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How 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
The Observer

The 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.

These 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 inert.

The 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.

A 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.

Leaving 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 night.

Hayk 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 the dead.'

History 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.

A 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.

He 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.'


It 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 old.


Ethiopia 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 malnutrition.


Wrapping 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.


The 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 enough food.'


There 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.


Dependence 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.


Simple 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 wells.


'We 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 corrugated-iron hut.


'We 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.'


Despite 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.


Non-government 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.


'Emergency 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.


'What 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.'


In 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.


'So 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 by it.'


If 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.


One 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.'


I 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.'


Cheap initiatives that could make a real impact

It is easy to despair about the difficulty of turning around Africa's fortunes. But it's the smallest interventions that can make the biggest difference.

· 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 pregnant women.


· 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 legal help.

· Research by Kate Bird and Laure-Hélène Piron of the UK thinktank, Overseas Development Institute.

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Point of Interest

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Tsegai Berhe President of Tigray State
Interview with VOA'(Tigriniga)

AU Official: Ethiopian Vote Free & Fair, Opposition Complaints Exaggerated.

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ADDIS ABABA, 29 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Ethiopia's political leaders have held their first ever face-to-face talks aimed at ending the deepening crisis over disputed legislative polls, an official said on Friday.

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