Another famine! Is it Nature or the Generation that Failed Ethiopia?

June 27, 2008

famineBy Addisu T

When I went back to work on Monday morning, a colleague told me about the weekend coverage of “the Ethiopian famine” on BBC to express his sympathy. He is a good person and I know he only meant well. But to be honest, this is exactly a subject that I and many Ethiopians in Diaspora dread and want to avoid. This subject hurts Ethiopians deep down to their bones. Even the well meaning sympathy and the charity at times become a pain to our consciousness.

The sad thing is that, no matter how much one tries to run away from the subject, it is difficult to escape when emaciated and shocking images of children are brought into the living rooms of millions of people through out the world.

Following BBC’s coverage, Channel 4 gave sufficient time to show the ongoing starvation in Ethiopia. As the media chases the biggest headline of the week, there is no doubt that others would follow to bring the painful and embarrassing truth to the world. Hence, there seems to be no place to hide.

Whoever asks a question about Ethiopia’s man-made trap in poverty and starvation deserves explanation. This time, no rhetorical excuses such as feudalism, imperialism, nature, too little rain, too much rain, God or “the absentee Amhara landlords” as Dr. Solomon Enquai of REST put it in the 1980’s can be acceptable.

The Never Ending Social Experiment on the Masses

To avoid the recurring starvation, the world and the rest of us want an honest discussion why Ethiopians are dying of starvation in the world where many people suffer from excessive consumption and obesity. I feel obliged to remind foreign educated Ethiopian ‘elites’ (as they would like to call themselves), their generation has been in charge of the country for more than 40 years and that there are no more “absentee landlords or backward nobilities” to blame.

Monarchy, Feudalism, peasants to individuals (not to the State) and serf-system were abolished and they are the thing of the past. Of course, “Land to the Tiller” was declared to be proudly recorded on resumes of the Ethiopia’s revolutionary generation and their comrade junior army officers.

Scientific Socialism and Communism as panacea for the oppressed was declared and now it is watered down into “revolutionary democracy”, what ever it means (may be Maoism version 3.2:).

Wealth was considered as a subversive greed and a source of all-evil to be condemned. A desire to own and accumulate was branded as anti-revolutionary and petty Bourgeoisie. So the wealth as well as the wealthy were destroyed or chased out of the country.

We had also total nationalization and distribution of wealth, which become distribution of poverty. Interestingly this generation has gone from one extreme to the other; from rounding up the wealthy and shooting them to becoming tycoons of itself among the largest starving population.

Along with these social experiments, the people were categorised and re-categorised many times along “class” as “oppressors and oppressed”, revolutionary and reactionary, colonizers and colonized, chauvinist and narrow nationalist, secessionist and unionist. You name it, we had every word from Thesaurus that is used to categorise people along their difference from primordial ethnic to conceptual abstraction.

Even God was blamed to be deposed and exiled to free the people from religion, which is branded as “the opium of the masses” and cause of starvation. Now He is allowed to return but the same generation claims to know what is best for God to get involved in selection and appointment of God’s Ambassadors on earth.

We had from Colonel Mengistu’s “Green Revolution, villagisation, and settlement” experiments to Ato Meles’s “extension programme”.

We had also from Sasakawa-Jimmy Carter’s “Harvest 2000” master plan to feed Ethiopians to Ato Meles’s “Agriculture Led Accelerated Development”. All were touted as a route to feeding the starving masses.

Lesson Learnt: the Guinea pigs are still dying

Despite all these social experiments on real people, no body has reported back why nationalisation, extermination of petty-Bourgeois, declaration of Scientific Socialism, ethnic nationalism or Agriculture led Industrialisation failed to stop starvation.

It is heart breaking to note that we still see Ethiopians on TV, facing death by starvation in the 21st century where obesity, cholesterol, high blood pressure is becoming the biggest health concern in the rest of the world, including among Ethiopian “elites” and rulers who happen to control state power and conduct these “ism” social experiments.

