Saturday, July 02, 2005

Twenty Years On, Why Are Things So Bad in Ethiopia?

Ethiopia, the third poorest country in the world, is one of the clearest examples in Africa today of how aid has failed to pull the country out of poverty

Times Online -- ZENE GEMECHO’s only important possession is a scrawny goat. She is dressed in rags, and drags it by a string, tethering it to a bush outside her home, a mud and wattle hut on the outskirts of this dirt-poor village in central Ethiopia.

Her husband died 30 years ago. “The goat is all I have now; I live off her milk,” she said. “I sell the small amount I do not drink.” Apart from the milk, she exists on a few mouthfuls of dry bread a day that she usually eats in the morning.

She does not know how old she is, but she is too old and frail to work in the fields like her impoverished neighbours, who scratch out an existence from the dry, barren land.

“I am suffering; I am sick,” she said forlornly. “Once we had cattle and crops grew in the field. Everything has got worse.”

Despite the billions of pounds in aid pumped into Ethiopia since the 1984 “Band Aid” famine, life for Mrs Gemecho and millions of other Ethiopian peasants has indeed worsened. Ethiopia, the third-poorest country in the world, is one of the clearest examples in Africa today of how aid has failed to pull the country out of poverty.

Handouts of Western grain may have prevented the swollen bellies and deaths of the past, but average incomes have fallen from about $120 a year to about $100. Life expectancy rates, and virtually every other measure of poverty, have all gone in the wrong direction.

Next week the leaders of the world’s eight richest countries will be asked to double aid to Africa by committing an extra $50 billion to the continent to help to drag people like Mrs Gemecho out of poverty; but Tony Blair’s argument that increased foreign aid can transform the continent over the next decade is strongly challenged by Africa’s past failures.

An estimated $1 trillion in foreign aid has been spent on Africa in 50 years. Far from recording the sort of growth of economies in Asia over the same period, Africa has little to show for it. Billions have been squandered on misguided projects or have disappeared into the pockets of corrupt officials. A survey by The Times of the continent’s top ten aid recipients shows that life has barely improved over the past two decades. For many, it is worse.

“Headline-grabbing increases in aid and debt cancellation in isolation are actually largely ineffectual in terms of improving the overall future prospects for Africa,” concluded the Royal Institute of International Affairs in a G8 briefing paper.

Others say that aid is part of the problem. In a report for the South African Institute of International Affairs, Thomas Dichter, an American development specialist, wrote: “Cut aid in half, send more than half of the ‘experts’ home, close down or shrink most of the hundreds of organisations in the business, and use the money that is left strategically and intelligently.”

Even those working closely with Mr Blair on his project for Africa concede that the record is not good. “Has aid worked historically?” asked a senior British official this week. “The answer is that it has not. Africa is in desperate shambles.”

Aid advocates insist that they are ready to learn from their mistakes. They attribute part of the failure to the abuses during the Cold War, when the West and Soviet bloc provided aid to their client-states, regardless of development needs. America pumped money to President Mobutu of Zaire, who spent it on private jets, limousines and palaces; the Soviet Union supported its client-states with money, arms and its own aid projects. Guinea was sent snow-ploughs by its friends in the Kremlin instead of tractors.

Even after the Cold War, development has been hampered by poor co-ordination between rival donors, who often duplicate each other’s work.

British officials point to successful development in countries such as Ghana, Uganda and Mozambique. Here, they claim, good governance and transparency has allowed aid to be provided directly into the country’s budget to help to pay for education and health care.

Individual success stories will not be enough to turn around the entire continent, as Mr Blair has pledged to do. Aid experts are convinced that can happen only if key states such as Nigeria, Congo, Sudan and Ethiopia can make dramatic strides. Nigeria has oil wealth but suffers chronic corruption. Congo is rich in minerals but ravaged by war. Sudan is beset by bloody conflict in Darfur and a new rebellion in the east.

As for development in Ethiopia, Western donors have their work cut out.

“Ethiopia now faces famine when we have a bumper harvest and when we have drought,” Sahlu Haile, a leading Ethiopian economist, said. He blamed the Government’s failure to tackle population growth — which means there are two million extra mouths to feed every year — and environmental degradation.

“As the population increases, more and more land is deforested and over-farmed,” he said. Even in the best years, when the rains are plentiful and seeds and fertilisers are on hand, the country cannot feed at least six million of its own people.

Ethiopia’s Government blames drought. Critics say that its own policies are at fault. The aid agencies ask the West for more food. The view from Arebagosa is of barren fields stretching to the horizon.

The Government has made only half-hearted attempts to encourage a free-market economy. All land is owned by the state, and the Government likes to have a hand in all major businesses.

“If they loosen economic controls they are frightened they will lose political power, and they have a romantic view of the peasant based on their old Marxist past,” said an Ethiopian political analyst, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

About 85 per cent of Ethiopia’s population of 72 million live in rural areas. Only a tiny fraction has access to irrigation projects, but there are many big infrastructure projects supported by donors such as the World Bank and the European Union.

First-time visitors to Addis Ababa are taken aback by the city’s new international airport — a vast chrome and glass structure, with fashionable boutiques. The Government says the city needed an airport that reflected its importance as the seat of the African Union.

The present Government, led by Meles Zenawi, consists mainly of former rebels who took power in 1991 after overthrowing the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. They formally abandoned a Maoist-style ideology. Many observers are sceptical.

Mr Zenawi, a member of Mr Blair’s Commission for Africa, rejects outside criticism as neo-colonialism. In June, when security forces shot dead students protesting over alleged vote- rigging, Britain froze an increase in budget support. Ethiopia said it was an internal matter.

Such are the challenges that face anyone trying to end poverty in Africa; whether they will be discussed in any detail by the G8 leaders is doubtful.

A young man ploughs a field outside the village of Tadecha Gurach, Oromiya, on the Awash plains. Ethiopia is one of the clearest examples of how aid has failed to eradicate poverty (PHOTO: BORIS HEGER)

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