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the Complete Review
the complete review - politics / economics


Famine and Foreigners

Peter Gill

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To purchase Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid

Title: Famine and Foreigners
Author: Peter Gill
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 267 pages
Availability: Famine and Foreigners - US
Famine and Foreigners - UK
Famine and Foreigners - Canada
  • Ethiopia Since Live Aid

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit much of the personal/anecdotal, but does ultimately touch on many of the important questions and issues

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 15/7/2010 .
Foreign Affairs . 1-2/2011 Nicolas van de Walle
The New Republic . 19/10/2010 David Rieff
TLS . 1/4/2011 Alex de Waal
Wall St. Journal . 7/9/2010 William Easterly

  From the Reviews:
  • "The core of the book covers Mr Gillís return to the areas he had reported on during the famine a quarter of a century earlier. Depressingly, he finds few grounds for optimism. (...) Mr Gill touches on the reasons for this state of affairs, even if he never marshals them into a coherent indictment of Mr Zenawi and the clique of former Marxist guerrillas who surround him." - The Economist

  • "Gill, in his sympathetic account of Ethiopia's last three decades, largely ignores broad economic trends and rarely mentions statistics, instead structuring his narrative around the country's recurrent droughts and famines and the international community's efforts to help avert future catastrophes." - Nicolas van de Walle, Foreign Affairs

  • "Zenawi has grasped the links between economics and politics, more consistently and strategically, than any of his rivals and peers. That is both the leitmotif of Zenawi's political career and the thread of Peter Gill's excellent book. (...) A strength of Famine and Foreigners lies in its synoptic view of elite capitalcity politics and the life in the countryside to make sense of Ethiopia." - Alex de Waal, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mr. Gill captures the brutality of the Meles regime, but he does not say as much as he might about the government's failure to address Ethiopia's perpetual food shortages. He supportively describes Mr. Meles's decision to continue the Derg's policy of government ownership of all land. One searches in vain for a suggestion that letting farmers own their land might be a good idea, giving them incentives to prevent erosion and invest in soil fertility. (...) In Famines and Foreigners, Mr. Gill shows us the nexus of politics and aid at the core of Ethiopia's famines." - William Easterly, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Peter Gill has visited Ethiopia repeatedly and traveled extensively through the country in reporting on it over the years. He begins Famine and Foreigners with his account of traveling back to Korem, a quarter of a century after he had reported from there in 1984 on the famine that had inspired the Band Aid efforts to provide aid, notably the the Live Aid concert of 1985.
       Divided into three parts, Famine and Foreigners looks at 'Then', 'Transitions', and 'Now', offering first an historical overview of the famines that have hit Ethiopia in recent decades and then zeroing in on some of the issues that have led to (and continue to lead to) famine, with some obvious lessons clearly not having been learnt by the parties who might be able to do something about it (first and very foremost, the Ethiopian government itself, regardless under whose (autocratic -- which is certainly part of the problem) rule).
       With a population heavily reliant on agriculture, which in turn is dependent on adequate rain, famine has frequently hit Ethiopia. The absence of rain -- or too much of it at the wrong time --, especially in successive years, inevitably causes great hardship. As Gill notes, the 1973 famine -- and a documentary made about it, The Unknown Famine -- and the government's inept reaction to it contributed to the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie. The Soviet-supported Derg that then ruled the country the country under Mengistu Haile-Mariam until 1991 proved similarly not up to the task when famine hit again in the 1990s. Led now by onetime Western darling but now increasingly autocratic Meles Zenawi Ethiopia continues to be vulnerable to famine, as seen again in 2008.
       As Gill notes, aid agencies (generally foreign) have been involved (and/or meddling) in Ethiopia for decades now, as have foreign governments, and the roles of these often very well-backed foreign governments and institutions has played a part in the course various famines (and periods where famine was a threat) took. In the mid-1980s, for example, the Derg imposed a mass resettlement policy, trying to move people from one area of the country to another. They often did so forcefully, and the policy divided both the nations providing aid as well as the aid agencies with their differing policies of non-interference and conceptions of sovereignty.
       As Gill repeatedly notes, many aid agencies did very well by the famines -- in getting cash, raising their profiles, becoming players. While avoiding outright condemnation, Gill does note that, for example, Oxfam in particular not only expanded rapidly into a dominant player, but eventually also was closely tied to the British Labour government -- and that its self-interest seem to have influenced at least some aid-decisions, such as silence on the resettlement policy. (On the other hand, he seems to approve of Médecins Sans Frontières' (Doctors without Borders') focus solely on conditions on the ground, and indifference to stepping on anyone's (and particularly any government's) toes.)
       International aid has generally been the single largest contribution to the Ethiopian economy, breeding enormous dependence -- but Ethiopia's supposed strategic value has also allowed foreign-supported governments to misgovern at what seems like will. Soviet support was essential to prop up the Derg and did little to alleviate suffering; US support for the regime of Meles Zanawi -- considered a vital ally in controlling Somalia, and of strategic value throughout the region -- has clearly led to a reluctance to condemn the increasingly rapid drift away from democratic ideals in the country. Reactions to the 2005 elections -- denounced by the European Union as fatally flawed, but greeted with shrugs of very, very quiet indifference by the Americans ("They couldn't care less [...] By that time, they were seeing Meles as a big ally", EU observer Ana Gomes complained) -- are typical.
       Aid agencies have proliferated with astonishing speed in Ethiopia: Gill cites a study that counted fourty-six foreign and twenty-four Ethiopian NGOs in 1994, while now there are literally thousands. However, their influence has now also been severely curtailed: a new law promulgated in 2009 limits what charities are permitted to do -- specifically that henceforth only Ethiopian organizations would be allowed to "take part in activities such as 'the advancement of human and democratic rights'". Foreign agencies are welcome to feed and tend to the needy, but can't continue their 'rights-based' support of ideals and institutions. The government spin on this is,of course, that aid agencies were meddling where they shouldn't; certainly some of what they were promoting was inconvenient to the government. Unfortunately, it's fairly clear that a free press and democratic values would help deal with future famine threats, and that the government has no interest in either of these -- and that without foreign pressure in these areas there will be no improvement in establishing democratic institutions (indeed, the drift has yet again been back to the autocratic policies of yore, just like under the Derg and Haile Selassie). Successive governments' attempts to spin famine -- or rather, brush it under the rug (and they all have, including the current administration) -- show the damage image-conscious 'leaders' can do in a country where dissent is suppressed and, where at all possible, information carefully controlled.
       The issue of the role aid agencies can and should play is a complex one, and Ethiopia, so reliant on aid, a fascinating test case, with Gill giving a good overview of some of the issues (though, for example, his focus is more on British than American involvement). The scale of the country's problems -- and the weakness of the Ethiopian economy -- also means that Ethiopia is, for now, dependent on foreign assistance; in cases of famine or the threat of famine -- recurring every few years -- massive foreign aid is the only way of immediately dealing with the problem. Unfortunately, Gill does not look at many of the other effects aid-contributions have (such as the disruption to the local food-economy (including farming) due to what amounts to the dumping of (foreign) food onto the market).
       Admirably, Gill does touch on a few very touchy issues, such as the obscene and self-destructive fertility rate in Ethiopia, and successive governments' (and aid agencies' ...) unwillingness to address this issue. Funding for AIDS, in particular, has displaced that which had previously gone to family planning, and:

