Those of us of a certain age will probably remember the traumatic images on TV of countless starving children in Ethiopia during the 1980s famine. We may recall Band Aid, Live Aid, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure and even Michael Burke’s haunting news report introducing the brave but almost helpless young nurse from Hertfordshire, Claire Bertschinger, who, amidst the daily biblical scenes of horror, had to decide who she could help and who would be left to die. If this is stirring some distant memory, then the CBC Television video set to the music Drive by The Cars and broadcast during the Live Aid concert will surely evoke the same strong emotions now as it did back then.
You may be thinking, ‘but this disaster befell that poor African country more than thirty years ago, surely things must be better today?’ Well sadly, no. Things are not any better. In fact, the systemic failures which precipitated the local food shortages and amplified the effects of the drought have never been addressed, let alone fixed, and are in fact worse today than they were then. According to the United Nations, Ethiopia “is experiencing its worst drought in 30 years;” and in some areas the poorest, most vulnerable infants are already dying at a rate of two per day.
The phrase ‘food shortages’ was qualified above with the prefix ‘local’ because, of course, there are rarely absolute food shortages – I mean, when was the last time you heard of a rich person starving to death? In 1985 at the height of the Ethiopian famine, the world produced enough food to feed twelve times the global population.
A food shortage that causes starvation is usually the result of unequal power in the market made worse by drought, war and ecological collapse. Unequal power in the market is epitomised in Ethiopia by the application of genocidally stupid government polices dictated to an authoritarian regime by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund – the very institutions that so many westerners naively believe are acting in the interests of the poor and powerless. These policies are still in place today but they are now even more extreme, still ideologically driven and just as deadly.
The collusion between the IMF and the government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is once again proving disastrous for the most vulnerable. The IMF is demanding domestic reforms to enable higher exports and attract foreign direct investment while the government is massaging economic growth figures and denying the existence of a famine crisis in order to achieve similar goals. The domestic reforms currently being demanded by the IMF are reminiscent of those of occupying powers during colonial times – build infrastructure to allow goods to be sent abroad.
Meanwhile the regime in Addis Ababa, recently enjoying international attention as an “economic lion” based on its own claims of double-digit economic growth, has warned NGO’s and media organisations not to use the words “famine, starvation or death” in their food appeals. Neither are they to say that “children are dying on a daily basis,” or refer to “widespread famine” or say that “the policies of the government in Ethiopia are partially to blame.” The regime is also taking issue with the UN’s projections that 15 million Ethiopians will be affected, replacing that figure with their own estimate of 8 million – as if 8 million starving people is somehow acceptable:
“The Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition party of 4 of the 9 regions of Ethiopia, has had 24 years in power to prepare for another famine of historic proportions; but instead, they have exploited that power to prosper themselves. Instead of accepting any responsibility for bad decisions, failure to plan, or selfish use of resources and opportunities, the regime is now blaming “nature”, seeing Ethiopia’s “food insecurity” as an unavoidable effect of “El Nino,” something others dispute.”
Ethiopia now has one of the most repressive media environments in the world. Numerous journalists languish in prison, independent media outlets have been closed down, and many journalists have fled the country. In such an atmosphere it is not hard to understand why The West has yet to grasp the enormity of the ongoing disaster.
The government is also engaged in widespread land ‘reforms’ – again at the behest of the IMF. According to Graham Peebles, the director of UK based charity The Create Trust, the EPRDF government has been leasing huge amounts of fertile agricultural land to so-called “foreign investors’’: international corporations, domestic agents, fund managers, and nations anxious to secure their own future food security.
Detailed research by the OI in 2011 estimated that “3,619,509ha of land have been transferred to investors, although the actual number may be higher.” Incentives to investors include exemption from import taxes, income taxes and custom duties as well as ‘easy access to credit’; the Ethiopian Development Bank will contribute up to 70% towards land costs – which are extremely cheap to begin with.
Land is sold with the understanding that it is cleared of everything – including people – by government forces. Indigenous people, who have lived on the land for generations, are displaced and herded into camps – the universally condemned ‘Villagization’ programme. OI estimates that over a million people have been affected, and that, “the loss of farmland, the degradation and destruction of natural resources, and the reduction of water supplies are expected to result in the loss of livelihoods of affected communities.” Despite this, the ruling regime maintains that the land sold – all land is state owned (with formal and informal land rights) – is unused, and is being leased off without affecting farmers.
