The Hazards Of Doing Good: “Famine and Foreigners” In Ethiopia

Above: A new book by Peter Gill argues that Ethiopia’s cycle of
famine is made worse by successive failures of leadership-WSJ

The Wall Street Journal
Book Review
By WILLIAM EASTERLY
SEPTEMBER 7, 2010

If it were possible to sum up in one sentence Ethiopia’s struggles with famine over the past quarter-century, I’d suggest this: It’s not the rains, it’s the rulers. As Peter Gill makes clear in “Famines and Foreigners,” his well-turned account of the country’s miseries since the 1984-85 famine and the Live Aid concert meant to relieve it, drought has not been as devastating to Ethiopians as their own autocratic governments.

Ethiopia is a classic example of Amartya Sen’s dictum that famines don’t occur in democracies, only under tyrannies. The “foreigners” in Mr. Gill’s story either didn’t know about this sad fact of life or chose to ignore it. In any case, the celebrities and humanitarians who rushed to the aid of starving Ethiopians in the mid-1980s unwittingly supported the very people most responsible for those grim days. The Derg, the brutal Marxist junta running Ethiopia at the time, contributed to the 1984 famine by forcing farmers to sell crops to the state at low prices. Many farmers instead consumed much of what they grew. The tradition of Ethiopians in areas with surplus food selling it to those in famine-stricken areas was thus disrupted…”

Fast-forward to the present: Although Stalinist Marxism is done, not much else has changed. The former Tigrayan rebels, led by Meles Zenawi, now rule Ethiopia. The country’s agriculture remains in what Mr. Gill calls “a state of almost permanent crisis.” A famine in the south in 2000 escaped much international notice while the government was busy prosecuting a war against neighboring Eritrea. In 2008, the Ethiopian army conducted a counterinsurgency campaign in the south, attempting to put down a rebellion in its Somali region amid a food crisis there. Human Rights Watch accused Mr. Meles’s forces of “demonstration killings,” torture, torching villages—in sum, “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Read more.


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