The big lesson we have learnt from the last 40 years half baked social experiments and borrowed rhetoric is that Ethiopia’s problem cannot and will not be solved by reciting versus from borrowed philosophy books. We know now reciting quotes wouldn’t grow potatoes.

That is why the Guinea pigs need to say, for heaven sake stop these slogans, rhetoric, hyperboles and “ism”. We heard it all for the last 40 solid years, but where is the bread? Our problems can only be solved by empowering the people to be in charges of their destiny without being Guinea pigs for semi-educated experts.

None of the rhetoric from Communism to Revolutionary Democracy, from land to the tiller to current magic potion of “nation and nationalities” did empower the people to have loaf of bread on the table, except making the generation appear civilized and sophisticated while making the vast majority of the people Guinea pigs for social experiment.

Our problems can only be solved by making ones hand dirty and digging the ground. It can only be solved by empowering citizens to work hard to accumulate assets for rainy days. It can only be solved through open, original and critical debate rather than trying to impress the people and donors with plagiarised jargons in foreign language. We don’t need to look the answers in books or go to Russia or China to copy models. Ethiopia’s problems are unique and need someone to think to find solutions. In the last 40 years everybody was busy copying and no body was thinking.

What the people want?

Ethiopians are not demanding more from their “elites”. The people are still cheering when a rail carriage passes once in a week that was bought by Emperor Menilik some 100 years ago. The people are still content with Airlines, telecommunication, power stations, and educational system that were built 70 years before by another condemned Emperor. They see the flag and the lion on the logo to hang on to failed modernisation.

In all honesty, the Ethiopian poor did not ask like Pakistanis, Indians, or Libyans that their “elites” lock themselves up in underground bunker to develop nuclear warheads. No, no, not even a steam engine or horse-drawn carts. The people had been only asking for bread for 40 years that has never been materialised. Instead they were fed with quotes from books of Joseph Stalin or Adam Smith.

Now one can say, taxpayer’s money that was spent on educating the revolutionary generation would have been better value for money if it had gone down the drain. None of the basic problems of the Ethiopia people, like bread, clean water, a needle, a wheel for horse drawn cart or penicillin to treat infection has been solved.

Instead, the taxpayers’ money was spent in creating egotistical and pretentious generation that spent its time promoting conflict and fighting each other to control state power to enrich and to die of cholesterol and Whisky poison.

A generation that claims to know-it-all the likes of Bertrand Russell and Mao by first name has not yet figured out where bread comes from. Despite its pretence of being “civilized” with exterior three pieces of suit, silk ties, Italian made shoes and borrowed lingo, “the question of bread” has proved that this generation is nothing but incompetent.

Still, for the poor and unfortunate Ethiopians, a loaf of bread is more precious than a life saving medicine for cancer or HIV. Bread do not need sophisticated microbiology lab to develop it like a vaccine to cure HIV. It needs a plot of land and freedom for a person to work in the fields in good and bad times. It needs the rights to be a master of its destiny but not be a peasant to the state and local authorities. It needs a right to own, develop and keep.

So why this elementary truth become the most difficult task for this generation that boasts about moving mountains, overthrowing the old order and claim to become the “vanguard of the masses?

At a risk of repeating myself, I want to remind this generation that 21st century has been a century of excess and abundance. Tones and after tons of food have been dumped in sea and landfills. The biggest killer in the rest of the world has been excess, over indulgence, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, cholesterol. Not lack of a loaf of bread. It is only Ethiopians who are subject to such a tragedy under the leadership of the most “enlightened generation that Ethiopia ever had”.

A million dollar Question: Why are people starving?

Now we need to ask why people are dying. Is it because the country is a barren land that cannot support the growing of cereals and vegetables? Is it because the population is primitive and does not know how to farm and grow its food or lazy to work? Or is it because it is mismanaged by the so called elites that know nothing about digging or planting?

