From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sat Nov 29 2008 - 05:43:16 EST
What Blair And Geldof Didn't See in Ethiopia
November 29, 2008
The phone call from a mobile in Ethiopia was vague: did I have resilience, a sense of humour, journalism experience? I was in my English garden at the time, and getting a phone call from the UN in Addis Ababa while I was deadheading the dahlias in the early summer of 2004 was surreal. The previous June I had applied for a public information and media job with the United Nations in Namibia, got it, but then turned it down.
Presumably my name was floating on a database somewhere. I was sent a job description of the Ethiopia proposal: vague sentences about knowledge of information management and training, the ability to write copy. But it sounded interesting, and having lived and worked all over Africa in the last 14 years, and with dual South African-British nationality, I was desperate to get back to the continent I love and know.
The first shock on arrival in Addis Ababa a little more than a year later was the weather. It rained and rained and rained. I had been employed to 'work' on the famine, yet how could a country with this much rain possibly experience famine? Surely, if it rained so much - during two months, the road outside my office was often a river - the water could be stored, relocated, channelled to those that needed it? A look at the aerial picture of Ethiopia, with so many visible lakes, made the possibility of famine in November even harder to imagine.
Most of the country is rural, with more than 90 per cent of the population living outside the cities in areas served poorly by roads, telephone lines, internet access or electricity. Eighty-five per cent of the Ethiopian workforce depends on agriculture. Not the sort of agriculture with which we are familiar in Europe. You never see a tractor, combine harvester or grain silo - it is totally unmechanised. All the ploughing, tilling, planting and harvesting are done by hand and with oxen. If seedlings get no rain or, conversely, far too much, that's the end of the village's crop. The majority of villages are too poor to have enough reserves of seeds to start again. Villagers don't own their land, so they are all equally poor and the incentives to diversify or try something new are restricted by deficient, over-used soil (dung from cows is burnt as fuel). Communities have become used to depending on imported U.S. grain, which comes via handouts from the World Food Programme (WFP). These handouts are delivered by the WFP through international charities working in Ethiopia, and also by the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission, or DPPC (since renamed as an Agency: DPPA) in Addis Ababa, where I was based.
For the first two months I felt my way, studied the Government's website and tried to fathom the impenetrable jargon surrounding famine and food security, and remember the basics of Ethiopian geography. The practicalities of finding out where the hungry people were, and how many, proved difficult. I would wait for weeks for even the tiniest bit of information about whether the seasonal rain - enabling villagers to plant - had arrived, essential knowledge necessary to be able to judge whether we needed to start informing donors and the WFP that problems were likely, if not imminent.
By the August I began to work out what my job actually was ('consultant' was supposed to cover it), to whom I was accountable (nobody other than myself, it seemed), and how little the Ethiopian Government actually wanted a foreigner inside the DPPC. Especially, they did not want an investigative journalist, which is what I am. Sure, I could re-jig the Government website, run training sessions on how to write a press release, and even re-train a few senior managers how to make their reports a little more readable, but to 'promote' a famine, and 'improve' communications strategies and information flow - no chance.
One of my jobs was supposed to be to create information systems and to monitor that everyone involved in famine was getting the information they needed. But at the DPPC, the idea of establishing basic facts - what's happening, where, to whom, and why? - became Kafkaesque in its difficulty. Once, over a business lunch, trying to get these foundations in place, I was told by Ato Sisay, the senior Government official responsible for co-ordinating information for famine relief donors: "You really work too hard, you mustn't worry about things like this. And, anyway, information is power." So just how was I to 'promote' the famine? By finding out the numbers of hungry, and to track systematically exactly who was hungry, their location and why the problem persisted? Or to report shamefacedly, and blatantly lie about the 'success' stories of the Government - a new type of peasant irrigation system, or well-digging in one small area?
I went to endless meetings in tiny wooden-floored rooms with little or no lighting. For eight whole months I watched plastic flowers grow dusty, and computers, paid for by the American Government, never even get turned on. I organised endless questionnaires, training sessions and meetings for Ethiopian colleagues at the DPPC where we could, potentially, talk about the key issues and hurdles and obtain consensus. People rarely turned up. What use is free discussion in a military society riddled with spies? It took me a long time to get to grips with just how undemocratic Ethiopia really is.
With the regional DPPC offices mired in fighting, pay disputes and resignations, the fact that there was often no telephone or fax contact became the focus of my frustration. Local charities were often able to supply the necessary knowledge; unlike many of their senior Government counterparts, they had both the resources and the willingness to undertake unpleasantly bumpy, hot journeys into remote areas to find out how villagers were faring and, in some cases, whether the villagers were alive or dead. But four of my own requests to visit famine-affected areas were rejected by superiors, one an hour before I was due to board a local plane. Morale at the DPPC was lousy, a word the Ethiopian English-speakers used often. It was as if managers were doing their best to prevent information getting out, not to circulate it. In desperation I spent my lonely nights studying the local language, Amharic, in the hope of breaking the ice and perhaps discovering the reasons for the absenteeism and the consuming lethargy and lack of direction of my colleagues. Occasionally I risked visiting the local expatriate hangouts, where hardened Africa hands would dismiss my attempts to do my job as a pointless waste of time.
