International Papers

African Guns & Butter

Earlier this week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the BBC that without a massive infusion of food aid as many as 14 million of his compatriots risk starvation within months. As the Financial Times observed, “Coming from a government intent on shedding Ethiopia’s image of perennial disaster, his appeal underlined the depth of a crisis of pan-continental proportions.” (Back in March, South Africa’s Star reported that the Addis Ababa regime had complained that a forthcoming Angelina Jolie movie stereotyped Ethiopia as a place of famine and death, “saying it portrayed the 1984 drought and starvation and none of the progress made since.”) Ethiopia is far from unique—according to the U.N. World Food Program, as many as 40 million people face severe food shortages in sub-Saharan Africa.

The British papers split over who to blame for the food crisis. The Independent pointed out that even in a good year Ethiopia is unable to produce all the food it needs, and the problem is cyclical: Survivors of one crisis are vulnerable to the next, and communities who lose cattle to starvation are rarely able to replace them. The op-ed faulted the West: “Governments in rich nations tend to assume that African governments, aid agencies and UN bodies always put the worst possible spin on any situation to increase the resources put at their disposal. … What has become clear is that the poor of the world have an increasingly narrower margin to tolerate the West’s ‘show us the dead bodies’ skepticism—and meanwhile, the rich world continues to exact debt repayments from nations such as Ethiopia and rigs world trade so that the price of Ethiopia’s chief export, coffee, has over the past three years plummeted to a 30-year low.” An editorial in the same paper acknowledged that the people of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia have been “badly served by their leaders,” who have spent millions on border wars and laced cultivable land with landmines. Nevertheless, it faulted the West’s long-term development plan: “The rich world gives when its conscience is stung by skeletal figures, but its record on aid of the kind that would draw people from the precipice is paltry.”

France’s Le Monde blamed Ethiopian government mismanagement: “Even after the two-year war with Eritrea bled the economy white, Ethiopia still hasn’t enacted the land reforms that the country’s peasants demand. State-owned land … is parceled out in tiny packets that prevent agricultural productivity. Reform would not end the drought, but it would mitigate its impact on Ethiopia.” The Times’ “Foreign Briefing” agreed. It said the administration’s failure to permit private land ownership or “introduce land reform measures in a country that is still run on feudal grounds” doomed the country to perpetual crisis. It continued: “It is estimated that at one time the present Government spent as much as $2 million a day building up its Armed Forces after a short war with Eritrea in 1998. That expenditure, which included the purchase of several new MiG aircraft, in effect brought it victory at a follow-up war in 2000.” The piece concluded by suggesting that Zenawi’s aid request may have been motivated by his realization that there is more competition than usual this year for emergency aid funds, with famine also threatened in Southern Africa and Western donors committed to projects in Afghanistan and possibly Iraq.

A letter in Tuesday’s Guardian counseled the West to focus on feeding Africa’s starving rather than bringing about regime change in Baghdad:

The money that the US and the UK are willing to spend on fighting a war against Iraq would be enough to solve the imminent famine in Ethiopia … and to construct the irrigation network that could ensure it never happens again. … If there is only enough money available for one war, it must be obvious that famine is the top priority. The threat of famine is imminent, whereas the threat from Iraq is distant, as the Iraq dossier showed. War on famine is certain to save millions of lives, whereas war on Iraq will kill tens of thousands and make refugees of many more. The war on famine can be won, whereas the war on terrorism cannot.