The Facts, nothing but the facts

The Country

Ethiopia is not a barren land. It is a country blessed with natural resources. It has vast amount of fertile and uncultivated land; it is a water tower of Africa with many rivers flowing through its territories to irrigate million hectares of land in Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia.

The country has vast and untapped hydroelectric, mineral and oil potentials. It has the largest biodiversity and a very diverse climate suitable for growing anything and everything all round the year. It has the largest livestock population in Africa; a large swath of savannah grazing land. It has the ancient culture, historical sites and national parks with variety of wild lives to attract tourism.

It is a beautiful and blessed country with all sorts of national resources if there was a generation that wants to make its hand dirty and develop her. No, no, that is not a priority. The generation has to dispel published and unpublished works of Joseph Stalin, Bertrand Russell, and Mao first. If disagreement arises over translation, there is no other option but to fight until the last man and his gun is left. That is more important to this generation.

When it feels enlightened, the generation has to spend all its energy in ridiculing Ethiopia, in working hard in convincing the whole world that Ethiopia is a ‘coloniser’ and a menace to everyone. Hence, it has to devote all its resources solve “the question of Ethiopian’s clonisation of Eritrea” and neighbouring countries. If anyone disagrees with this contention, then it has to fight it out until the last revolutionary man and his gun is left on the face of the earth. No it is not the question of bread but the issue whether Ethiopia is an Empire state, a nation state or a prison of states that primarily preoccupy the generation.

Oh I forgot! Of course the generation has to take part in solving global warming, in patching the hole in ozone layer and in writing treaties on equitable distribution of the black hole for the benefit of all nations, nationalities and the people of the world. Growing potatoes has never given anyone such self-importance and in any case can wait until the “question of space law” is ratified.

The question why this generation is so obsessed with self-importance and in keeping an exterior civilized appearance while people are dying of starvation is mind boggling. The future generation may need to set up an institute to study it.

The People

The country cannot blame its population because inhabitants of this country were pioneering of civilization and farming for thousands of years and they had survived for centuries without Western or Eastern education or more appropriately mis-education. They have been farming and breeding animals for thousands of years. They had laws, orders, and social systems. They had moral, ethics, and religions to regulate the balance between people and nature. The people of this blessed land had been writing and publishing books for thousands of years addressing philosophical, religious, and astrological constellations.

The Elite

What I said about the country and the people are irrefutable hard facts. Why is that the generation that had never scribbled a single original work or has grown a flower in its backyard could be allowed to patronise and claim to educate the people? Does speaking English make oneself an expert in everything?

Ethiopia is neither poor nor the population need to be clothed, settled, and educated to learn farming and animals’ husbandry. Paradoxically, 21st century is the time when Ethiopia opened its door for outside influence and modern education. With it, it unfortunately produced egotistical good-for-nothing generation. Those who have gone through modern education boast about their achievements on their business cards with prefixes such as BA, Eng. MBA, MSc, PhD, and Professor. Despite all accolades from Western institution, Ethiopians life sustaining calorie consumption has gone down to a level where people die of starvation.

The old social system that was blamed for starvation by the generation is long gone. The past cannot be blamed for the current starvation. But, the problem has been recurring many times in the last 40 years in spite of the generation’s obsession to experiment with new jargons and borrowed rhetoric from foreign lands to address a simple question.

In the last 40 years, many countries have transformed themselves from poor and bottom of human development index to prosperous, industrialised and developed society. There was more than enough time for those who want to use their brain and hands to work and solve the question of bread. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Putting in perspective why people are starving

An adult needs about 2000 calories to have a healthy life style and kids about 1200 calories for a healthy growth. Having more calories without having physical exercise could lead to being fat with all the consequence of health problems. Having fewer calories per day leads to losing weight and becoming thin. But in the short term, an adult can survive with as low as 600 calories per day consumption. People die of starvation when they do not have anything to eat to support basic metabolic activities.