Industrial size farms have been built and foodstuffs (not eaten by the native population) grown for export – to the investor’s homeland, India, for example. Very little, if any, of the food grown is going into the Ethiopian food market, and there are attractive government incentives in place to “ensure that food production is exported, providing foreign exchange for the country at the expense of local food supplies”.
This collusion is more accurately described as exploitation by the IMF on behalf of creditor nations and western financial institutions carried out with the willing participation of their local government puppets. None of this is new of course. During the Great Depression Sir Douglas Copland, Australia’s chief economist and undeclared public relations officer for the City of London, made similar idiotic demands of the people of Australia. In front of a packed audience in Melbourne Copland delivered a speech explaining his theory of how to get the country back on track. The economic medicine prescribed was ‘belt-tightening’: work harder, import less and export more. At that time the agony of economic depression was intense; there was no dole or state welfare and so millions of Australians could be seen wandering the city streets because they could not get handouts at the same place twice. Those with jobs would work hard all day for a single loaf of bread. In such tough times it was the sense of community among the people, the Diggers’ spirit, that kept the nation together.
During the questions session at the end of Copland’s talk, a farmer stood up and asked: ‘Tell me Sir Douglas, you say if we import less and export more we’re going to be better off?” “That’s it!” replied Sir Douglas. “OK” said the farmer “so if we increase our exports by 25% and cut down our imports by 25%, things are going to be really good?” “You’re sure right!” answered Copland. “And if we increase our exports by 50% and cut our imports down by 50%, we’re going to be better off still?” asked the farmer. “Absolutely” replied Copland. Finally the farmer said, “Well suppose we export every bloody thing we’ve got and we cut our imports down to nil, according to your theory we’ve reached the Promised Land.” Two thousand people rose to their feet and booed Sir Douglas Copland out of the hall.
If only Ethiopian farmers could similarly reject their fate. In Ethiopia today not only are people on the verge of starvation but farmers, whose crops have failed due to the lack of rainfall, are being hounded by government thugs for loan repayments (taken to buy fertilizer that in all likelihood should have been given as aid) they cannot now make. ESAT news reports that, “local government officials jail farmers who could not pay their loans”.
Looking back further into the history of famine exacerbated by policies of creditor nations we see exactly the same demands made of the people of Ireland during The Great Hunger. Potato blight first appeared in Ireland in 1845 but the effects lasted into the early 1850s. According to historian John Newsinger this was Western Europe’s worst modern peacetime catastrophe with ‘a million people dying of starvation, disease and exposure and another million fleeing their homeland as refugees. The worst affected were the rural poor, the landless labourers, cottiers and small farmers, most of whom already lived in the most appealing poverty.’
So how did the occupying power, the British state – the richest country in Europe at the time, respond to that crisis? Initially relief measures were limited, ‘just sufficient to ensure despite considerable hardship there were few actual deaths’. Limited became non-existent following the complete failure of the potato crop in 1946 and the election of a new government in London, that of Lord John Russell. His Whig government’s policies were the same as those disastrously applied to Austrailia during the 1930’s and to Ethiopia over the past three decades: an idealogical commitment to laissez-faire, free trade and market forces coupled with the sanctity of private property rights. When Irish farmers were too ill to work and could not pay their rent they were often evicted in the most brutal fashion. An account by a parish priest in September 1847 describes one such eviction scene in Ireland:
Confined to bed, being for a considerable time in a declining state—the result of destitution. The Sheriff, on seeing the extreme debility of the man, hesitated to execute his orders—he came out and remonstrated: but Mr Walsh was inexorable. Duffy was brought out and laid under a shed, covered with turf, which was once used as a pig cabin, and his house thrown down. The landlord, not deeming the possession complete while the pig cabin remained entire, ordered the roof to be removed and poor Duffy, having no friend to shelter him, remained under the open air for two days and two nights, until death put an end to him. (I Murphy, The Diocese of Killaloe (Blackrock, 1992), pp216-217.)
Russell even refused to ban food exports from Ireland during the famine years. Sound familiar? Famine-stricken countries often export food while their own people are starving. During the famine of 1984-85 which killed a million people, Ethiopia exported green beans to the UK. Despite the continued threat of famine in 1989 Sudan sold 400,000 tons of grain to the European Community for animal feed. Much of the best land in Ethiopia has been sold to western agribusiness and is devoted to growing coffee for western markets.
