This is the unsettling story of Ethiopia since Live Aid first brought the plight of Africa’s third most populous country to international attention 25 years agoby Patta Scott-Villiers / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid by Peter Gill (OUP, £14.99)
Last year I met a woman and her disabled son who lived in a hut on the edge of one of Ethiopia’s frontier towns. Ethiopia’s ambitious, donor-funded “safety net” programme—which aims to boost food supplies and allow poor people to “graduate out of poverty”—asks able recipients to work in exchange for assistance. The woman told me how her food aid, for which she worked on a road built with spades and axes, made her weak. She was not talking of its nutritional value, nor the shame of it, but of the way it separates her from her community. “I chose to come and live here and take this aid,” she said, “because it lessens the burden on my family. But when I don’t come to clan meetings to ask for welfare, I neither give nor receive, and I don’t belong any more.”
“Food aid is killing us,” said another.
The public works resulting from the aid programme are sometimes useful, sometimes not. Meanwhile, on the Bole Road in the capital Addis Ababa shops sparkle with costly clothes and electronic goods. New polytunnels filled with flowers and vegetables creep across the plain around the city, creating wealth but displacing the poor.
The characters in Peter Gill’s book tell the story of Ethiopia over the 25 years since Live Aid turned its famine into a global issue. Gill, one of the first journalists to report the famine, travels from one end to another of Africa’s third most populous country and reports the abstractions of officials and the unvarnished clarity of ordinary people. Each person recounts how she or he is involved in making Ethiopia. The elites argue and the people duck and dive, manage and sometimes thrive. Based on solid research and a reporter’s instinct for whom to speak to and which questions to ask, Gill’s writing reveals the precariousness of life for the country’s 80m people, as well as the firm beliefs of the powerful that they, and only they, know what to do about it.
Everyone speaks according to their script. The IMF wants a free market and it delays loans, arguing with the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The coalition, in turn, persists with a centrally-controlled economy and a tight political grip. The aid donors—led by the World Bank and Britain’s department for…