What should starving Ethiopians do to help themselves?
By Alemayehu G Mariam | September 5, 2011



On December 21, 1987, Time Magazine on its cover page featured a downcast and crestfallen young Ethiopian mother as a symbol of famine victims in that country. Time asked two timeless questions: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? What should the world do and not do?”

It is the privilege of those who give to pity those who receive. One of the great indignities of being a perennial object of charity and handouts is the perception by those lending a hand that handout recipients are not only moneyless and helpless but also hopeless and clueless about what they need to do to help themselves. Well-intentioned donors and benefactors often mistakenly assume that recipients of charity should “ask what the world can do for them, and not what they can do for themselves.” But history shows that all societies that have succeeded economically, socially and politically had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a little help from friends. Ethiopians are no exception; they must do all of the heavy lifting by themselves if they are to permanently cast off the burdens of poverty, famine, disease, dictatorship and corruption. What should Ethiopians do to save themselves?

Ten Things Ethiopians Can Do to Help Themselves [1]

It is all about humanity, community and civility, NOT ethnicity, nationality, sovereignty, animosity or disunity.

If Ethiopians have a chance of overcoming their enormous economic and political problems, they must first make fundamental choices. They can choose the politics of their common humanity and collectively build a harmonious civil community, or remain trapped in the dungeon of identity politics and become pawns in the ethnic chess game of uber-dictator Meles Zenawi. If Ethiopians affirm their common humanity, they will see that human rights abuses do not have an ethnic face, nor poverty a nationality. They will understand religion is not a weapon of animosity but a way to divinity. National disunity will never produce prosperity, but it will surely keep the people in perpetual poverty. Ethnicity and identity add diversity in a genuine democratic system. Under a dictatorship, they become powerful tools of dehumanization breeding fear, hatred and distrust among the people. Ethiopians must choose to climb up and steer the Ship of Ethiopia into the horizon or remain lost in their ethnic boats on a sea of tyranny, poverty and famine. That is why I believe Ethiopians need a new unifying civic ideology that transcends ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, language and other classifications susceptible to insidious use. Ethiopians inside the country and in the Diaspora must build a civic culture based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most translated document in the world. If the values of the UDHR are widely accepted and practiced, Ethiopia will be able to overcome poverty, famine and internal division and achieve prosperity and greatness within a generation.

Ethiopians must become a little bit utopian.

Ethiopia is today a dystopia-- a society that writhes under a dictatorship that trashes human rights and decimates all opposition ruthlessly. Last year, Zenawi told two high level U.S. Government officials what he will do to his opposition: “We will crush them with our full force.” All Ethiopians, regardless of ethnicity, language, religion, class or region must be able to imagine an Ethiopia where no petty tyrant will ever have the power or even the audacity to say he will “crush” another fellow citizen, or has the ability to use “full force” against any person just because he can. Ethiopians must be able to dream of a future free of ethnic strife, famine and oppression; and strive to work together for a little utopia in Ethiopia where might is NOT right but the rule of law shields the defenseless poor and voiceless against the slings and arrows of the criminally rich and powerful. It is true that Utopians aspire for the perfect society, but Ethiopians should aspire and work collectively for a society in which human rights are respected, the voice of the people are heard and accepted (not stolen), those to whom power is entrusted perform their duties with transparency and are held accountable to the law and people.

Learn from the past, prepare for the future.

More often than not, many Ethiopians tend to dwell on the past than imagining an alternative future. The past is a great teacher; we must learn from past mistakes and do things better and differently. But the past can also be a mental prison. Zenawi always reminds us how we have been wicked to each other in the past and waxes eloquent on the alleged crimes, cruelty and inhumanity of long gone kings and princes. He never tires to tell us how this king, that aristocrat or soldier has been cruel and barbaric. He thinks he can make himself angelic by demonizing past leaders. Perhaps he does not see it, but when one points an index finger outwards, three fingers are pointing inwards. The moral lesson is that we need to find a way out of the mental prison of past grievances and liberate our minds with a new civic ideology to embrace a brave new democratic Ethiopia under the rule of law. As the old saying goes, “One can’t drive forward on the road of life if one is fixed looking in the rear view mirror.” So, we have to make another simple choice: Live in the past chewing on the cud of historical grievances or hold hands, learn from the past and put our collective shoulders to the grindstone and forge a new Ethiopia. If we fail to do that, those who cling to power will entrench and enrich themselves and laugh at the rest of us who remain trapped in the dungeons of our historical grievances.

