement. A part of the reason for this was that the Derg, the Stalinist regime then in power in Addis Ababa, forbade almost all coverage of what was going on. This is not to say there was no coverage at all—Gill, who unlike most of the foreign journalists covering the famine at the time is actually an Ethiopia expert, points out with understandable exasperation that in July 1984, ITV ran a documentary called Seeds of Despair, and an appeal launched in its aftermath raised 10 million pounds for Ethiopian famine relief; but it was only in October 1984, when a BBC TV team led by Michael Buerk and Mohamed Amin were allowed to film what was going on, that Ethiopia became the focus of widespread public attention in the rich world.

The result was that before very long, the Ethiopian catastrophe had gone from being one of the world’s most forgotten crises to perhaps its best known. Geldof’s single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” the first blast of what would become the Band Aid/Live Aid juggernaut, came out that November and raised five million pounds, though, as Gill comments acidly, Ethiopians “did of course know it was Christmas because the starving were mostly Christian.”

Neither Geldof nor Bono has ever been willing to accept that, however wellintended, the premise of Live Aid was flawed from the start. Amid criticism of the ways in which the monies from Live Aid were being used by international relief agencies to fund programs connected with resettlement, Geldof told The Irish Times that “the organizations that are participating in the resettlement effort should not be criticized.... In my opinion, we’ve got to give aid without worrying about population transfers.” The way in which both men have capitalized on their new status as global consciences to rescue their pop music careers has been grotesque, but their sincerity is beyond doubt. Yet their competence to hold the opinions that they peddle is another matter. What is so great about sincerity if it leads not to understanding but to mystification? And what transpired in Ethiopia between 1983 and 1986 has been abundantly mystified.


We know with some certainty that famines have occurred everywhere in the world, with regularity, since the beginning of recorded history. But as the great contemporary authorities on famine—among them Amartya Sen, Cormac Ó Gráda, and Alex de Waal—have shown, modern famines are almost invariably political in the larger sense of the term. Another way of putting this is to say that whereas before the nineteenth century most famines were largely the result of climate—flooding or drought, most commonly—today they are largely the result of anti-democratic or at least non-democratic practices by the authorities and the dominant elites in the countries where they take place. History will remember Amartya Sen when Malthus is long forgotten, or thought of no more seriously than we think of nineteenth-century phrenologists. What Sen showed in his work on the West Bengal famine of 1943 was that the problem was not absolute food supply but the access to that food supply by disfavored groups. In other words, what appeared like a food crisis was really, to use Sen’s term, an entitlements crisis.

Sen’s insight is borne out by the history of famine in the twentieth century. The great famines have taken place under colonial regimes (as in British India in 1943), or under regimes where the government was ruled by groups unsympathetic to other groups in the famine zone (the famines and near-famines in Tuareg areas of Mali are good illustrations of this), or, most commonly of all, as the result of vast misguided efforts at social engineering undertaken by socialist regimes, notably in Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin, and, in the worst modern famine of all, in Mao’s China during the so-called Great Leap Forward. The Ethiopian famine of 1983 - 1984 was an example of this most terrible variety of man-made famine. The definitive account of it is to be found in Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia, the report that Alex de Waal prepared for the Africa Watch division of Human Rights Watch in 1991. De Waal was unequivocal. “The famine killed in excess of 400,000 people,” he wrote. “The human rights abuses made it come earlier, strike harder, and reach further. Most of these deaths can be attributed, not to the weather, but to the government’s gross violations of human rights.”


And yet Michael Buerk’s first BBC report from the famine zone opened with the words, “Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plains outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century.” Apart from the facts that it was dawn and there was a famine, nothing in what Buerk said was right. It was precisely not a biblical famine, in the locusts/great flood/visitation-from-God sense that Buerk was evoking. It was, rather, a man-made famine—the direct and in all likelihood inevitable result of deliberate policies in Addis Ababa by the Stalinist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. That is to say, it was a famine that was more likely to occur in the twentieth century—the heyday of man-made famines—than at any other time in human history.

Gill, for reasons that elude me (he knows de Waal’s work well enough to cite it, and is as far removed from being an apologist for the Mengistu regime as it is possible to be, speaking of Mengistu’s “Red Terror”), argues that Buerk’s report was “a model of evocative precision.” He could not be more in error. Buerk has as much as conceded the point, admitting later that while he had of course known of the Ethiopian government’s role in the famine at the time, he had chosen to present the famine to his audience in the tried and true vernacular of the classic “natural” disaster so as not to complicate the situation too much for his viewers—a decision that Rony Brauman has rightly compared to Sartre’s famous admission that he had known about the Gulag all along but had not wanted to admit it publicly so as not to make the French working class give up hope (“pour ne pas désespérer Billancourt”).

