The "moral maze" and duplicitous faces of "relief aid" in Ethiopian famines

The "moral maze" and duplicitous faces of "relief aid" in Ethiopian famines.
D. Kebede
January 6, 2003

The “moral maze” and duplicitous faces of “relief aid” in Ethiopian famines.

By D. Kebede

Arguably, “humanitarian assistance” (interchangeably used with “relief aid”) is perhaps at its relative ‘pure and simple’ form at the point of contact between the individual donor and the “charity” that seeks to facilitate and manage the donation. The process of “relief aid” thereafter, including the reporting of it, understanding of the underlying causes famines and the solutions, is fraught with “moral maze” and duplicitous practices. This is complicated further by some “relief aid” agents’ (NGOs’) self-interest in seeking to carve up a niche in the aid industry. “Relief aid” then essentially becomes tinted with “politics”, with many NGOs continuously adapting, wittingly or unwittingly, to situations that would ensure their place in the industry. The question therefore is, what “politics” an NGO seeks to promote and the impact of this on the status of the “oppressed”. The acid test for “relief aid” ought to be, how seriously it takes the link between “relief aid” and the root causes of famine, which, in the final analysis, is rooted in the “oppressed” being deprived of a system of “true democracy” by successive governments whose pre-occupation had been to stay in power during the famines in 1973, 1984, and now. This meant the “oppressed” have had no “freedom” to use their resources fully in order to escape from a perilous survival.

In my previous article, Ethiopia’s famines – breaking the vicious cycle, which was posted in some Ethiopian websites, I challenged the “donor community” to support the establishment of a National Executive Committee (NEC), which also involves the incumbent EPRDF Government. My position is based on the enormity of the impending famine, with up to 15m people at risk and the experience from the recent famines that any response which does not mobilize the nation’s resources to full capacity in a coordinated way and around the underlying causes, would at best be singing from the same hymn sheet and at worst, a great injustice to those in imminent danger of death and another opportunity passing by begging, with cataclysmic proportions.

Many ordinary people in the West who generously donate to “relief aid” would undoubtedly be asking whether Ethiopia is indeed destined for such scourges, or its peoples are lazy or whether it is a Malthusian check, with nature controlling the numbers it’s capable of feeding and so forth. In their quest for quick answers, they turn to their media, which is generally renowned for its portrayal of Africa, as a region of conflict, war, famine, instability, with Ethiopia at the top of the league. In these circumstances, stereotyping is allowed to breed and expand, with the history and pride of a fiercely independent people being brutally de-contextualized and the underlying causes of the problem being sidelined; for instance, Africa serving as a source of diamonds, copper and other minerals to the West, or the West having some role in some of the most entrenched problems in the region will scarcely be mentioned. It is incompatible with such reporting for people to know, for example, Nelson Mandela’s description of Ethiopia as the African “essence”, as the beacon of independence and pride.

Jonathan Dimbleby in his recent article (12/11/02) about the Ethiopian famine, for example, started by talking about hearing one morning “the familiar tones of Bob Geldof’s appeal and the voices of the victims”, and then described Ethiopia as “nation which is synonymous through out the world with misery and suffering on a biblical scale”. This is a typical example of patronizing, de-contextualizing and stereotyping. He went on to endorsing the EPRDF Government, “visiting in the summer, I encountered a very different state: instead of secrecy, denial, corruption and conflict, there is relative transparency and – albeit a precarious kind – peace as well”. Jonathan Dimbleby appears to be trying to compare EPRDF and the Marxist regime before it by the number of people they might have killed (which is a Herculean task to establish clearly). If indeed that is what he implies, not only such a criterion is morally untenable and dubious, but also it is insensitive to the experiences of millions of Ethiopians who feel to be living dead (bekum mot), such is their bitterness and hurt to witness, their country’s history, culture and institutions of unity being torn apart by EPRDF’s ethnic policies and practices.

