Does Live 8 Matter to Ethiopia?

15 mins read

Marco Werman interviews Ethiopian farmer.
Reporter Marco Werman travels 3 hours outside of the capital Addis Ababa to listen to farmers voice their concerns.

At Ethiopia’s National Museum in Addis Ababa, I stood in front of the bones of “Lucy.” These are among the oldest remains of a pre-human ever found. And though there’s dispute over Ethiopia’s being the cradle of civilization, the irony is nevertheless a bitter one: How can a country with a reputation as being the beginning of it all now be associated with the end of it all?

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries on Earth. The average life expectancy is 42; half of the country’s children are malnourished; most people live on less than a dollar a day.

The poverty is daunting. At the roundabouts in the capital, clusters of beggars gather. They all suffer from a myriad of illnesses. These beggars are the worst cases. For the most part, the poverty is simmering in the countryside outside of Addis, where the vast majority of the people of this nation reside.

As Westerners, we don’t consider that a clean glass of water, hot or cold, is just a twist of the spigot away. We don’t think twice about the telephone working. We only complain when telemarketers call in the middle of dinner. It’s never a question of the lights not coming on when we flick a switch. And when power does go out, we either bitch about it, or we revel in the romance it provides us.

In Ethiopia, clean running water, electricity and communications systems are all available. But only to a minute percentage of the population, and they primarily live in Addis.

Africa as a whole has been placed in the spotlight over the past two weeks. Sir Bob Geldof corralled his old Live Aid buddies and some younger talent last weekend in a massive lineup of awareness concerts in 10 cities around the globe — the point being that if crowds would turn out to support the cause of alleviating poverty in Africa, the leaders would then listen and act. Are the leaders concerned about the lyrical “I’ll be watching you” warning Sting made last Saturday at Hyde Park in London? You would hope so, given the concerts; the attention paid to them by BBC World TV; CNN International’s frequent reports (reports were far fewer on CNN Domestic, where shark attacks in Aruba — only discovered by Americans after a young woman from Alabama went missing there — are a bigger concern); and the almost daily editorials in The New York Times urging the Great Eight leaders and especially President Bush to take seriously the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Africa.

“I asked an Ethiopian economist what he remembers about Geldof’s first Live Aid shows, which took place in London and Philadelphia 20 years ago.”

I asked an Ethiopian economist what he remembers about Geldof’s first Live Aid shows, which took place in London and Philadelphia 20 years ago. At the time, Alemayehu Seyoum Taffesse was a graduate assistant at Addis Ababa University. He now runs a think tank in Addis, the African Centre for Economic and Historical Studies. But 20 years ago, in the midst of Taffesse’s graduate studies, then-strongman of Ethiopia Mengistu Haile Mariam decided to shut down the centers of higher learning in the middle of the rainy season and make the students build huts in resettlement camps for refugees of the famine. Mariam was a ruthless Marxist, and he felt that by putting the best and the brightest to work for the victims of the famine, he could help balance out the class structure of Ethiopia.

“I am absolutely convinced,” says Taffesse, “that the motivation for that exercise was to humiliate the higher education establishment. Most of us were from towns and urban areas. What did we know about building huts?”

After his initial anger, Taffesse did build huts for refugees for two months, and it was during this time that Live Aid happened. He was sitting in his tent in a resettlement camp listening to the concert on a shortwave radio. “One particular incident I remember is Phil Collins doing both sides, London and Philadelphia,” recalls Taffesse. “He sang one song, he flew Concorde, and sang on the other side. And that put everything in a different perspective, because here I am sitting in a tent in a very poor and rural location and this guy is flying Concorde and singing about what is going on in my little locality. It was as if we were from different planets, or even different universes. And the thing is, one is trying to help the other, and the other, to some extent, doesn’t know whether that universe exists.”

This is symbolic of the vast divide between the West and much of Africa. It’s not just a problem of rich and poor — there are poor people in the West and rich people in Africa. Taffesse’s eureka moment in drought-stricken northern Ethiopia also shows that there’s a huge misunderstanding and lack of communication between Africa and the well-intentioned folks that want to help the continent.

“There’s a huge misunderstanding and lack of communication between Africa and the well-intentioned folks that want to help the continent.”