The key clue eventually came in February 2004 when a senior colleague - a journalist and military man before moving into PR - unhappily thrust under my nose a Government newspaper article concerning a UK Channel 4 programme about Ethiopia, Living with Hunger. The Sub-Saharan Informer spent two whole pages lambasting Channel 4 journalist Sorious Samora for "tricking and manipulating the Ethiopian people." His trip had been 'facilitated' by non-governmental organisations (the significance of this came only later) and his attempt to live for a month on what the majority of rural Ethiopians - more than 40 million people - live on during the leaner seasons every year was scorned. More crucially, the paper nit-picked at Samora's motives for making the film, concluding that he was egotistical, had interrogated Ethiopians, remained aloof and ultimately made the documentary simply to win another media award. It concluded that the programme would harm foreign investment and tourism and portrayed Ethiopians as eating things they would have the good sense to know were inedible. Whether the programme was accurate and informed journalism, which I believe it was, became irrelevant. The Informer article was suffused with a sense of hurt pride, of refusal to acknowledge that ultimately Samora may have done Ethiopia a favour by focusing world attention on the practicalities of survival in such a harsh environment. Having lectured to students in London on the portrayal of Africa in western media, it was fascinating for me to witness first hand the denial, anger and sense of being let down felt by some of my colleagues.
Work became even harder
Meanwhile, there was the pressing issue of 1.3 million Ethiopians living in the Somali region who had somehow gone missing from official figures. Someone had 'forgotten' to include them in estimates of the hungry. After a long conversation with a colleague at the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), the truth dawned on me that the majority of members of the Government belonged to the Tigray ethnic group and that only certain tribal groups actually mattered to them. It became even harder to do my job as I uncovered some grim facts, such as the obvious prior knowledge of famine - there is one most years - by almost everyone concerned, from the World Food Programme and UNOCHA to the various foreign embassies and international charities. Peter Gill's excellent 1984 book, A Year In the Death of Africa, outlined the business of famine, including the sheer number of meetings, memos and reports involved. Here I was in 2004, living through exactly the same scenario he chronicled, with trucks being hijacked, food failing to reach its destinations, and charities frustrated beyond belief as many of their efforts to sort out problems were blocked by bureaucratic hurdles - agreements reneged upon, requests for vehicles turned down or stuck in a labyrinthine system, and visas for foreign national workers taking months to sort out. Every day there were always at least five women and their numerous children knocking on my house door, begging for clothes, food, scraps, money, firewood. It was very sad.
That's the thing about Ethiopia: there are just so many sad, ill, poor, desperate and not particularly resourceful people living absolutely on the edge, not just in rural areas but on your own, middle-class street. So the frustration of wanting to improve information exchanges and to be honest about what was happening under our noses was even more acute. But questions about water and food storage, the appalling state of the roads and the reason for the enormous amount of 'lost' food in certain parts of the country remained unanswered. The focus constantly remained on the obscure, such as 'metric quintals of food', 'early-warning systems' and 'normative vegetative indices'. The logistics of whether there was enough money to buy food and enough trucks to shift it from point A to point B were prevalent - and a week or so before the actual famine became 'official', the head of information and a scary military crony would put together an 'appeal', stating how much money they needed from western donors. Then it became everyone's job to try to get increasingly-cynical foreign office and embassy staff to commit large sums.
When Tony Blair and Bob Geldof turned up in Addis, everything shifted up a gear. We listened as Blair talked of Ethiopian 'countryside', a term so bizarrely inappropriate in a country where the rural areas are swathes of unmanageable moistureless scrub, highly eroded plateaux, or beautiful mountains, all of which are un-farmable and used only by nomads. Blair made it all sound so easy: if the West just gave more, if journalists reported how hard the people were working to improve the situation, then all would be well. Inside the main organ of the famine, the DPPC, the Ethiopian Government and the UN were arguing about the actual numbers of hungry people. Too low a figure and the Government wouldn't get enough foreign aid; too high and it would look as if they weren't solving the problem. Blair avoided the thorny subject of tribalism and ethnic divisions in a country where the most important government posts are all held by Tigrayans. Several senior ministers and other functionaries were all Tigrayans. Blair also appeared to avoid asking whether the allocated food substitutes, grain etc, actually ever reached the intended recipients, and he seemed unaware that Oxfam, Save the Children, Farm Africa and GOAL, the international humanitarian organisation, all of which work there, risk being thrown out of the country should they ask if aid pledged to victims of the famine actually ever arrives.