The ‘problem’ faced by Ireland, Australia and Ethiopia as well as most other nations is debt. Odious public debt coupled with a weak government will lead to a dysfunctional state that will do as it is told. In other words will work against the interests of its population and for the interests of wealthy foreign creditors – today’s multinational corporations. Private debt coupled with a corrupt and unsympathetic judiciary, working with brutal law enforcement, will lead to evictions from their homes of the poorest and most vulnerable.
The cruel irony in all cases is that the debt is completely unnecessary. Had Ethiopia established a public bank working in the interests of the people, the public and private debt would be manageable or non-existent. For those who suggest that this is not possible, or would lead to price inflation, we need to look back to Australia in the early twentieth century. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia, run by Denison Miller, financed the fledgling nation and advanced the peoples’ credit to fund the war effort in 1915. The bank made a profit of £20 million which was paid back to the public treasury when Australian soldiers returned home. When asked how this new bank had raised such funds Miller replied: ‘On the credit of the nation. It is unlimited.” The closest an African nation has come to a public bank working in the public interest was the State Bank of Libya. Sadly that institution – and country – was destroyed by NATO bombardment in 2011 leaving many poor countries with little choice but to play the western game and become trapped in a web of debt.
In Ethiopia, concerned more with its international image than the suffering of those in dire need, the ruling regime has presented an ambiguous, contradictory picture of the famine. In a recent interview Arkebe OQubay, the ‘special adviser to the Prime-Minister’ told Bloomberg that the country’s greatest achievement since 1984 was that “we are being able to feed ourselves. In 1984 we were struggling to feed our 40 million-population, but now… we have food security.” This is pure fantasy: Ethiopia (according to most recent, 2012 figures) remains the largest recipient of food aid in the world, and millions are today at risk of starvation.
Consumed with vain ideals of regional status fueled by a growing middle class, economic development and a distorted national image, Ethiopia’s ruling party – a brutal dictatorship, despite democratic pretensions – lacks the political will and the plain compassionate honesty to deal with the current situation openly. They have, according to some charities, stopped people in Addis Ababa and elsewhere collecting funds for famine victims, and, consistent with past denials, Deputy Prime Minister, Demeke Mekonen, commenting on a BBC programme about the crisis, is reported to have told a local journalist that “there is no such thing as famine in Ethiopia these days”.
The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one. But since the government in Ethiopia is unwilling to do this we must conclude it is unwilling, or unable, to assist the millions of people in dire need of help. It is time to ask ourselves, should the starving children of Ethiopia have to wait for this generation’s failing rock stars to rally westerners to donate to their cause? How many children must die before we sit up, take notice and finally resolve to never allow this to happen again?
We may also conclude that relieving immediate suffering is essential but not enough, and that in order to address causes rather than tragic symptoms, we must rid the world of the corrupt, elitist and unaccountable institutions, the IMF and The World Bank, whose fucking criminally insane economic theorems repeatedly demand the mass starvation of the poorest on the planet.
Update July 2019
Flowers and famine
While Ethiopian crops fail and people starve owing to ‘drought’, thousands of tonnes of water-hungry flowers are being grown for export.
Mohammad Hassan of the PTB (Belgian Workers’ party) delivers a powerful speech condemning the puppet regime of Ethiopia for selling his country to imperialism, and engineering a famine with its pro-imperialist policy and at the behest of US/British imperialism.
He was speaking at the CPGB-ML’s international BBQ held in Saklatvala Hall, Southall, on 30 July 2011.
Ethiopia, like much of the developing (‘third’ or neo-colonial) world, should be a rich country. It is rich in resources, population and territory. Yet it has become (in)famous internationally for the famine that Bob Geldoff’s ‘Live Aid‘ was supposed to address, and few realise that while that famine raged, Ethiopia was exporting food grain as a commodity.
This is the reality of global monopoly capitalist economics. Now, when there are poor farmers on the edge of existence and water resources need careful husbanding, precious land and huge amounts of water are used growing flowers for export, which are flown to Britain, Europe and the US – and which we are then encouraged to buy and give to each other on Valentine’s day, birthdays and anniversaries.
The gross inequality and absurdity of these features of imperialism are graphically illustrated by Mohammad Hassan in this excellent speech.
For additional reading on this topic, see: Famine in Somalia: imperialism is to blame.