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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 November, 2004, 11:26 GMT
'Ethiopia? Should I pack my own food?'
By Paula Dear
BBC News

It's 20 years since Bob Geldof and co came together for Band Aid, a charity record to help starving Ethiopians. Much has changed in the East African nation since then, only no one seems to have noticed.

If you had to think of five words you most associated with Ethiopia, what would they be?

Twenty years on from Band Aid, it's probably fair to say the average Briton would include one or all of the following - famine, drought, war, Bob and Geldof.

The appalling images of starvation that were ingrained on the minds of international onlookers in the 1980s are hard to shake. But they have left the East African country with a serious image problem, that is arguably holding them back in its efforts to move forward.

'Success stories'

Do we really believe there's little more to Ethiopia than poverty and misery?

"Whenever I set off on another trip there, the first thing people ask is, why? Surely it's just a desert?" says Frances Linzee Gordon, travel writer and author of the Lonely Planet guide to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has not sat down folding its hands and waiting for international donations
Fisseha Adugna, Ethiopian Ambassador, UK

The irony is that Ethiopia is regarded among many who have travelled there as one of Africa's undiscovered gems in terms of its unique culture, history, scenery, wildlife and peoples. Stereotypes maintain their grip, though, and the embassies and airlines still receive calls from potential visitors, asking if they should take their own food.

Nevertheless the tourist industry is steadily growing, and the Ethiopian government wants to accelerate its development. But priority number one is tackling poverty. It must feed itself, attract more investment, diversify away from rain-fed agriculture, and reduce dependency on aid to keep moving forward.

It's an awesome long-term task, and no one will even try to paint a rosy picture of the situation.

"We understand that there are challenges that we have to work upon, but there are also many success stories," says Ethiopian ambassador to the UK Fisseha Adugna.

"But it is war, famine or drought, that comes to many people's minds when they think of Ethiopia. They haven't heard about what has happened after Live Aid in the last 20 years, because the media is not interested."

A journey through some of Ethiopia's highlights

This is not "famine denial". The response of the international community to the 1984 famine - which he says was widely accepted as being exacerbated by politics - was justified and hugely appreciated.

"By the time the British (BBC) film crew arrived in Ethiopia many people were dying. That response was very much appropriate and it saved a lot of lives. That is part of our history and we have to recognise that."

Michael Buerk, the BBC journalist who famously sent the first reports back from that famine says he sympathises with the ambassador's views.

Economy growing

But his conclusion that Ethiopia is becoming more, not less, dependent - given in a recent documentary and also reached by other commentators - is disputed by the ambassador.

Although the population has grown, the proportionate number who require assistance is much less than it was in 1984, he says.

And while in the worse drought scenario up to 20% of the population need humanitarian assistance - as happened in 2002/03 - Ethiopia feeds more people than it did 20 years ago and has early warning systems to prevent deaths, he adds.

Highland rose being packaged for export
Roses grown in the Ethiopian highlands are exported to Europe
"Ethiopia has not sat down folding its hands and waiting for international donations. We have worked so hard so that we never see that kind of disaster again. Those achievements are not known by many," says the ambassador.

There have been many positive developments, including the establishment of a parliamentary democracy, he says.

But problems persist. Poverty is still "entrenched". Four million Ethiopians would die each year without food aid and there are doubts about plans to achieve "food security" - the ability to feed the population at all times.

An ambitious, and broadly supported, plan to move two million farmers to more fertile lands is continuing, although it ran into difficulties earlier in the year and was criticised for poor planning. Meanwhile the population is growing at a staggering 1.8 million a year.

A war with neighbouring Eritrea in the late 1990s cost hundreds of millions of dollars, driving up defence spending to 40% of the budget. Critics say the money would have been better spent on development and agriculture.

The economy is growing, and the government's handling of it has been described as "first rate" by the World Bank. But Ethiopia ranked poorly in a recent world audit on corruption.

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Exports are on the increase, including roses grown in the highlands for European consumers. One deal on animal skins with a leather firm in Yeovil, Somerset, is worth nearly 5.5m to Ethiopia each year.

And the tourist dollar is on the way to overtaking Ethiopia's previous main export - coffee - as the main foreign currency earner, although a fall in world coffee prices distorts the comparison somewhat.

"Band Aid in many ways did more harm than good. I think it will still take decades to recover," says Frances Linzee Gordon, who has spent around two years travelling the country. "But from first hand experience, it seems the government's initiatives are really paying off.

"I really believe passionately that tourism is the way forward for them. Already there is change, for example with a spate of hotel building. For those who don't want to travel independently it's now possible to take tours that are comfy and well organised.

"I took my family there, including my 74-year-old dad, and they absolutely loved it. It doesn't only have a bit of everything, it has a lot of everything."


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