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Ethiopia Since Live Aid, Part III: On Africa, aid, and the West

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 third and final part of our ‘Ethiopia Since Live Aid’ blog feature is an original post by Peter Gill, in which he discusses the West’s view of aid and Africa. If you missed it, on Tuesday we read an excerpt from the book, and yesterday we ran an exclusive Q&A with Peter.

This 2010 ‘Summer of Africa’ has been promoted as a moment of transformation – an acknowledgment that the continent may at last be on the move, that it may be beginning to cast off its image as global basket case, ceasing to be a ‘scar on the conscience of humanity,’ in the phrase of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

It was 25 years ago in July that a great Ethiopian famine and the Live Aid concert which it inspired underlined the physical and moral enormity of mass death by starvation. These events defined popular outrage at the human cost of extreme poverty and began to build an extraordinary consensus around the merits of aid. A generation later, in the teeth of financial gales in the rich world, this consensus is under increasing scrutiny.

Of course aid works and it works at many levels. Charity is an essential characteristic of social relationships. It saves lives and it helps individuals, families, sometimes whole communities to improve their existence. What the big aid flows – from governments and charities – have not done is to change the face of poor societies, to overcome the disgrace of extreme poverty.

Now the western world may have missed its opportunity to fix the problem. It may no longer have the means. It is also far too preoccupied with addressing the processes of how best to deliver aid, and has failed to sort out whether it had the right strategy in the first place.

What went wrong, I believe, is that we kept seeing Africa in our own image – as we would like it to be, rather than as it was. The colonial period may have become history, but the colonial mindset of ‘we-know-best’ has surely persisted. We compounded the error by allowing our hearts to rule our heads in how we spend the aid money. We have been more troubled by the symptoms of poverty than to see where our help was most needed.

Our fortunate way of the life in the West – prosperity allied with liberal democratic forms of government – may be the envy and the aspiration of many in the poor world, but did that give us the right in the name of ‘good governance’ to insist that there are quick and easy steps to achieving it? In the decades after Europe’s helter-skelter decolonisation, was it realistic to ignore the lessons of our own tortured political evolution and demand swift democratic reform as a condition of aid?

Our rich world sensibilities have, rightly, been offended by deaths from preventable diseases and we have, again rightly, poured money into ever more ambitious health initiatives. But we have made little corresponding effort to help African women plan their families by plugging the huge gap in contraceptive needs. Aid expenditure on family planning has actually fallen in the past decade and for 2010 the United Nations is projecting a paltry $414 million in Sub Saharan Africa compared with $16 billion for HIV/AIDS, 40 times as much.

As in so much, Ethiopia is the iconic example. At the time of the great famine in 1984-5, the population stood at 40 million. It is now 80 million and the demographers say it will double again within the next 25 to 30 years. This increase is barely sustainable.In recent years the Ethiopian government has made big efforts to bring modern contraceptive techniques to rural areas, but there has been no corresponding leadership from the West and that in turn has discouraged the Ethiopians from making population into the political priority it will have to be.

The West has been similarly negligent in the field of agriculture development. In a continent where up to three quarters of people are dependent on agriculture for survival, we have poured billions into getting children into rural primary schools, but have made little provision for the fact that too many of them come to school hungry, too many drop out within a year and that there are too few jobs beyond the land if they do finish school. In the 20 years after the Ethiopian famine aid to African agriculture collapsed by almost two thirds, from $3 billion to $1.2 billion.

A generation on from Live Aid there is now an alternative model of development emerging from the East. The Chinese have raised several hundred million of their own people out of poverty and are beginning to offer the lessons to Africa. There is less of an accent on charity and welfare, more attention paid to trade investment, technical inputs and, most of all, to infrastructure projects, including the roads to get an agricultural economy moving forward.

In the West the Chinese are commonly criticised for exploiting Africa’s natural resources and mocked for disregarding human rights in the name of ‘non-interference.’ But if we are truly interested in eliminating extreme poverty it is surely sensible to pose the question whether the West or the East is likely to have the better answer. Man of course does not live by bread alone, but it is an essential start.

Recent Comments

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  2. Alexander Ritter

    I was recently in Ethiopia for 8 weeks and was amazed by the Chinese presence there and the public works and roads that they heave been building.
    How much of the Chinese public works are for humanitarian purposed, “to get an agricultural economy moving forward”, and how much are for its own aggrandizement. ie; the leasing of Ethiopian lands to empoy its own people and to supply its billion mouths with a stable food supply. I know there are Chinese in Canada as well who are buying farm covertly land for this purpose as well.
    If so then the Chinese model is not what it looks like.

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