Peter Gill is a journalist specialising in developing world affairs, and first travelled to Ethiopia in the 1960s. He has made films in and reported from Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, South Africa, Uganda, and Sudan, as well as Ethiopia. He recently led BBC World Service Trust campaigns on leprosy and HIV/AIDS in India. His new book is Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, which is the story of what has happened in the country since the famous music and television events 25 years ago.
This exclusive Q&A is the second of three OUPblog posts from Peter Gill. Yesterday we read an excerpt from the book, and check back tomorrow for an original post by him.
OUP: You were one of the first journalists to report on the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to do that?
PETER GILL: It was one of those experiences which live with you for a career and a lifetime. I’d been trying to get an ITV documentary crew into northern Ethiopia for months, but the military regime kept blocking us. When they finally relented, they allowed us in before the news people. So we were the first team to reach the epicentre of the famine at a place called Korem. I’ll always remember meeting the official in charge of the relief camp as soon as we got there. He had a little black notebook which recorded that deaths from starvation in the previous 24 hours had topped 100 for the first time.
OUP: What is the situation in Ethiopia now?
PG: In lots of ways, it’s very much better. Up in those former famine lands, there’s been peace for almost 20 years, and there’s been a real drive for development. Even in the harshest conditions and despite the impact of climate change, there are real grounds for optimism. The problem remains that so many Ethiopians – more than three in four of them depend on the land – live on a real knife edge. The population, for instance, has doubled since the big famine. That sort of increase is unsustainable in the long run. And some parts of the country like the South and the Somali Region are subject to terrible food shortages.
OUP: Do you think that other parts of Africa can learn anything from Ethiopia’s experiences?
PG: Despite the challenges that Ethiopia faces, maybe even because of them, I think there are very important lessons for the rest of Africa – and for the rich donors as well. Ethiopia has insisted on charting its own development course over the past 20 years. The country was never colonised and it is not going to accept the dictates of outsiders now. On the face of it, everyone agrees that Africa will only really move when it fully takes charge of its own destiny. On policy matters, Ethiopia keeps showing the way. That’s sometimes uncomfortable for the aid-givers, but they’ve been proved right already in some of the directions they took.
OUP: Is China’s role in Africa broadly negative or positive?
PG: When I started researching this book, I knew only what I’d read about the Chinese in Africa – their rapacious interest in the continent’s natural resources and their relations with some pretty unpleasant regimes. I didn’t frankly think I’d learn much more. What I found was that the Chinese were both helpful and courteous – far more open than I’d expected and far more so than they ever used to be. China has a large and ambitious programme in Ethiopia – infrastructure, telecommunications, trade, aid, there are even teams of Chinese volunteers – and Ethiopia certainly doesn’t fit the pattern of the easily exploited or exploitable. We seem already to acknowledge China’s growing influence around the world. What I’m interested in watching is how China’s approach to raising people out of poverty works in Africa.
OUP: Do you think that 2005’s Live 8 worked in the same way that Live Aid did? And as an extension of that, are there things that Live 8 did differently as a result of the Live Aid experience?
PG: Live Aid in 1985 was a money-raising exercise, and a very successful one at that. We have all seen the pictures and some of us remember the vehemence with which Geldof demanded our cash. Twenty years on Live 8 was much more political. It was twinned with the ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign and played into Tony Blair’s G8 summit at Gleneagles. Geldof himself says it all comes down to politics, and his critics say that Live 8 was not political enough. We certainly haven’t got the politics of world poverty anywhere near right so far – getting a fair deal for the poor world in trade, for instance, is far more important than aid.
OUP: Do you believe that current aid levels will be sustained in light of the financial crisis?
PG: They may well be in Britain for the next few years. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are certainly holding the line so far. Many other countries are not doing so well in keeping their past promises. In the longer run, I think our economic woes will prevent us having the decisive influence over eliminating world poverty that we should have exercised over the last decade or two of the boom.
OUP: Finally, a rather more light-hearted question. What are your own memories of the Live Aid day itself? Did you watch it? Did you have any favourite acts or moments from the day?
PG: On the very day of Live Aid in July 1985, as a matter of fact, I was flying back into London from Ethiopia where I had been researching my follow-up book on the famine called ‘A Year in the Death of Africa.’ I have this recollection of seeing the Wembley crowds from the air, but I think on reflection that’s a trick of memory! I’ve since been doing my homework on Live Aid for the book, of course. When Bob Geldof got to see proofs in advance of publication – and then very generously endorsed the book for me – he picked me up not any details of the aid story, but on a couple of pop history points about the Boomtown Rats and U2!