To simplify things, let me explain what 600 calories mean. 1 gram of bread contains about 4 calories. Hence, 600 calories can be obtained by eating about 150 grams of bread a day. Fatty food contains twice the amount of calorie. For example in 1 gram of fat, there is about 9 calories.

To put it in perspective, a medium size big Mac sandwich is 540 cal, medium fries is 300 and medium coca-cola is about 210. That means one medium meal at MacDonald is more than 1050, which is enough to keep a person alive for two or 3 days. A Starbucks large white chocolate mocha with whip contains more than 500 calories, which is enough to sustain life for a day.

When we come back to our main point, a person can live with 150 grams of bread or 150 grams of wheat “Kolo”, or a bit of bread, cabbage, or beetroots. Mind you, that is what it takes to save life, not expensive antiretroviral drugs.

Why then a country with large fertile land, abundant water resources, very well educated or (mis-educated elite that is capable of splitting atoms with its rhetoric), very favourable and diverse climate to grow everything conceivable on this planet, huge bio-diversity, the largest livestock population in Africa and with billions dollars of foreign aid money failed to provide at least 150 grams of Kolo for its law abiding and dying population? This is the a million dollar question that Ethiopia’s rulers and elites need to answer.

This time we have to be honest to stop running away from this subject out of embarrassment to discuss and find solution. Denials will not solve the problem. The elite may hide behind fortified villas, 4×4, Armani suit, silk ties and crocodile shoes to convey an outward image of progress but that cannot save us from inward humiliation.

Every where else necessity has been a mother of invention, but with us, it has rather been a mother of rhetoric. So it is time to wake up and smell the coffee. There is no much time left; this generation has a short time to solve this problem or be remembered who talked too much to pass the begging bowl for its children.

People are starving and as they say charity begins at home. What about the elites taking a practical action for the first time. What about donating your silk ties for charity to feed a starving child? I wonder how many of the political leaders, academic, government officials, opposition leaders, elites or “vanguards of the masses” would give up their silk ties or black label whisky to save a child. I bet it is very few indeed!


9 comments on “Another famine! Is it Nature or the Generation that Failed Ethiopia?

  1. It is a good article.

    But, the writer blames this generation for the famine in Ethiopia.

    What i would like to know is that is the writer part of this generation or what?

  2. It is a very eye opening article. I have never seen other writers framing the recurring famine from this angle.

    When i think of it, i agree with the writer that there is no any old system to blame.

    This generation was given the chance for more than 40 years to put Ethiopia ahead. But, what we actually see is that our country moving backward in every aspect.

    Looking back, i belive King Hailesellasie’s period was over all much more better than that of Colonel Mengistu’s. That of Colonel Mengistu’s better than that of Ato Meles.

    The current generation should take its fate into its hand and should not let the that failed generation to screw our country any more.

    The new generation should be able to say enough is enough.

  3. To blame the generation for the recurrent famine in Ethiopia is over simplification of the matter, to say the least. I think, all of us should be blamed. We have done nothing with respect to the famine.

    It is the collective failure by all of us; ie. leftist of right or the government or the opposition, educated or uneducated,..etc. Thus, i do not think it is fair to single out a generation as a scape goat unless there is some hidden motive behind it.

  4. I share the cry of the author, it is rare indeed to read such an honest appraisal of Ethiopia’s tragedy. Wellbeing, freedom ansd self respect cannot be gained without sacrifice. Every generation of Ethiopians rich or poor has paid a high price in flesh and blood to keep the country independent and bestow it to the next generation. The so called ‘educated elite’ of the past four decades paid the price for the wrong reason and has nothing to offer anymore.
    Where is the new generation who says ‘my country or death’ ?????

  5. It is a brilliant article. Our politicians have been very busy promoting their self interest rather than finding solution to improve the life our society. Typical example is the cadres and supporters of the current regime who have made and are still making themselves millionaire. Even in the Mengistu regime huge amount of money was allocated for cadres and members of the ruling party.