The gossip was that Bob Geldof was angry there hadn't been enough change, and the tensions in the DPPC government office at this point were palpable. Surely someone would break the silence and reveal the emperor had no clothes? I waited to hear one of the international charity reps point out that for the last several years the Ethiopian Government had actively carried out a blatant propaganda campaign against them, destabilising them with allegations of fraud and corruption. In a recent Government newspaper spread, a prominent minister had explained to citizens why charities were the enemy of the people. Nobody said anything, of course. It was simply too dangerous - we all lived in fear of being PNGd (made persona non grata) and thrown out of the country within 24 hours.
To their credit, a handful of local and international journalists in Ethiopia did their best. One particularly colourful character was asked to leave, and Ethiopian television had to retract publicly the UN figures he had used in an article about projected numbers of hungry people. In the goldfish bowl of the ex-pats, everyone had an opinion on whether he was right to refuse. The point was, however, that the Government was watching him and his family. Another friend, a local journalist, was beaten up several times, called into ministers' offices and not so subtly told to retract an article about industrial corruption. He decided to seek asylum in Britain.
Something was seriously wrong
My own life became harder. I felt terribly depressed - it seemed to me that the Ethiopian Government increasingly was only going through the motions of being accountable or transparent. I decided to send emails to journalists and friends in London, telling them what was going on. The only computers I could use were at the UN, as all others went through the Government's server and were monitored. In February of last year my innocuous request for a press pass to interview Bob Marley's widow, Rita, about a forthcoming Marley remembrance concert to be staged in Addis was turned down. I knew something was seriously wrong. Then my landlord suddenly decided I needed to be evicted, with a week's notice, and he conducted a smear campaign in my neighbourhood, suggesting that I was a drug dealer or prostitute. And I knew my phone was being bugged. At night I was rung at home by junior Government ministers and quizzed about exactly what I was doing. My handbag, with mobile phone and contacts book, vanished and Ethiopian friends were convinced it had been stolen. In late March 2005, homeless, without a telephone, and having resigned from the DPPC, I decided to leave. In order to do so I had to get an Ethiopian friend with good connections in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to remove any checks from my file, so I wouldn't be detained at the airport and prevented from leaving. I'm very grateful to her.
Last June I returned to make a BBC documentary. The situation had reached the crescendo that to me had seemed inevitable. The populace was sick of being bullied and lied to and wanted fair elections. They had reached breaking point. In a riot in which 36 people were killed and hundreds injured and imprisoned, I was inadvertently caught in the gunfire between Government soldiers and unarmed students. This was a completely unprovoked attack, outside a training college near the British Embassy. I felt very scared, but vindicated in my view that the political and economic situation during the previous year had been repressive and unjust. The harassment of journalists continued. In January this year Anthony Mitchell, latterly the Associated Press correspondent who had been reporting from the country for four years, was expelled at 24 hours' notice for 'disseminating information far from the truth about Ethiopia'. Despotism brooks no criticism.
Britain gave Ethiopia 73 million in aid in 2003-04, of which $45 million was paid direct to the Ethiopian treasury, and in June last year the G8 Summit agreed to cancel the $40 billion owed by 18 countries, including Ethiopia, to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank. But Britain's generous aid began to draw criticism as police continued to suppress anti-Government demonstrations and Blair's Government suspended a proposed $20million increase after the death of the students. Then, in February last year, international development secretary Hilary Benn decided to cut off direct budget support to Meles's government worth around $50million, describing the 'breach of trust' since the imprisonment of more than 100 people, and the death of more than 80 people in various protests. In January last year Benn said: "We are looking with Government and other donors to develop a new protection of basic services grant to deliver education, health and water to the poor. This would mean tighter financial reporting and stronger local accountability so that the funds reach the poorest people." The money will now be channelled through aid agencies and local organisations in the hope that it will reach the people who desperately need it, rather than being siphoned off by the Ethiopian Government. It's a start.
After 14 years of living and working in Africa, I have mixed feelings about aid, although you can never generalise on the experience of one country. Ethiopia, undoubtedly, is hampered by unfair trade agreements and the restrictions of having a hugely under-developed infrastructure. The solution is not simply aid, but better human rights, the promotion of free speech, and crucially, local and international structures that promote equality. This includes the protection of local and international journalists. If we are to send British aid money and skilled British people to work in Africa, then the host country must value us in the same way as it must start valuing all its citizens. At the very least we need to listen to local, African experts, journalists and commentators, who often speak from more informed, critical and realistic perspectives. We need to start rigorous debate about aid and democratic principles and the amount of local budgets spent on arms, health, education. Otherwise it is simply a feel-good exercise for the UN and the governments involved. It is not enough to 'feed the starving': we have to know that the poor, the vulnerable, wherever they are, are getting the food and money we give and their human rights, and have not become merely political pawns to their own governments. Here in Britain, it's time to face up to some unpalatable truths about the regimes we support.
By Thembi Mutch
British Journalism Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 51-58
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