Jonathan Dimbelby’s remark is also an aberration from the European Parliament’s (EP) position, which continues to express concern about the instability and human rights abuses in the country. EP had called on many occasions for a “national inter-Ethiopian dialogue”, involving EPRDF and all different groups and individuals, with the view to setting up a “broad-based” government. Senior Democratic Senators have submitted a petition to President Bush’s Administration expressing similar concerns. It is in the public domain that systematic human rights abuse, detention without charge, sham trials and the application of torture continue unabated. There are detention centers outside the country’s criminal justice system. The killings of unarmed university students in Addis Ababa, ethnic related killings in Oromia region in Gimbi, both in 2001, and in Southern region, Awasa in 2002, are some recent examples of life under EPRDF’s Ethiopia.

In my aforementioned article, I have alluded to some of the ironies of such disasters, for instance in the way they tend to catapult individuals into an enhanced celebrity status, with debris of lost lives, ruined communities and badly bruised pride in the background. This applies to some extent to many NGOs. I wrote,  “Many have established their academic reputation … many have written books, made films”.  Jonathan Dimbleby and Bob Geldof are undoubtedly those individuals who fall in this category. The former acquired prominence following his reporting of the 1973 famine under Emperor Haile Selasse. Although his film is sometimes disproportionately reported to be in the pantheon of great documentaries, finding a ”hidden famine” by some miracle, what he actually did was exposing the magnitude of it. The existence of the famine was already known and the famine victims had already started to shelter at Tita and Kutaber locations, following government instructions. In his recent interview with Ethiop (Vol.4, No. 039, 2002, p.39), Mr. Gebre Tsadik, who was in the area to set up Jare Children’s Center (and later a political prisoner under both the Military regime and EPRDF and with considerable experience in “ international aid and “relief” work), states that Jonathan Dimbleby was making his documentary in the presence of Mr. Teferi Wossen, a worker in the English Section of the Radio Dept. with their permission. Every evening they were watching the documentary the made during the day.

Undoubtedly, the quality of Jonathan Dimbleby’s reporting played a crucial role in saving lives and exposing the moral decadence and feeble response of a regime, which was in its political twilight. Incidentally, his documentary presented the Military regime a valuable propaganda tool in its campaign to overthrow the Emperor. Bob Geldof’s fame rose meteorically, (it is widely believed that his late ex-wife, Paula Yates, to have been instrumental in his involvement) in the 1984 famine. These two individuals, for example, would arguably have been less known to many had it not been for Ethiopian famines. History would treat them and others fairly handsomely for their noble role. However, it becomes deeply uncomfortable when one’s role is seen to be overplayed so much so it appears to be patronizing, particularly when one starts claiming a high “moral’ ground and “expertise” in Ethiopian affairs just because one has played a particular role and had a chat with the Government officials in the Palace. Most importantly, “relief aid” tends to become entangled in “moral maze” and duplicity. This is made more complicated by the behaviour of many NGOs who wish to take or maintain a top spot in the “aid” league by sheltering under an undeclared “politics”, even when this might mean enhancing the very “systems” which create and perpetuate the vulnerability of the “oppressed”. So the question will be, what, if any, could be done about it?

The common thread, which runs through the tragic epochs of 1973, 1984, and the current one, is the fact of the “oppressed” being deprived of “true democracy” in a ‘rule of law’, under a leadership which commands moral authority and exercises integrity. Absence of these qualities had kept the “poor” for eternity in “subsistence production system” and vulnerable to the vagaries of periodic famines. Many in the West take the “right to life” for granted, which is a grave misunderstanding, particularly in a country like Ethiopia when “the individual” does not “freely” decide where s/he would like to be, does not know where s/he will be later and/or tomorrow. “The individual” is therefore in no position whatsoever to make informed choices in terms of how best to use his/her potential physical, mental and spiritual characteristics in order to change his/her situation for the better. “Freedom” even in its narrow sense of “political” and “civil” liberties is non-existent. This negates what Professor Amartaya Sen in his Noble Prize Winner book, Development as Freedom, has put so powerfully that, “success of a society is to be evaluated … primarily by the substantive freedoms that the members of that society enjoy”, continuing that “greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world, and these matters are central to the process of development”. It is clear that “freedom” is both a “means” and an “end” in the processes of emancipating the “oppressed” and it is to be found in a “true democracy”.

