Feeding the Hand That Bites


Since October 1984, the world-wide publicity blitz about the Ethiopian famine has resulted in the single largest outpouring of humanitarian assistance in human history. This assistance, however, has tragically reinforced the conditions that led to the famine rather than relieved them. Turning their heads the other way. Western agencies have neither assessed the causes of the famine nor evaluated the context into which their assistance is being poured.

Why are Western agencies so unwilling to evaluate the causes of the famine; to monitor the implementation and impact of their programs: to evaluate publicly their effectiveness at treating the root causes of the Ethiopian famine? Why do most humanitarian agencies forbid money to be spent on research?

The concern to rush in as much assistance as quickly as possible while the crisis was unfolding is understandable. But now, more than 20 months later, agencies are trying to fan the flames of compassion into another massive international response without assessing the causes or the extent of the famine or the relationship of their own programs to its continuation. Their action - or rather, lack thereof - is inexcusable.

From the beginning, two problems with providing assistance to famine victims became immediately evident: assistance could not be delivered through government held areas to a majority of those in need; and there were persistent reports of food being used to force people to take part in government programs that they had previously avoided. These complications alone should have made the agencies wary of the simpleminded explanation that drought was the cause of the famine.

But even when, in addition, some agencies witnessed serious human rights abuses, they still refuse to acknowledge them publicly. Only off-the-record will some agencies admit witnessing violations - people forcibly dragged from their camps or centers, then taken for resettlement, or, more often, captured while seeking Western assistance. In other cases, agencies were not allowed to provide services to areas until resettlement quotas had been met - resettlement alone caused the forced relocation of some 700,000 people. In spite of such atrocities, the agencies remained silent.

The evidence of the misuse of Western assistance by the government is overwhelming. The only humanitarian agency to publicly voice its outrage, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), has documented a number of instances when its own programs were diverted from their goals or not allowed to function in accordance with their humanitarian objectives. Because other agencies would not corroborate this testimony MSF was expelled from the country. Likewise, former Ethiopian relief officials have reported that food and transport were systematically diverted from starving people and used in the resettlement program. The Ethiopian government subsequently charged former officials with misappropriating Western assistance.

Except for MSF, only the Western agencies continue to deny that assistance has been misused. Why? The agencies claim that they are faced with a dilemma: how to help as many people as possible when a hostile government, at even the slightest provocation, might restrict their activities or expel them.

While Western assistance undoubtedly reaches many starving people, for some "famine" victims, at least, rations amount to little more than a transfer payment between agencies and the government. In April 1986, while interviewing refugees from Ethiopia's eastern Hararghe Province, I encountered families who had received famine assistance from Western agencies. Having obtained supplemental rations of 20 kg of grain per month, these people scoffed at the notion that they were famine victims. They admitted, however, that their rations were roughly equal in value to the famine tax that they paid to the government.

Western agencies respond to criticism of their delivery of emergency assistance with such faulty defenses as "anything we can do saves lives and helps people"; "we cannot become involved in politics or interfere in the internal policies of the government"; or "we must case the predicament of rural famine victims." The agencies, however, are knowing political actors in the Ethiopian tragedy. Ethiopia's intentions are a matter of public record. Its programs, designed to create a new social and economic reality, are being implemented throughout the countryside. The futures of formerly self-sufficient peasant farmers, it seems, are an "acceptable" sacrifice.

Ignoring the causes of the Ethiopian famine. Western humanitarian agencies have taken a rather lofty moral position with regard to feeding the hungry and a distant position with regard to the human rights violations perpetrated by the government. Some agencies, however, are beginning to speak out against militarization in the region, claiming that it is a major cause of instability and famine. While such concerns should be lauded, one must examine the role of Western agencies in militarization.

From October 1984 to the present, the government's primary source of foreign exchange, i.e., hard currency with which to purchase weapons, has come from the cash brought into the country by Western humanitarian agencies, paid as port fees by the same agencies and their governments or brought into the country by international organizations. Given the use of weapons by government troops and militia in resettlement and villagization, the impact of Western assistance on the overall escalation of armed conflict and massive violations of human rights can no longer be ignored in the name of short-term humanitarian assistance.

Justifiably concerned about food self-sufficiency in Ethiopia, many Western agencies are shifting from emergency assistance to long-term development programs. They are purchasing and distributing seed, equipment, fertilizer and oxen to needy farmers, assuming that with such inputs peasants will be able to produce their own food. Interviews with famine victims, however, indicate that theft of oxen, food and equipment by militia, army and local officials caused famine in many areas. Such practices are still widespread.

In Hararghe Province and in other areas Western agencies serve, farmers are being moved into central villages so that the government can create producers' cooperatives. All animals, produce and equipment are owned by the state; farming is to be undertaken collectively. Last year 10 percent of Ethiopia's farmers were moved into these new villages. The government intends to move all farmers into such villages by 1994. Do Western agencies believe that their development assistance (seed, tools, oxen) is exempt from collectivization? If agencies wish to support such programs, they should inform their donors that this is how they will use contributions.

In addition to their own "independent" programs, Western agencies are being asked to fund government programs directly. Western support of government programs for children who have "been separated from their parents" must be reconsidered. The government does not call these children orphans. Indeed, our interviews indicate that often children are separated forcibly from parents. Some observers have suggested that government officials wish to politically indoctrinate these children to ensure their loyalty to the state rather than to their families. Last year more than 10 million dollars of international assistance was earmarked for programs with such children.

Evidence from numerous sources, including former Ethiopian officials, is overwhelmingly clear: government policies were at least as responsible for the famine as drought. Yet the government has not abandoned social and economic reorganization during the famine; if anything, it appears to have used the famine not only to justify but also to help pay for the intensification of existing programs such as villagization and resettlement. These two programs alone have been responsible for the relocation of more than four million people during the last 18 months, and the creation of famine among people who formerly produced food surpluses. In spite of the evidence and persistent questions about the causes of the famine, Western assistance continues to release government funds that are used to intensify such programs. Can such support justifiably he called humanitarian assistance? How long are people in the West willing to allow their donations to be used to create starvation, dependency and even death?

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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