This book review appears in the April/May edition of Charity Times
News coverage follows the dramatic – the tsunami, famine, or grisly civil war. Public perceptions in the UK of events in the developing world are inevitably skewed by that prism. New privileges human impact and English-speaking ‘guardian angel’ saviours, rather than structural causes. And then it moves on, leaving in the public mind lingering images of starving children, or people being plucked from earthquake-shattered buildings.
In his book, Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, Telegraph and ITV journalist Peter Gill (right) sets out to explore the other side of events. In the ‘biblical’ beginnings of the 1984/5 famine, he was the first journalist to reach the epicentre of suffering, helping (along with the BBC’s Michael Buerk) to alert the outside world to impending disaster. In 2008 and 2009 he went back to bring himself up to date on the intervening years, to find out what happened before and after the TV cameras arrived, and how Ethiopians themselves understand the tumultuous last 25 years of their country’s history.
He brings a journalist’s craft to the task, interweaving reportage and a confident and eclectic grasp of the academic literature on the country. Through human stories, he retells the history of Ethiopia’s famines (a less infamous famine in 1973 led to the ousting of Emperor Haile Selassie), the transition years that followed the 1984/5 catastrophe, the fall of Colonel Mengistu and his notorious Derg government, and the rise of its current Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.
His approach reverses the media order of things. Aid agencies (both big northern governments and NGOs like Oxfam, on which he has written a largely sympathetic book, Drops in the Ocean) are not angels, but often bumbling bureaucracies whose actions are driven by a complex mix of altruism and institutional needs. In any case, centre stage belongs to Ethiopians themselves, and in particular the Ethiopian government.
Meles emerges as an extraordinary figure, who became head of state at 36 and promptly signed up for an Open University degree in business administration, getting one of the best firsts in the OU’s history. He then went on to get a masters in economics from Erasmus University in Rotterdam (his thesis was on the developmental state in Africa). Can’t find the book or full thesis online (help please!), but here is a paper of his on the same theme.
Over the course of several interviews, Gill probes Meles’ thinking, and is clearly dazzled by his intellect, largely giving him the benefit of the doubt on his commitment to (eventually) stepping down (he has been in power since 1995 and elections have been widely questioned) and engineering a transition to a less authoritarian system.
Part of his admiration for Meles (whose record on human rights is far from spotless), is the transformation in Ethiopia’s management of hunger: In 1984, 7.9 million faced starvation and more than 600,000 died. By contrast in a drought on Zenawi’s watch in 2003, 13.2 million faced the prospect of famine, yet Gill reports that only 300 people died (no-one at Oxfam believes the figure was that low, by the way). Gill puts this extraordinary turnaround down to a massive mobilization by the state (including using its own domestic resources, not just aid – Gill goes into some detail on the government’s impressive social safety net programme) and better reaction by the donors, who this time around, did not wait for TV images before acting.
The book’s main weakness stems from its strengths. Gill’s journalistic commitment to telling Ethiopia’s story through interviews and reportage is engaging, but comes at the expense of political analysis and subtlety, leaving him with little to say on its future, with our without Meles as its head of state. And oddly, much of the last chapter is devoted to an interview with aid guru Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University, whose expertise on Ethiopia hardly rivals the many wise local voices featured in the book.
But overall Gill gets several important things very right. Famine is the result of politics and conflict, not drought – he quotes a centuries-old quote from a Portuguese Jesuit: famines are caused not by locusts but ‘the marching if the soldiers…. Which is a plague worse than the locusts because they devour only what they find in the fields, whereas the soldiers spare not what is laid up in houses.’
His focus on the role of states in reducing the risks of disasters and then responding to them when they occur, is also spot on – Oxfam is revising its thinking on this in a similar direction. If you want to understand what’s happened to Ethiopia since Geldof, Bono, Live Aid and the rest, this is a good place to start.
Author video here
Declaration of interest: Peter’s just starting a book on the role of INGOs, and I will be liaising with him for Oxfam