The big G8 jargon of assistance is “debt relief,” but this is nothing new. African nations have had various debts forgiven over the years. Sometimes it has happened through formal debt relief exercises, such as the one this week at the tony Gleneagles resort in Scotland. Other times it has happened through far less formal, even insidious means. For years, Western governments propped up dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko of the ex-Zaire. They would cover his country’s expenses, but turn a blind eye to how Mobutu spent that money. The man in the leopard skin pillbox hat spent the money on himself, making sure his people had just enough to stop them rioting; those who did complain were imprisoned or killed, and the United States and its allies got their anti Communist bulwark in central Africa — until the Cold War ended. Then Mobutu became frail, his regime was openly challenged, he fled Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and the house of cards came tumbling violently down.

Ethiopia has made some progress, and it has managed to do so with relatively little violence. The government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi often cites its progress in decreasing the illiteracy rate from about 74 percent to about 56 percent. It has gotten higher primary-school enrollment. And it isn’t afraid to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic (about 200,000 Ethiopians die from the disease each year, leaving more than a million orphans — just one of the tragic results of those staggering numbers).

Ethiopian farming family
The majority of Ethiopians live in rural poverty.

But Ethiopia has also received billions of dollars in aid over the last two decades, and it seems like it should have more to show for those billions than a few improved literacy statistics. The current Ethiopian debt is about $8 billion. That’s not as bad as Nigeria, which is somewhere around $35 billion. But Zenawi spent nearly $3 billion when he took the country to war with neighboring Eritrea in the late 1990s. And as a history professor at Addis Ababa University said to me, the war with Eritrea may have set back development in Ethiopia by 10 years.

And now Zenawi is caught up in a taut election recount, the scores of which will be settled on July 8, 2005. The vote that happened here at the end of May 2005 resulted in his victory, but many Ethiopians in the capital doubted the legitimacy of that vote. University students and angry mobs in the street faced down the police and army. The security forces fired on them, and as many as three dozen protestors died.

It’s not surprising that the topics of Live Aid and the G8 summit are not foremost on the minds of Ethiopians right now.

Go into the countryside, and you will find even more quotidian concerns. I spoke with nearly a dozen farmers who live about three hours outside Addis. They are frustrated because they have no means to voice to the Ethiopian government their concerns: property taxes that are too high, fertilizer that is too expensive, clean drinking water that is too far away from their homes (often as much as two hours on foot for a bucket that costs a penny).

Debt relief will help to a certain extent in addressing these concerns for whatever government comes to power out of the vote recount. But for some people, like Eskinder Michael, it’s a joke. He’s a young journalist who writes for the weekly newspaper Capital.

Eskinder Michael
Newspaper reporter Eskinder Michael.

“I have a controversial opinion on debt relief,” he said, over a bottle of tonic water. “I mean, most African countries weren’t going to repay it anyway.” Michael said that what Africa really needs is capital to finance local initiatives. “We have our own initiatives, our own infrastructure, the money comes…it’s supposed to build a bigger thing.”

There are plenty of Ethiopians who want to build a bigger thing. Heruy Arefe-Aine grew up in the United States. His family left Ethiopia during the terror of Mariam’s derg [military junta] government. Arefe-Aine graduated from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, then returned to Ethiopia. As he points out, unprecedented rates of Ethiopians are returning, and more Ethiopians are deciding to stay in their country.

This year Arefe-Aine helped start the Office of University Reform at Addis Ababa University. There are times when he finds the pace of work frustrating. “It’s not like the States,” he says, “where you get down to it, you work through lunch, have a sandwich at your desk, then stay late. People here always have the mid-morning coffee break; they go home at lunch; they come back; they go home at 5. But there is a strong love of country that Ethiopians possess that has been so exciting to me — the eagerness that people have to make changes. It’s not something that’s being imposed upon them, but they feel, ‘We could be doing so much better, this is what we need to do, this is how we can do it,’ and that they’ve thought it out.”

The nearly 3 million Ethiopians who live overseas in their own diaspora represent a group of people who could help bridge the chasm that economist Taffesse describes as making people feel as if they “come from different planets.”

Brain drain happens everywhere in Africa. And African nationals’ coming home doesn’t mean problems like AIDS, malaria and despots’ clinging to power will be resolved overnight. But having talented, educated people who are by birth invested in their own countries working in those countries will help. Then the continent — one that can’t seem to escape the mass media stereotype of the world’s poster child for poverty — stands a better chance to advance.

Marco Werman is a producer and reporter with the PRI radio program The World. He is also a frequent contributor to FRONTLINE/World.

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