So much to its commitment to “development”, EPRDF’s first action entailed defining the country’s politics and culture along ethnic lines. In its next swipe EPRDF sacked 42 prominent senior university professors and scientists from Addis Ababa University. Incidentally, after 11 years EPRDF rule the University is currently in a deep state of crisis. EPRDF imposed a constitution with the right for linguistic/tribal constituencies to secede from the “ethnic federation”. Dr Donald Fox, an internationally renowned constitutional lawyer, said’ “the concept of secession defeats the purpose of constitution, which is to bring constituents together not to put them asunder. The American constitution does not allow session”. Not surprising that when bloody conflicts, such as Sri Lanka appear to be coming to a peaceful conclusion, Ethiopia remains at war with itself despite EPRDF empty words of “democracy”, “free press” and “elections” littering its political parlance.

EPRDF has forsaken history and UN resolutions, which assert Ethiopia’s sea outlets. As a result, the country is now landlocked; something a colonial power has never done to any its territories. We have a Prime Minster who publicly said to farmers dingay bela, that is, ‘eat stone’. These farmers had traveled a long distance from Go jam, Amhara region, to complain that they were starving due to EPRDF’s land distribution policy, which is essential is political. It is also on record that not long ago, Prime Minster Meles Zenawi said that his peoples were having three meals a day, thanks to EPRDF. Of course if there were true statesmanship he would not say this and would now have resigned rather than sitting on a 15m human time bomb. The fact of the matter is that EPRDF is obsessed with “power” and its survival. Everything else is a sideshow so long as it serves or is made to serve this overall objective.

EPRDF’s “market competition” is strangled oligarchic and mafia like business firms (dominant in all sectors of the economy). They were originally set up by TPLF and through massive input of “relief aid” to further a guerrilla warfare against the Cold War enemy of the West, a Marxist military regime. EPRDF has resisted persistent calls from multilateral agencies to privatize them; private ownership of land is prohibited, as it would be against EPRDF’s ideology of “revolutionary democracy”, which justifies secrecy, centralization and concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minster and his clique. There is no coherent pattern of laws; EPRDF is renowned for breaching and undermining its own laws as well as enacting new ones within a few hours when it suits it.  Obviously Ethiopia would be a fitting example as a ‘Third World’ country which has not heeded to Hernando De Soto’s powerful message as it has singularly failed to unlock “the mystery of capital” due to the absence of a system of laws that nurture private property and provide the infrastructure for enterprise to flourish. This internationally renowned Peruvian economist, in his famous book The Mystery Of Capital, articulates so powerfully thatthe total value of the real estate held but not legally owned by the poor of the Third World and former communist nations is at least $9.3 trillion”.  This meant the “poor” are sitting on a “dead capital” owing to the absence of such legal infrastructures. This is hugely important issue for the “poor”, perhaps of more immediate importance than reforming WTO and the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and something “humanitarian assistance” could help for the “oppressed” to feed themselves.

Jonathan Dimbleby had a choice to articulate the voice of the “oppressed” so eloquently, for example, by pointing out the obvious that the opportunity the demise of the military Marxist regime in 1991 presented for a “representative” government, with a chance for “true democracy”, was sidelined by the West, particularly the US, who gave the green light for the current EPRDF government to take the helm of power. It is also in the public knowledge that EPRDF, which started guerrilla warfare against the military regime as Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) (which is the engine of EPRDF), was nurtured by “humanitarian assistance”. Of all the people, Jonathan Dimbleby who produced his other documentary, “war of the roads” would have first hand information about how TPLF used “relief aid” as a political tool, a fact that is now admitted by senior TPLF officials. Now Jonathan Dimbleby is providing EPRDF with the justification to use “humanitarian assistance” to bolster its shaky existence.