     It was clear that family planning, a core programme in the early decades of development, had become the Third World's Cinderella service. The donors had created a dangerous imbalance between their commitment to saving lives and their relative lack of interest in sustaining those lives in the longer term.
       One reason for the shift is, of course, the George Bush jr. administration's attitude towards family planning -- disinterest, if not outright disgust -- and a vigorous effort to root out any such planning that even allowed for the possibility of abortion, making family planning a hot potato-issue. For all of the jr. Bush's lauded support of Africa, his administration certainly undermined needed advances in this area. (As the world undergoes a demographic shift of enormous proportions, with fertility rates plummeting worldwide, including in most so-called developing countries, family planning might seem not to be a high priority: most countries, indeed, seem to be able to pull their populations up through economic growth. But some poverty-stricken areas simply cannot support population growth of the current Ethiopian rate, or hope to wait for the economy to catch up with them -- especially under autocratic rule that severely hampers growth in the first place.)
       Gill also offers an interesting chapter on China's involvement in Ethiopia: here, as throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, they have invested heavily in infrastructure, which certainly seems to be aid that's on the right road -- as opposed to how other nations go about it. As one 2009 report that Gill quotes points out:
Ethiopia has continuously asked EU [European Union] countries to help provide infrastructure development, and the EU has focused mainly on calling for more liberalisation of trade and preventing Ethiopian agricultural products from coming to European markets.
       Yes, there's a lot of blame to go around to a lot of the involved parties about why things continue not to go so well in Ethiopia.
       Much of Famine and Foreigners is anecdotal/journalistic: Gill traveling to places and meeting people. This can be interesting, but makes for a patchy work: trees here and there, but much of the forest remaining unseen, especially since Gill's isn't simply one continuous (research-)trip, but a back and forth and here and there over decades. Gill does provide a good deal of substantive information too, but it's a big story he wants to tell, and from the influence of the documentary The Unknown Famine to World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz's engagement with Ethiopian economic issues he tries to cover a tremendous amount of ground; a number of large gaps remain. Still, there's a good deal here that is of considerable interest, especially regarding how foreign governments and institutions can and should be involved abroad (and the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise), and he gives a very good sense of many of the significant issues Ethiopia faces. One might wish for more detail -- about the agricultural conditions across this huge country, the ethnic conflicts, foreign government meddling -- but Gill does at least touch on most of them.
       Certainly of interest to anyone interested in 'Third World'-aid issues, or in contemporary Ethiopia (and its fascinating, brilliant but losing-his-way leader, Meles Zenawi).

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 September 2010

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Famine and Foreigners: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peter Gill is a British journalist.

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© 2010-2011 the complete review

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