  6. In all honesty, the article came up with simple and fresh approach in identifying the weakest link that hampered progress and development in Ethiopia. The author put 3 parameters that are need for development. First natural resources, second the population and third the system which is predominately put in place by the elites.

    First he argued saying that Ethiopia is not a barren land. I agree. As he put it, it is a blessed land with natural resources. Less than 10% of cultivatable land has been cultivated. Ethiopia exploited less than 2% of the hydroelectric potential. Since the 1960 we had been hearing about Ethiopia’s oil reserve that has not yet given due attention to provide exploration right to those who had the mean to bring it to the surface Till now no company was given exploration right to search for minerals and oils. Minerals just do not come to the surface; some one has to dig down to find it. You either do it, or give others to do it for you.

    He also argued to prove that the inhabitants of the land were creative, ingenious, industrious, who left their mark on the landscape from Axum to Addis. So they do not need to be civilized or re-invent. They know how to farm, they know how to curve monuments, they know how to right. They had mathematics, literature, religion, art and technology. In short they are a kind of people that need to patronised.

    Then he went to show how irresponsible the generation was in chasing trivial issues in the last 40 years. It sound judgmental but it is true. If there is anything that this generation want to creadit for let us hear it. Still now none of the Ethiopian politicians and intellectuals talk about famine or poverty, but if there are given the stage they can kill any with their rhetoric of self-determination, colonialism blab la mean. It is true, these guys have killed each other over semantics like Labader and Wezader.

    So in effect the author is right in saying the generation is responsible for Ethiopia’s current problem. There is no country in the world that has up to 14 million people exposed to starvation. Every year upto 4 million people need food supplies to survive. If this is not an issue to this generation, what else would be.

    Tubs up for Addis, some one need to call a spade a spade.

  7. Question:
    What could you possibly do if your mother or child is about to die because nothing to eat now ? Would you just spend time on analyzing the problem or responde for the emergency ?

    The answer we all have for the foregoing question is what we need to do NOW !!!

    Let us go to analysis after we respond to the emergency.



  8. Hi Sam,

    Thank you for your comment. I think problem solving is a three-stage process: – First,. Problem definition, Second, Analysis and third Action planning.

    The first step to solving problem is to know the source of the difficulty. Real problems are often masked by symptoms. It is easy to be mislead into solving the symptoms instead of the causes. Unless the cause is dealt with, fresh headaches will undoubtabily arise. As you can see, famine has been with us continuously for 36years. There was no year where the people were not starving or stretching their hands to the charity. Every year around 4 million people need handout to survive. The vast majority of the kids are malnourished. We only see it when the graph drastically picks above this baseline or when BBC broadcasts shocking images. In some years, the number of people stretching their hand reaches up to 14 million people.

    Sam the purpose of the article is to provoke discussion and find a permanent solution.. It is not to mimic the rhetoric of the Ethiopian Revolutionary Generation. God forbid I do not wish to be like one of them. Once you define the problem you analysis the data. Those data could be natural phenomena, government policies, and attitude to work, serf-system to the government or other parameters. Then you progress in to Action Planning. Your action need to have urgent, short-term, and long-term activities until the problems are solved. I do not want to make it like MBA lecture but I think that these is right way of solving problems.

    I know you are concerned and want to focus on urgent actions. That is noble. Let me suggest one immediate solution. Please go and put some money in to Oxfam for Ethiopia appeal or other charity that operates in Ethiopia. Or send some money to families in affected areas to buy something. If you see my article, it concludes by asking Ethiopian rulers and intellectuals to give their silk ties or double scotch to save a child.

    Thank you again for your coment

  9. When are we going to wake up and decide that WE the people, not the government can fix the mess that we are in. Even though our leader have a great deal of responsibility of making a difference, we can’t fail with them if they do. I just think that responsibility starts from individuals. Just think of a nation full of hard working responsible citizens.

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