In today’s WSJ development economist and Aid Watch blogger, William Easterly, reviews Peter Gill’s new book on Ethiopia since Live Aid, “Famine and Foreigners”. Well worth reading if only for Easterly’s concise, but tragically accurate, summary of Ethiopia’s perpetual trouble with food insecurity over the last few decades:
“If it were possible to sum up in one sentence Ethiopia’s struggles with famine over the past quarter-century, I’d suggest this: It’s not the rains, it’s the rulers. As Peter Gill makes clear in his well-turned account of the country’s miseries since the 1984-85 famine and the Live Aid concert meant to relieve it, drought has not been as devastating to Ethiopians as their own autocratic governments.”
Unfortunately, many western NGOs find it inconvenient to recognise this fact and continue to tow the donor-friendly line of “climate change” as the primary causal factor for food shortages in the developing world. Great for western public relations, less helpful for the average Ethiopian, who would probably prefer to be given the opportunity to own land, trade freely and drag themselves out of poverty, than see foreign aid spent on useful projects like this, or this.
The last “naturally” caused famine in Northern Europe occurred in Finland in 1866–1868. The cause? Climate change, of course: unusually wet summer in ’66, then exceptionally harsh winter and spring in ’67. The actual cause: Poor infrastructure and communication linkages restricted trade and when it became evident a crisis was mounting the Finnish government refused to borrow money from abroad for fear of devaluing its newly introduced currency. By the time Rothschild’s came to the rescue with loans, it was too late and almost 15 per cent of the population was to perish.
Thankfully today, most of Europe has moved beyond oppressive systems of governance capable of starving entire populations for political reasons. The ability to exchange goods freely and the incentive, through ownership, to develop, improve and protect land helps to mitigate the effects of climatic fluctuations. Ethiopians are intentionally prohibited these luxuries. And their citizens are unlikely to benefit from the continued tunnel vision of western NGOs, rock stars and governments intent upon perusing, and funding, their own agendas. Gill and Easterly recognise this: DfID, with its donation of £132m in bilateral aid to the Ethiopian government in 2009, seems not to.