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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 January, 2004, 08:24 GMT
Ethiopia: More aid, more hunger still

By Michael Buerk
BBC correspondent, This World

Twenty years ago the BBC's reports on Ethiopia's "biblical" famine sparked an unprecedented international aid effort, so why are more Ethiopians facing starvation now than in 1984?

A starving Ethiopian child and parent outside an aid centre
The 1984/5 famine killed nearly one million people
It is nearly 20 years now since I flew north from Addis Ababa, with the legendary cameraman, Mohamed Amin, into the greatest natural disaster of the twentieth century.

It was compounded by man, of course.

The Marxist military regime of Colonel Haile-Mariam Mengistu and the infamous Derg, was cruel even by African standards.

The wars they were fighting with the rebel movements of the north turned the highlands into battlegrounds and cut the starving off from the outside world.

The outside world did not care very much. The West was not keen to help a soviet-backed tyranny during one of the last spasms of the Cold War.

The result was a crisis that tipped into catastrophe.

Scattered bodies

When the autumn rains failed, the highlanders left their homes in millions and trekked away to look for help. We found their bodies scattered over the mountainsides.

It was something unimaginable that we had allowed to happen, doing nothing would mean you were complicit in murder
Bob Geldof
Those that survived the journey, made it to places like Korem and Mekele on the great spinal road north where help might have been, if help had come.

But it hadn't, and tens of thousands of them died there instead.

Korem is still just a couple of rows of mostly single storey mud and stick buildings with corrugated iron roofs.

In 1984 we arrived there at night and got up before dawn to find 40,000 starving people out in the open.

Save the Children had set up a small supplementary feeding centre for babies, but it was completely overwhelmed.

There was a French doctor from Medecins Sans Frontières, bewildered and crying.

"I know nothing of politics", she told me, "I am just a witness of Korem and thousands, millions of these people are going to die."

They were already dying all around her; the keening and wailing cut right to your heart.


Two decades later, Bob Geldof is still emotional about what he saw that night in his home in Chelsea. "It was something unimaginable that we had allowed to happen. Doing nothing would mean you were complicit in murder".

It was not just Geldof, by the end of that week the whole country seemed to be mobilising.

We tracked down the little girl in Liverpool who saw her mum crying in front of the TV and went out on the streets with her brother, dressed as a guy, for five days running and collected £87, more money than she had ever seen before.

A wasted child outside a food aid station
Images of starving Ethiopians shocked the world
We found the Cambridgeshire farmer who could not stand the contrast with the grain mountains he was helping to build up. He set up a charity that raised £2m and sent 12,000 tons of food to the Horn of Africa.

As Geldof says, there was "never a civic movement in history that was so rapidly assembled, so focused and determined, so attuned to the objective".

For once, everybody thought they could do something; that they could make a difference. Was it something about them? The visible scale of their suffering, the helplessness of their mass victimhood?

Or was it something about us? Did it catch us at a moment in the middle of the Thatcher and Reagan years when our prosperity seemed suddenly selfish and uncaring?

It was Geldof who articulated the anger and harnessed the sympathy. Do they know it's Christmas?, the song he scribbled in the back of a taxi and persuaded the country's biggest stars to sing, sold 50 million copies.

Live Aid, the following summer, was not just the greatest concert ever held; it was the biggest shared event in human history. Sport Aid, a year later was the world's biggest-ever sporting occasion; 20 million people ran for Africa and raised $100 million.

What good did it all do? If nothing else, it saved between a million and two million lives, but we did not solve Ethiopia's problems.

Population explosion

The population in the highlands has exploded. It is heading for double the size it was in 1984.

The ever-rising numbers are putting more pressure on the land, pushing people further up the mountains to the margins of fertility.

Ethiopia: Now and then
Average income in 1984: $190
Average income today: $108
Six million Ethiopians are fed by international aid each year
Annual population rise: 2.7%
Annual topsoil loss: 2.7%

The thin soil is exhausted; the trees that bound it to the hillsides have long since been chopped down for firewood. When it is dry it blows away as dust and on satellite pictures you can sometimes see a red cloud heading out over the Indian Ocean.

When it rains, the topsoil is swilled away by the rivers. All Ethiopia's rivers run dark brown.

There's a chilling symmetry in the statistics; the percentage rise in population is exactly the same as the percentage loss of topsoil; both 2.7% a year.

Some things have improved. The great civil wars ended in the early 90s, the Derg fell and Mengistu fled, to be sheltered in Zimbabwe by his fellow tyrant, Mugabe.

The rebels were Marxists, too, but the then new Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, and his senior colleagues all enrolled for an Open University MBA course.

They did not abandon their political roots altogether, but modified their policies or at least their image, to fit a world where capitalism was triumphant.

They have been in power for more than 10 years now and have been accused of human rights abuses, of vote-rigging, systematic oppression and wasting up to $2m a day on a pointless war with Eritrea.

Peasants 'kept poor'

Even though a lot of this may be true, they are saints compared with the Derg. The big indictment against them is that the poor are getting poorer.

The worst thing is to starve, the next worst thing is to beg
Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi
Ethiopia's Government is ideologically, even romantically, focused on the peasants amongst whom they lived during the long years of war. They genuinely want them to have a better life but, crucially, they insist that they stay peasants.

Meles Zenawi says the alternative would be disastrous. "Allowing peasants to sell their land in conditions of recurring drought would mean they would sell under duress and descend on the towns in their millions."

The government's critics say it's all about power. It is easier to control people stuck on their land, whose livelihood can be taken away from them by the stroke of a party worker's pen, than a rootless and disgruntled city population.

The government's stated strategy is "agriculture-led development". The idea is to make the peasants more prosperous so an indigenous industry grows up naturally, financed by the new spending power of the rural population.

So far it has been a failure.

The peasants are a great deal poorer than they were in 1984. They lost everything then and most have not been able to replace the possessions, tools and animals that went in the famine.

Average annual income then was $190; now it is $108. Food production per head is estimated to have fallen from 450 kgs in 1984/5 to 140 kgs in 2002/3.

Even in an average year six million Ethiopians now have to be fed by the outside world.

Ethiopia has received more relief aid in the past 20 years than any other country on earth. But it has had less development aid than any other needy nation.

Prime Minister Zenawi finds it humiliating. "The worst thing is to starve", he told me. "The next worst thing is to beg".

Ethiopia: A Journey with Michael Buerk was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two on Sunday, 11 January, 2004 at 2100 GMT.

Country profile: Ethiopia
10 Oct 03  |  Country profiles
Ask Michael Buerk: Live discussion
16 Dec 03  |  This World
Ethiopia: A Journey with Michael Buerk
16 Dec 03  |  This World
Your comments and memories
07 Jan 04  |  This World
Charities working in Ethiopia
05 Jan 04  |  This World
Ethiopia fact file
09 Jan 04  |  This World
Profile: Michael Buerk
09 Jan 04  |  This World


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