Gill is on firmer ground in his account of the Ethiopian government’s policy of forced population transfer of people from the famine zone of the country’s northern highlands to lowland areas in the south. He is in no doubt that the Derg used this policy as part of its war against the forces of the Tigrayan secessionists in the north—and not as part of famine alleviation, as the government and some of its apologists among U.N. and foreign NGO officials, and the representatives in Addis Ababa of important donor governments, claimed at the time, at least publicly. As Gill notes, the Mengistu regime was quite frank in admitting that “food is a major element in our strategy against the secessionists.” That strategy was not just brutal, it was immensely sanguinary. De Waal concluded that “resettlement certainly killed people at a faster rate than the famine.” Credible estimates of the deaths range from fifty thousand (de Waal) to a hundred thousand (MSF).

As the full implications of this became clear to at least some people in the relief world, above all to MSF/France, a bitter fight erupted over whether or not the international NGOs should participate in the resettlement effort. For most of the agencies, notably Oxfam International and the Irish relief organization Concern Worldwide, it was imperative that the NGOs stay and do what they could, regardless of the political context—that, indeed, the duty of relief agencies was to stay, thus at least trying to bring a measure of humanity into situations that they were powerless to alter. This fight spread to the donor governments, with Washington taking the hardest line against resettlement (but not hard enough). Here Gill rather misstates MSF’s argument. As Brauman has pointed out, the reason the public silence of mainline agencies such as Oxfam and Concern was so grave is that “neither the Reagan administration nor the European Commission would ever have agreed to underwrite forcible population transfers.... The Derg could never have resisted a critique coming from [all] the NGOs ... [and had they been forthcoming] the transfers might have been halted.” Instead MSF was expelled, and the remaining NGOs, while remonstrating privately with the Derg, did not suspend their assistance with the program.

Gill’s for the most part studiously neutral, he-said-she-said approach to the controversy (there are occasional hints of British-style condescension to the French relief agencies) is quite useful—particularly for readers who are not familiar with the period. Gill pursues this somewhat tentative approach throughout his book, and while this can be frustrating at times—probably more frustrating the more you know about the subject—on balance he was right to do so. For one thing, there surely was a question of access. Gill makes the point in his introduction—many observers pay lip service to this point but rarely seem as informed by it as they should be—that “poor countries will emerge from poverty only when they take full charge of their own destiny.” His book is not just a look back at the great controversies of the famine years of the mid-1980s, but also an attempt to understand whether, as he puts it, “beyond the challenges of famine forecasting and hunger relief, are there [now] Ethiopian political institutions and policies in place to deliver the transformation known as ‘development’?”


Let’s be grown up about this. Ethiopia is a tyranny. It was a dictatorship under Haile Selassie, and then under the Derg, and it remains one under the regime of Meles Zenawi, the erstwhile leader of the Tigrayan rebels, and once the poster child for a supposedly new, uncorrupt, and dynamic generation of African leaders. (Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda were the others most frequently cited.) At the G8 Gleneagles Summit on Africa, called by Tony Blair in 2005, the podium at which the final communiqué was announced included Blair, then - Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Geldof, Bono, and Meles. Two years later, when it had become impossible to deny the dictatorial nature of Meles’s regime, Bono would admit regretfully in an interview in New York magazine that “Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia is somebody I thought was an amazing character, and now he’s gone very reactionary, closing down civil society. But he was a brilliant macroeconomist. I went with Jeff Sachs to see him, and I asked him how he became this great economist when he’d fought a guerrilla war against the communists for 70 years.” Yes, that’s seventy years, which would take Meles’s struggle against the Derg back to 1937, that is, the year after Ethiopia fell to Mussolini—but hell, who’s counting? And what’s all that rot about pop stars not being qualified to speak on these subjects?

The admiration for Meles was not restricted to official circles in Washington, London, and Brussels. Joseph Stiglitz, hardly a regurgitator of neoliberal pieties, was an early ally and supporter of Meles—an episode that Gill recounts at length and with great acumen. Stiglitz told Gill that he was struck by Meles’s level of insight into macroeconomic structures, and championed the Ethiopian regime during the 1990s against its critics at the IMF. That the British government could put Meles forward at the Gleneagles Summit as the model of the forward-looking African leader less than two months after national elections in Ethiopia that, as Gill rightly records, ended in “violence and repression,” and in the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of anti-Meles activists, demonstrates how low Western expectations are about African leadership, not to mention the superficiality of the West’s commitments to democracy on the continent. All Tony Blair was ever willing to say, six months later in South Africa, was that while Meles’s government had won the election fairly, it had “over-reacted” to the protests against its victory. Geldof’s response was typically childish. “Behave!” he said, when asked by a reporter what Meles should do.

Clearly neither Meles, nor his colleagues in the African Union (of which he was chairman at the time of Gleneagles), nor the leaders of the principal Western donor governments, were listening. Since the summer of 2005, Meles has represented Africa at one international forum after another, from the G8 and G20 summits to the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009. And the Ethiopian elections of 2010 (which took place after Gill had finished his book but certainly would not have surprised him) were, if anything, even more questionable than the ones held five years earlier. Human Rights Watch described them as “multi-party theater staged by a single-party state.”

