Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Meles Zenawi's double dealings with aid donors

Parts of southern Ethiopia resemble the scenery in a Tarzan movie. When I was there last fall, the green forested hills were blanketed in white mist and rain poured down on the small farms and homesteads. In the towns, slabs of meat hung in the butchers’ shops and donkeys hauled huge sacks of coffee beans, Ethiopia’s major export, along the stony dirt roads. So I was surprised to see the signs of hunger everywhere. There were babies with kwashiorkor, a disease caused by malnutrition, which I’d assumed occurred only in war zones. Many of the older children were clearly stunted and some women were so deficient in iodine they had goiters the size of cannonballs.
This East African nation, famous for its ancient rock-hewn churches, Solomonic emperors, and seemingly intractable poverty, has a long history of famine. But I had always assumed that food shortages were more common in the much drier north of the country than in the relatively fertile south. Although rainfall throughout Ethiopia had been erratic in 2008 and 2009, the stunting and goiter I saw were signs of chronic malnutrition, which had clearly existed for many years.
What was causing it? Ethiopia’s long history of food crises is shrouded in myths and political intrigue. In 1984, famine killed hundreds of thousands of people and left millions destitute. At the time, the UN attributed the famine to drought. But most witnesses knew it had far more to do with a military campaign launched by Ethiopia’s then-Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam against a rebel group based in the northern province of Tigray, known as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).1 Government forces isolated the peasantry, destroyed trade and markets, and diverted food aid to their own troops.
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