DESPITE the magnificent outpouring of grain, money and material aid to Ethiopia from private individuals and organisations in the West since October 1984, the governments of many of those countries have not been willing to support Ethiopia’s attempts to become self-sufficient in food. Mrs Thatcher and her Overseas Development Minister. Timothy Raison, went on record last year as being ‘steadfastly against committing any long-term aid at all to Ethiopia’, and in June 1985 US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester A. Crocker confirmed that countries aligned with the Soviet Union ‘will not have our friendship and support’.
The Soviet Union too, concentrates its assistance on military equipment to prevent. it is said, Ethiopia from being dismembered by secessionist forces in Eritrea and elsewhere. The country already owes $4 billion for the military hardware. So hungry millions have become pawns in the game of superpower politics. Beneath the clashing ideologies there is, however, an even starker reality.
Anyone who flies north from Addis Ababa towards Wello and Tigray regions will notice how the clumps of trees below become fewer and farther between. Eventually the patches of green disappear altogether and the shadow of the plane passes across a parched and desolate landscape. There is no plant life, no vegetation whatsoever. The plane flies low enough for the peasant tukuls (huts) to be seen clearly. And it is clear, too, that there is no livestock anywhere. They have perished, as did about 200,000 people in the 1972-74 drought. Ethiopians have traditionally been big meat eaters (in the towns they still are), with the largest herds of cattle in Africa and the tenth largest in the world.
Looking through the window of the plane. the passenger notices the deep ravines and gorges that criss-cross the landscape and the steep cliffs and mountains that divide the high plateau. He or she will see not a single road, not one electric pylon, no stretch of railway, nothing that vaguely resembles any modern development. There is no sign whatsoever that the governments of the past were interested in improving conditions in the country. How on earth can anyone live on such inaccessible ledges. I found myself wondering. They are utterly cut off from the facilities of the modern world.
Jack Shepherd in ‘The Politics of Starvation’ has outlined the conditions in which the vast majority of Ethiopians used to live and which made the country susceptible to natural disasters. ‘Until the overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974 Ethiopian peasants lived and died in social conditions similar to those of European peasants of the Middle Ages. They paid a land tax that might take up to three-quarters of what they produced, and education and health taxes that returned neither schooling nor decent medical treatment. They supplied produce, firewood and labour to their landlord’s house and granary, and gifts at holiday time. The problems of overfarming and overgrazing, of exhausted soils, of poor seeds and of antiquated implements - such matters were of no interest to the lord who demanded his due come rain or come shine.
The peasants’ vulnerability to drought can be traced directly to this institutionalised robbery by the upper classes of the imperial era. There was hardly ever a time when peasants had enough food to store just in case. Consequently when droughts did come they went hungry, became destitute and died in large numbers. They suffered and led meagre lives because they were poor. To address the causes of their poverty would be to reduce the effects of drought on them and the toll taken by famine.
That is just what the Revolutionary Government attempted to do with its proclamation of 1975. It put an end to the peasants’ traditional bondage and indebtedness by nationalising the country’s land and limiting private holdings to 10 hectares. It abruptly ended the lords’ rapacious privileges by sweeping away the feudal system from which they had derived their legitimacy. It could not, however, change the pattern of the weather. Recurring droughts over the last decade have not given the peasants any chance to benefit from the social and economic reforms.
The US Government has not been willing to acknowledge the importance of the reforms. Like a fighting bull, it sees only red when the Dergue in Addis Ababa is mentioned. It sees ‘communism’ being implanted in Africa, instead of the foundation being laid for a modern economy. And for this reason it withholds long-term development assistance that would bring an end to Ethiopia’s dependence on foreign food aid.
Although the US has been generous with supplies of relief grain to Ethiopia’s starving millions, sending emergency food worth $188.8 million (excluding private donations) between 1 October 1984 and 5 April 1985 under the slogan ~A hungry child knows no politics’, it has pointedly refused to support projects which Ethiopians believe would lead to agricultural self-sufficiency. It wants nothing to do with the resettlement programmes, for example, whereby families are being moved from the arid north to fertile and under-populated areas in other parts of the country.
The purpose of these programmes is to end the people’s dependence on foreign handouts and to restore their dignity and independence by giving them the wherewithal to become productive farmers again. Despite the suffering of peasants as they have moved from their ancestral lands unaccustomed as they are to aircraft and trucks, the sickness and sometimes death en route and the seeming insensitivity of some officials involved - the resettlement programmes could be the key to solving Ethiopia’s food shortages within 10 years. That is what many local and some World Bank officials believe. But to succeed, the programmes require inputs such as handtools. seeds. fertilizers, land-clearing equipment, tractors, fuel, medicines and technical advice - items which Ethiopia sorely lacks but which the donor community could easily afford.
It’s as if the food security that would be achieved is rendered invalid by the complexion of the government in power. If this is so, then a hungry child does have politics after all. The unwillingness to help with long-term projects is borne out by the per capita official development assistance Ethiopia has received from the club of Western aid donors (OECD) since 1980. It received in aid only $1.94 per head of population in 1983, for example, compared with the $21.89 that went to the Sudan, the $41.64 per head to Lesotho and the $101.00 per head to Djibouti.
Soviet aid figures are not available, but in any case the Soviet Union considers aid to be irrelevant. It regards aid as ‘conscience money’ from the West. The cash only makes token amends for the colonial exploitation of the past, for the indebtedness into which it believes Third World countries are deliberately enmeshed, for their deteriorating terms of trade, and for the protectionism that makes it difficult for them to sell their commodities. For its part, the Dergue has done little to ingratiate itself with the West. It openly declares itself to be a Marxist-Leninist state and regards the Soviet Union as one of its closest allies. It has been collectivising agriculture over the past 10 years and intends to continue the process so that more than 50 per cent of the population are working on collective farms by 1990. In this respect it adheres to the Soviet model with, according to US agriculturalists, ‘the same result - sharply declining farm productivity’.
Perhaps the most cynical aspect of this tale of woe is that an African country should be encouraged to emulate Russia’s agricultural policies precisely when the Russians themselves have acknowledged the failure of their own farms to feed their country. Indeed the quality of the advice being given to Ethiopia must surely be questioned in the light of the agreement signed by the Soviet Union and the United States in June 1985. Under this agreement American experts will advise the Soviets on how to increase production of grain, which has repeatedly been below target in recent years. US Under-Secretary for Agriculture Daniel Amstutz said at the time that young people from every country would exchange ‘down on the farm’ work-study visits and that the two countries would swap specialist teams and information in 10 different agricultural areas, from animal husbandry to forestry and irrigation.
‘I think there is no doubt that the Soviet Union is mainly interested in its agricultural production and productivity.’ Amstutz said after two days in Moscow. ‘We are really more interested in the economic side of it - what the agreement can do to enhance the trade climate.’
So here we have one superpower, the Soviet Union, urging Ethiopia to adopt policies that are bound to aggravate its food shortages. Simultaneously the other superpower, the United States, refuses to become involved in Ethiopia’s long-term food production programmes because the country is an ally of the Soviet Union. Yet the United States willingly signs an agreement with the Soviet Union itself, the world’s number one Marxist-Leninist state, to help improve Russian food production.
It’s not surprising that some analysts wonder whether the United States and the Soviet Union are actually in cahoots to keep Ethiopia in a state of dependency and under-development. When food becomes a policy instrument, the Cold War appears more than ever to be an elaborate ploy whereby poorer nations are held in thrall to the twin empires of East and West.
Dr Enver Carim is Editor-in Chief of Third World Development Magazine