Jonathan Dimbleby might be surprised to hear that, or, might he? Such basic life support as “food” is still being used by EPRDF as a political instrument. Fabrice Wiessman of the Paris-based Medicines sans Frontiers (MSF) Foundation recently reported, “The coalition in power [EPRDF] is controlled by a minority party, so they want to use their power to stay in government. Food aid is used to satisfy the sectors that legitimize their political survival”. This is a Foundation very remote from the Palace in Addis Ababa but in the midst of the real famine victims. Interestingly, referring to the persecution of journalists under the guise of  “ethnic federalism”, The Economist (16/08/97) had warned early that “obsessed with control, the government [EPRDF] is narrowing the basis of freedom”; “Apparent devolution – while real power is retained at the center and used repressively – may even increase disharmony of Ethiopia’s nationalities”. One of the architects of EPRDF’s “ethnic Federation”, Herman Cohen, confirmed The Economist’s early assessment when, after a few years, he declared openly that EPRDF’s ethnic experiment has failed and that it does not represent the majority of Ethiopian peoples. EPRDF’s pretensions of promoting “democracy”, “free” press, and so-called “elections”, remain a publicity stunt and very remote from what Robert Dahl terms as “essential conditions” of  “democracy”, which is to do with open political competition, participation of the populace, and respect for “political” and “civil” rights, in a “rule of law”. The Prime Minster himself has publicly admitted to EPRDF’s "mebesbes", that is, it is rotten. The problem is, he presents more dose of “revolutionary democracy” as a panacea, as if it was not at the root of the rot in the first place.

The “moral maze” and duplicitous characteristics of “relief aid” meant the ventures have largely succeeded in perpetuating famine. What the “oppressed” need to break the cycle of famines is for the NGOs and individuals, like Jonathan Dimbelby and Bob Geldof, to listen to their desperate voices of powerlessness and accept (unless one takes a position that what Ethiopia needs is food and not “democracy”) that the vicious cycle could ultimately broken by a political system which embraces “true democracy” in a “rule of law” and not by a “radical reform” of WTO and CAP, as Jonathan Dimbleby seems to suggest. As to dealing with the current crisis, a “humanitarian assistance” strategy, which would mobilize all the country’s resources (opposition groups, individuals, academics, ‘civil’ societies) under a NEC, should be launched.

The NEC ought to have wide briefs to look into agricultural and land distribution policies, cultural and religious practices, the distribution of  “relief aid“, including determining the very nature of it. EPRDF should then commit itself both to furnish NEC with appropriate facilities and to carry out the recommendation of NEC without any delay, with an international committee to monitor developments. Any “humanitarian assistance” outside such a framework, particularly one operating by so-called “independent” NGOs or excluding those outside EPRDF, whatever the justifications, would only mirror the familiar “moral maze” and duplicitous practices of “relief aid”, which would provide EPRDF “political” and “moral” cover and the NGOs involved a status in the “aid” league. This would be as good as sowing the seeds of the next famine. Channeling “relief aid” to a Government, which is extremely dependant upon its security forces for its day-to-day survival, would be turning a blind eye to the chilling remarks of Fabrice Wiessman about EPRDF using “food aid” for political purposes.  To do so on the basis that EPRDF might have killed less people than the military regime would, at best, be tantamount to insulting the “oppressed” and at worst morally reprehensible. The vast majority of Ethiopians are so incensed by EPRDF’s divisive ethnic rule, they would not hesitate to vote with their feet even for the ex-Marxist military regime, which they so despised.


(D. Kebede, contributed and has sole responsibility for the content on this article.)