The Supermarket and the Starving

David Plotz in Africa

The Supermarket and the Starving

David Plotz in Africa

The Supermarket and the Starving
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 22 2003 2:35 PM

David Plotz in Africa

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Click here to see more of David Plotz's photographs from Africa.

Derej and Abush
Derej and Abush

As soon as I clear the Addis Ababa Sheraton's gates, Derej and Abush accost me. The two 15-year-old boys, who hang around outside the hotel waiting for confused-looking foreigners like me, unleash a cheerful and practiced routine. They're seventh-graders, on holiday because it's exam week and so can they show me around. What do I want to see? Derej proposes taking me to the national museum. When I try brushing them off, Abush offers another idea: "The supermarket? We show you the supermarket?"

Bountiful carrots in Addis Ababa 
Bountiful carrots in Addis Ababa 

The supermarket is bright, prosperous, and packed with food. It's bizarre and fitting that these charming boys should consider a supermarket a tourist attraction. A supermarket is the international symbol for abundance, for more food than you could ever need. It is what Ethiopia wants but cannot have.

I'm here in Ethiopia for the only reason foreign journalists are ever in Ethiopia: The nation is again on the brink of famine. More than 11 million Ethiopians are at risk of starvation this year. That's more than were affected by the famous 1984-85 "Live Aid" catastrophe—nearly one-fifth of Ethiopia's population. Millions more could be in danger if the spring belg rains fail to come for the second consecutive year. Africa as a whole is in the midst of the worst food crisis in its history: 40 million people may go hungry on the continent this year (including 6 million in Zimbabwe, which I'll visit later in the week). Ethiopia is the worst of the worst.

Qaddafi's Mercedes?
Qaddafi's Mercedes?

Ethiopia's epic poverty smacks into me every time I turn a corner in Addis—the crowds of begging women and children who surround me wherever I walk, the down-and-outers raking through roadside garbage, the rag-clad cripples curled up on the sidewalk. Scores of ragamuffins like Abush and Derej wait outside the hotel gates, but the Sheraton parking lot is packed with 60 factory-fresh, Mercedes 320 sedans. The rumor mill reports that Muammar Qaddafi sent them for his 400-person entourage to use during an African unity summit that starts here in two weeks.

Poverty may be everywhere in the city, but the hunger does not seem to be. The markets are packed with food. On my walk with Abush and Derej, we pass tiny women squatting on the sidewalk selling bananas, a greengrocer piling carrots on the sidewalk, street vendors hawking packages of cookies and gum, and a boy shepherding a small flock of sheep down one of the capital's main drags.

And although I am feeling incredibly self-conscious and guilty about food, the prosperous Ethiopians I have met in the past two days seem anything but. At my first meal, my lunch companion—an Ethiopian friend of a friend of a relative of a friend—insists on ordering a second main course for me, over my objections. "Just eat half of each one," he urges, beckoning the waiter. I barely touch the fried sheep and try to rationalize the waste by inventing a story in which the owner of the restaurant sends the extra $1.50 back to his hungry grandmother on the farm.

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Addis is crawling with people drawn by the disaster; ministers from all over Africa, who have come to discuss the continent's development crisis. As I arrived at the hotel last night, U.S. Agency for International Development Director Andrew Natsios was holding a press conference marking the end of his four-day tour of famine-stricken rural areas. Congressman Frank Wolf, R.-Va., did his famine tour last week. The U.N. World Food Program Director James Morris finished his five-day Ethiopia swing this morning. And there are a dozen Western journalists who've been invited in from around Africa (or, in my case, Washington, D.C.). The only person missing is Bono.

Food on the hoof in downtown Addis
Food on the hoof in downtown Addis

I can't ride out to the stricken rural villages till tomorrow. So, today is a bureaucratic day, meeting with sundry international agencies officers, Ethiopian agency heads, and U.S. officials who have been vigorously trying to win press attention to the story. Here are the basics: The situation in rural Ethiopia—and a staggering 85 percent of the population lives in the country—is truly dire. Neither the spring nor the fall rains showed up in 2002, and production of staple foods like maize and sorghum plummeted by 25 percent. Because food shortages are now chronic in Ethiopia—crop failures have been widespread every three or four years—the poorest farmers have nothing to fall back on. They sold what wealth they had—oxen, cows, chickens—to survive the last food shortage. HIV, though not the relentless demon it is in Southern Africa, has made many people more vulnerable to malnutrition. Malaria and diarrhea are creeping up; more and more children are malnourished.

Ethiopia calculates that it needs 1.44 million tons of food to get through this year—about a pound of food per person per day. It has pledges (from the United States,  the EU nations, and Korea, among others) for only half that (including 262,000 tons of food—cereals and beans, mostly—that USAID announced yesterday, on top of 230,000 tons we sent in the fall).

Reporters have been beckoned here to help wring out the other half. Relief workers fear Ethiopia's crisis—the worst humanitarian situation in the world today—will be shunted aside for more glamorous disasters: Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan. The WFP is so keen to get the story out that it even paid for my travel expenses and for those of most of the other journalists here. (Click here for a discussion of the ethics of accepting this free trip.)