The importance of this does not derive from some sentimental attachment to free elections, let alone a “Western” desire to impose democracy and good governance. As Gill points out, in the development world, Sen’s celebrated argument in Development as Freedom that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” and its corollary, “that a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have,” is considered to be proved, no longer open to dispute. But for Meles, as Gill reports, it is a neo-liberal myth, “not validated by historical facts.”

The threat of a major famine returned to Ethiopia in 2003. This time the government response was infinitely more effective than Mengistu had been in 1983 - 1984 or Haile Selassie had been in 1973. Proud as they were of their accomplishments, Ethiopian officials realized that their success had been due at least partly to good luck, an important point that Gill is right to emphasize. The famine had come at a moment when the levels of food aid Ethiopia was receiving, above all from the United States, were at historic highs. These levels were not sustainable, as Meles understood, and in response the Ethiopian authorities began to emphasize agricultural development—something that had consistently been under-resourced and treated very much as a stepchild by governments all over sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia—and growth in the economy. In terms of GNP growth, Ethiopia has been remarkably successful, achieving rates somewhere between 7 percent and 11 percent since 2004 (the latter figure reflects official government statistics, which are in all likelihood exaggerations). The problem is that the food security of poor Ethiopians is anything but more assured today than it was a decade ago, and it is anything but clear that the country is any less dependent than it ever was on food aid from foreign donors.


Although he does say that outdated farm technology combined with periodic drought played a role in Ethiopia’s inability to banish hunger on a durable basis, Gill believes that the main reasons for this are not failures of agricultural policy but Ethiopia’s vertiginous rate of population increase. A country that numbered 40 million in 1984 now numbers 80 million and is on track to double again over the next twenty-five years. And unlike most of those countries where population is projected to rise steeply in the next two decades, the demographic transition has not even begun in Ethiopia. To the contrary, fertility rates are rising, not falling. Gill argues that this is at least partly due to the dramatic shift away from population control as an essential element in international development policy, which he dates back to the 1970s. He attributes this partly to “China’s one-child policy and the excesses of India’s sterilization drive [having] undermined the international consensus around an emphasis on the merits of birth control.” In this century, he says, “it was the AIDS disaster that deflected the international consensus away from population growth.” And he cites astonishing statistics from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that show that out of the four principal program areas—family planning, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, and research—the percentage of funds allocated to family planning has decreased from 40 percent in 1997 to 5 percent in 2007. In this matter, he says, Ethiopia “has taken its cues from the development community at large,” seemingly in the belief that “patience and the development process itself will bring about sufficient falls in the birth rate and so stabilize population growth.”

The problem is that, as critics on both the right and the left have shown from their oddly complementary perspectives, the development process is in shambles: its theories are incoherent, and based as much on wishful thinking—the triumph of hope over experience—as on empirical research. As for its implementation—well, anyone who has observed directly how the development business actually unfolds in poor countries can only laugh so as not to weep. One of the great contributions of Gill’s book is to show, by means of observant, well-informed reporting on the ground in rural Ethiopia, just how vain a promise development has been to date.

Gill tries hard to be optimistic. He even writes hopefully of the role that China, now the most transformative player on the African scene, might play in Ethiopia’s better future. To have gotten Chinese officials in Africa to speak with candor and in depth is a considerable journalistic accomplishment, but quoting a Chinese official in Addis Ababa about China directing “some of their surplus savings to infrastructural development in Africa” is the thinnest of thin reeds on which to place one’s hopes. My sense is that Gill knows it.

This pessimistic note is confirmed in a vignette about Jeffrey Sachs, the former economic shock-therapy man who re-invented himself as the intellectual avatar of the Millennium Development Project and the author of a book (complete with a preface by Bono, naturally) called The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, in which he confidently predicted that if the rich world would dramatically increase its aid commitments, there could be no global poverty to speak of by 2025. Gill visits a benighted village called Koraro, chosen to be one of Sachs’s so-called Millennium Villages, which were meant as demonstration projects to prove that foreign aid can really work. He asks a local man whether he has ever met Sachs, to which the man replies, “I have met the owner twice,” which in itself is worth a dozen U.N. development assessments and a hundred NGO field reports. And when Gill himself finally meets Sachs, he discovers that he, too, is grasping at the Chinese straw. “They are doing something,” he tells Gill, “where we are not there at all.” But Sachs also says that “unless the fertility rate comes down sharply I’m running out of ideas.” When Gill tells him that Ethiopia’s population has doubled in a quarter-century and will likely double again in the next twenty-five years, Sachs can only reply that “it is absolutely unmanageable ... beyond any of our [development] tools right now.” The end of poverty, indeed.

David Rieff’s upcoming book on chronic malnutrition and the global food crisis will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2011. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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