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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Blame politicians and bad aid, not climate change, for increasing famine in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya

Once again we are being assaulted by the news of another impending famine in the Horn of Africa, with up to 10 million people affected, says the UN. Ordinary people from Somali, Ethiopia and northern Kenya are on the move in search of food, with many ending up at one of the feeding centres and refugee camps concentrated across eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. There is a public plea from humanitarian agencies for more resources to keep people fed as the crops fail and their animals die. The public campaign is on.

Andrew Mitchell from DFID announced last week that the UK has pledged UK£31 million to help feed millions of people over the next 3 months. And In March 2011 the UK government announced that Ethiopia had been moved to the top of its list of preferred recipients for development aid. The World Food Programme is already feeding 4.3 million people in Ethiopia, and this figure is now set to rise dramatically.

This all sounds like just another African disaster caused by poverty and environmental crisis, accompanied by the predictable response from an aid industry grown up in Ethiopia in the 1980s.

We have seen it all before - in my mind’s eye I already see the donor fatigue settling in a few years as public interest wanes. Meanwhile a new wave of young pop stars will ride off into the sunset on a giant wave of charity pop fame. Never mind the truth, nor the solution.

What is clear from the most recent research is that the current drought affecting Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya is not the worst ever, but possibly the worst in decades. The dead cattle in the dust is an early sign. And I know well from travelling with them that semi-nomadic agropastoralists have always gone long distances in search of water and pasture. But now they are going further than anyone remembers.

This traditional famine narrative has already been covered by the international press, Additional titillation is also being drawn from the climate debate, so expect predictions of figurative tornados and hailstones amidst the cracked soils. There is a convenient natural tragedy story to go with the video news package, and strong images of illness, death and environmental degradation to pull in public interest. The newspack has moved in.

But what is currently absent from the news coverage is the way the Ethiopian government is using aid to try to clear dissent from the Ogaden region along the border with Somalia. The native Ogadeni peoples have been itching for autonomy since their lands were handed over to Ethiopia by the British in the 1950s. Their Somali roots makes it easy for the government to associate them with Al-Quaeda linked militias based in Somalia, who the Americans are supporting Ethiopia and the African Union to control. The Ethiopians should be well–equipped for this little clearance job, since last year the US government gave them over half a billion dollars in aid. The fact that oil has been discovered in the Ogaden region further binds everyone into this conspiracy, inadvertently propped up by relief agencies struggling to keep innocent people alive.

And to be fair, the Ethiopian government has used some resources effectively, mainly to improve its own security, and especially by controlling dissent. Just last week they arrested two Swedish journalists who were investigating human rights abuses by the Ethiopian military in those border areas. The local communities’ allegations include the clearing and burning of villages, murder and rape, which combined with the ethnic element, sounds a bit like genocide to me.

Such stories have naturally helped to drive people from both sides of the border into desolate feeding camps in Kenya, hundreds of miles away from their customary areas, so confused and destitute they walk straight onto our TV screens. Since there is also another drought, their journey is even worse, so children and the elderly suffer terribly, hence the emergency requiring our prepared response.

Such droughts have been good to Ethiopian elites over the past 25 years. They have built an enviable aid infrastructure that conveniently meets their needs, and those of the hundreds of expatriates involved in palliative relief operations or development talking shops. Between 1999 and 2009 the US provided around US$ 4.7 billion in aid funding. In 2008, at US$3 billion annually, Ethiopia became one of the largest global aid recipients, and this figure is now said to have reached US$7 billion. When I was there last year the hotel industry in Addis Ababa was booming – aid conferences and accommodating foreign consultants are lucrative businesses that generate significant benefits for the few.

Meanwhile abject poverty amongst the mass Ethiopian citizenry has remained the norm, with few improvements for the very poor majority despite the billions of aid that have been spent in Ethiopia over many decades. Strangely it seems that military aid has been better used. Maybe political stability and compliance is easier to improve than child mortality and education.

We all have a duty to help end the famine in that region, and I am sure that the Western public will give generously to try to keep people alive. By doing this we will signal our common humanity and duty to take care of our fellow man. But we should not prop up political leaderships who abandon their people. Bad aid does just this. Watch this space.