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This PR campaign is a calculated risk by the Ethiopian government and the WFP. The media and celebrity gang-bang that occurred during the 1984-85 famine was a blessing and a curse for Ethiopia. A million Ethiopians died, but the rushed-in aid saved millions more. (A WFP official was telling stories today of kids who survived the '84 famine and grew up to become computer programmers.) But the '84 campaign also tarnished Ethiopia. The famine is almost all anyone knows about this lovely, good-natured, tolerant, ancient, full-of-smiles country. Ethiopia became the punch line to a joke. (According to my guidebook, foreign passengers on the excellent Ethiopian Airlines even now ask if any food will be served on the flight.) Live Aid became the definitive model of what Alex de Waal dubbed "famine crimes." It confirmed the view that famines are often politically created and that humanitarian relief can do more harm than good. Ethiopia's former communist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam (head of a government called "the Derg"—a regime name rivaled for onomotopoeia only by Burma's SLORC), hid the '84 famine from the world until people were dying then used the crisis to starve out areas hostile to his regime. In relieving the famine, international aid groups worked too closely with the Derg, inadvertently abetting its crimes.

In the '84 famine, the media and celebrities came, made prize-winning films and recorded hit records, and disappeared. Ethiopia's long-term poverty was not eased. Its agriculture did not improve. Its educational levels did not rise. Its birth rate did not slow. And its people remained hungry.

Ethiopia, the donor nations, the NGOs, and the WFP learned from their mistakes. They want to generate the same international outcry, but this time, they believe, they are doing it right. And it appears that in critical ways, they are. One drastic improvement: We are not covering a famine—we are covering food insecurity. In 1984, the Derg hid the famine until enterprising journalists got in and broke the story. This time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has beseeched the world for help. Ethiopian officials enthusiastically give interviews—the only people who will speak on the record, in fact, are Ethiopian officials.

The government and aid agencies have corrected other errors, too. In 1984, famine victims were herded into camps where they were hugely vulnerable to infectious diseases, were cut off from local support systems, and lost whatever they had left at home. This time the World Food Program and dozens of NGOs have set up more than 1,500 food distribution sites in the most afflicted regions. In 1984, the Ethiopian government was an oppressive dictatorship indifferent to the famine. This time, it is relatively democratic and isn't trying to exploit the suffering for political gain.

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This is all great. But huge, unsettling questions remain. Why does it keep happening, and is there any way to make it stop? This mass-media appeal will be effective. Pictures and stories will do the trick, and the food will arrive. But everyone knows that this emergency relief is yet another Band-Aid.

The real tragedy of Ethiopia is not that it suffers from occasional acute food shortages like this year's. It is that it always suffers from food shortages. Ethiopia has sought food aid every year for the past decade—and that's as far back as the charts go. According to Teshome Erkineh, an official at Ethiopia's disaster preparedness agency, Ethiopia asks for an average of 700,000 tons of food every year. In good years, a little bit less. In bad years like this, a lot more. Even in its best years, Ethiopia has 3 million-5 million people who would starve without food relief. And that number is steadily increasing. Unlike North Korea, which starves its people through malice and stupidity, Ethiopia is committing no famine crime. The government is fairly democratic and committed to help. The country simply can't feed itself.

Why not? Every year, the country adds 2.5 million people, almost all of them to an already overburdened countryside. For inexplicable reasons—perhaps global warming—Ethiopia's weather has become increasingly erratic, so the rains that are relied on are no longer reliable. Ethiopian farming is incredibly primitive: There's virtually no irrigation, so if rain stays away, crops die. Farmers have deforested much of the country, so soil erosion has torn away good soil. Literacy rates are among the lowest in the world—under 40 percent. Only a quarter of kids attend primary schools. And Ethiopia hardly has a dime to fix any of this. (Today I visited Ethiopia's prestigious disaster relief agency: Employees have rotary phones. The building lost power in the middle of my interview.)

The power of television ensures that the food aid from donor countries will never stop. The images of malnourished kids are too painful. But the donors and NGOs understand that if they do provide the food, it merely patches the problem till next year. Everyone in the aid community knows that vast, expensive development is necessary to make Ethiopia self-sustaining: more irrigation, reforestation, better health care, more primary education. And official after official I spoke to today argued that they have big plans to do just that. Emergency food aid, they say, can be used for development: If you make kids go to school to collect the rations, they will be better educated. They all enthusiastically tout their long-term development plans: Everyone has issued a report, every agency has a policy, every policy has an acronym. The Ethiopian government is enthused; so is the UN, the NGOs, the donors.

But development aid is stagnant in Ethiopia. The proportion of spending on development by the World Food Program, for example, has plunged to 20 percent. The rest goes to rations. Most USAID money goes for staple foods. Everyone agrees Ethiopia needs long-term development funding, but they can't pay for it, because every couple years they have to throw whatever extra money they can find into the latest food emergency. According to the WFP's James Morris, of all major aid recipients, Ethiopia receives the highest proportion of food aid per capita and the lowest proportion of development money. The donors want to give fishing rods, but too many people are begging for fish.

This is why I am so ambivalent about being recruited for the cause. I dread tomorrow, when I will see terrible suffering in the rural villages. What I write may make you write your congressman or give a donation to Catholic Relief Services. I expect that what I see will make me do that. But I don't know if that cash will truly ease the suffering here, except for a moment.