we failed to lift Ethiopia's curse
Tracy McVeigh hears a searing
indictment of Western aid as a famine survivor tells her: 'Maybe
you should have let us die in '84'
Sunday June 12, 2005
tarmac road winds up the hill, its unfinished edges tumbling off
like giant black cake crumbs. Corrugated-metal walls surround a
compound below. Inside, a fleet of rusting, fat-tyred lorries bear
fading red crosses, the international symbol of aid.
are the trucks which 20 years ago brought in the food that saved
tens of thousands of lives in northern Ethiopia during the
1983-1985 famine. And they have sat here ever since, impounded and
convoys were a precious resource, so precious that one aid driver
burst into tears when he discovered that he had driven so far to
transport boxes, not of life-saving grain and oil, but filled with
stars-and-stripes knickers sent to this famine-ravaged region of
East Africa from a well-meaning American church.
few hundred yards on, the road rises further, passing a stand of
about 40 weathered board shacks. Children run through the dust,
waving at the rarity of a passing vehicle. Above their heads
crumbling exposed asbestos sags from the roofs. Like the trucks,
the shacks were a famine-time present to Ethiopia from a German
NGO which found asbestos cheap due to the drop in demand at home.
the town of Dessie behind, the tarmac rubs away to a rutted, stony
track as it carries on to Hayk. The name seems to mark not a
village but a jumble of people who appear from nowhere to gather
round the visitor. The landscape is fertile and hilly, but bare of
all but the meanest shrubs. The once abundant red-flowered thorn
and acacia trees have been wrenched up by their roots by children
who scour the country side all day for wood to feed their
families' fires through the bone-sharp chills of the Ethiopian
is another little landmark in famine history. A handsome, smiling
old man in dust-ingrained ripped shorts points to the one
remaining stand of trees in the valley. 'That is where we buried
them,' he said, 'many thousands. No one cuts trees that grow from
was made here, in his lifetime, when this valley dried up and Hayk
became one of many dying fields across northern Ethiopia where
tens of thousands starved to death. Abera Tibebu survived the
famine the West knew about, and other hungry times before and
since that the world did not notice. He thinks he is about 62.
farmer, like most who live in the mountainous Wollo region, he has
spent his life ploughing the rocky soil, using hand-made tools
which, along with his mud-hut home, look like an Iron Age display
in a Home Counties museum.
is reliant on his own muscle and the rains, and, straight though
his back still is, at his age one is becoming as beyond his
control as the other. Kicking the rock-hard sole of one bare foot
against sharp, yellow stones, he reels off those he lost to
hunger: two sons, a sister, a nephew, a sister-in-law. Five kicks,
five names, a long pause: 'It was as if it was yesterday.'
has left him with few relatives to help when he is too old to
work. Most children of two and under died in 1983 and 1984,
leaving a shortage of young people who could be supporting the
faces regular severe food shortages that compound poverty.
Malnourished children suffer development problems throughout their
lives - stunting and disability and complications of childhood
diseases. Some 47 per cent of children under five suffer from
a holey blanket around her crippled nine-year-old grandson,
Beyenech Ali says she has only one surviving child out of five
born to her. Two died after the rains failed in 1982-83.
63-year-old remembers how starving people came down from the
hills: 'Many crawled, some used rubber strips on their forearms to
pull themselves along. Many died. They had a feeding centre here,
but it was supposed to be just for the children. There was not
is still not enough. Just as the signs of that famine have not
been erased, neither have Ethiopia's problems. It stands as a
perfect example of how aid money must go to the root of a
country's prob lems before it can solve anything. The 1984 famine
that spawned Live Aid saw five million Ethiopians needing
emergency food aid. This year the estimate is 8.9 million. In the
last drought, in 2003, aid agencies fed 13 million.
on rain-fed agriculture exposes rural communities to recurrent
livelihood shocks when the rain fails. Many households never fully
recovered from the 1984 famine, while a recent cycle of poor rains
has forced families to sell their assets to survive - making them
vulnerable to future shocks.
irrigation schemes could change all that, but donor countries send
aid with conditions - it is 'emergency' aid and has to be spent on
immediate relief rather than tools or cattle or seeds or digging
work and work, and the crops grown keep us for maybe half the
year,' said Ato Kasanew Abebra, a 30-year-old Wollo farmer. He is
the richest man in his village because he has one ox and a
are all distressed when the crop fails and have to wait for the
government to support us. Then I have to walk 50km to the grain
store and they give me a bag of grain and I walk back. I want to
feed my family, to have not to share my ox with my brother.'
a brief period when it seemed that the whole world was anxious to
help, and despite the billions in foreign currency coming in,
Ethiopia is arguably the poorest nation on Earth and growing
poorer. It is the world's biggest recipient of emergency aid and
gets the least in development aid.
agencies and foreign governments stand accused of creating not a
solution but a bigger problem, of creating a dependency culture
where a country and a people cannot fend for themselves despite a
fervent desire to do so. Peter Hawkins, former head of Save the
Children in Africa, says the NGOs made grave mistakes in the past
and are still on a learning curve.
aid is like having an A&E department without the rest of the
hospital; development aid is having the hospital without the
A&E capacity - you need both to treat Ethiopia.
hasn't happened is consistent development aid. Emergency aid has
kept these people alive and in increasing destitution and without
hope for the future. That's what's got to change.'
a shack bar in Dessie, engineer Yonis Berkele has a more extreme
view. 'Maybe you should have let us die in 1984,' he says,
prodding his finger in the air. 'You made us beggars and we don't
thank you. We have stagnated. The humanitarian effort saved them,
but didn't lead them to development.
thank you, but maybe you should have left us to die. If you care
about one human life during the dark times, then why do you not
care now? Ethiopia and famine become the same word, we are cursed
it is a curse then maybe, post-G8, Ethiopia's children will be
able to finally shake it off. In Hayk, a crowd of children have
gathered round. I ask if they have heard of the famine and they
all point to the oasis of trees that is the graveyard.
little girl, a length of dirty rope holding around her an adult's
dress that once had been patterned with giant roses, says she is
10. She is too shy to give her name when asked. but suddenly
blurts out: 'I want to be a nurse.'
ask Getenew Zewdu, Save the Children's regional manager for Wollo,
what her chances are. He laughs at my naivety: 'At 13 she will be
married off, then it will be her turn to work and try to keep her
own children from hunger.'
initiatives that could make a real impact
is easy to despair about the difficulty of turning around Africa's
fortunes. But it's the smallest interventions that can make the
Rainwater harvesting: Lack of clean drinking water affects a
billion people and causes 3.5 million deaths a year (mainly
children). Cheap and simple investments in guttering and storage
tanks could have an enormous impact.
Mosquito nets: Malaria kills more than a million people a year.
Deaths could be dramatically reduced if treated bednets were
available at little or no cost, particularly for children and
Midwives: More than half a million women die in childbirth each
year. Relatively small investments in training birth attendants
couldcut death rates.
Free books, school uniforms and secondary education: Primary
education is now nominally free in most countries, but payments
for 'extras' make the costs too high for many parents. Without
secondary education, many are unable to get jobs.
Legal aid: African prisons are overflowing with poor people
waiting for years to get to court, often a family's breadwinner
and often contracting HIV/Aids and TB. NGOs, religious groups and
human rights organisations could make a difference by offering
Research by Kate Bird and Laure-Hélène Piron of the UK thinktank,
Overseas Development Institute.