No country or society ever got prosperity by begging or receiving alms.

No country or society ever got prosperity by begging or receiving alms. But recent evidence from Wikileaks cablegrams shows that Zenawi plans to bulldoze his way into economic development at an annual growth rate of 15 percent by panhandling the West. According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of Treasury Andy Baukol, the “Government of Ethiopia (GoE) has become more vocal about its need for sustained aid flows from the West and more recalcitrant about implementing any reforms or liberalization of key sectors such as banking and telecommunications.” A recent IMF report, which Zenawi wants kept hidden from public scrutiny, concluded that Ethiopia’s “macroeconomic performance has deteriorated markedly” because of loose monetary policy which has fueled stratospheric inflation and mindless government control and regulations which have undermined confidence in the private sector.

Foreign aid as a development vehicle has been thoroughly discredited. As Dambissa Moyo has argued, the “evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment.” Countries that have achieved rapid economic development have managed to create favorable politico-legal environments for business, industry and commerce, maintained low state debt and accumulated substantial fiscal reserves to meet emergency needs. The spirit of official mendicancy in Ethiopia must be replaced by a public spirit of unfettered entrepreneurship.

As long as Ethiopia remains under a dictatorship, there will always be famine, and not just of food.

Western aid bureaucrats like to sugarcoat the famine in Ethiopia in the politically correct bureaucratese of “extreme malnutrition”, “food crises”, “green drought” and so on. Interestingly, in a recent official blog and testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto and presently Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State acknowledged “famine [is] spreading across the Horn of Africa.” That should not come as a surprise as Yamamoto had long concluded that Ethiopia is trapped in a permanent and unbreakable cycle of famine and starvation. In a recently released Wikileaks cablegram,Yamamoto advised his superiors: “Ethiopia's perennial emergency food dependence is, de facto, a permanent condition.” He outlined that the U.S. has three choices in light of the permanence of famine in the Ethiopian political economy: 1) “continue to provide massive food aid, which is unsustainable, in meeting Ethiopia's permanent state of emergency food need each year,” 2) “provide significantly greater assistance for sustainable agricultural productivity”, or 3) “robustly to push for a shift in economic and agricultural policies (regarding land tenure, agricultural technologies and practices, agricultural inputs, etc.) to increase domestic agricultural productivity.” The bottom line is that as long as Ethiopia remains in the chokehold of the current dictatorship, there will always be a famine not only of food but also of democracy, human rights, rule of law, accountability, transparency and vision. Western donors must stop supporting oppression, corruption, persecution and repression in famine-stricken Ethiopia.

Plant and water the seeds of genuine multiparty democracy on the parched landscape of famine.

It is oft-repeated that “there has never been a famine in a functioning multi-party democracy” with a robust free press. In a competitive multi-party political process, there is a much higher degree of political and electoral accountability. A government that ignores or fails to prevent famine is surely destined to lose power. A free press will mobilize public opinion for official and civic action to deal with the problem. Multiparty democracy does not mean the six dozen ethno-tribal “parties” organized by the Zenawi dictatorship to serve as a Tower of Babel and facilitate its divide and rule strategy. It does mean the functioning of political organizations that compete for electoral support and have appeal across ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional lines. Ethiopia can learn a great lesson from Ghana in this regard in light of shared socio-economic and political experiences. Article 55 (4) of the Ghanaian Constitution expressly mandates political parties to have “national character”: “Every political party shall have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious, regional or other sectional divisions.” Any multiparty system to be established in Ethiopia must be guided by such constitutional language.

Ethiopia’s youth are the flowers of today and the seeds of hope tomorrow.

The old Ethiopian saying that the “youth are the flowers of today and the seeds of tomorrow” is true. They need to be carefully cultivated and grown. But the the data on these seeds of hope are discouraging. Forty six percent of Ethiopia’s 91 million population in 2011 is estimated to be under the age of 18. UNICEF estimates that malnutrition is responsible for more than half of all deaths among children under age five. An estimated 5 million children are orphans, a little less than one-fifths from AIDS. Urban youth unemployment is estimated at 70 per cent. The vast majority of Ethiopian adolescents live in rural areas. Some regions in the country have extremely high rates of early marriage. Frustrated and in despair of their future, many urban youths drop out of school and engage in risky behaviors including drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, crime and delinquency. The ruling dictatorship’s youth, sports and culture agency concedes that youth issues have been long neglected: “In Ethiopia, because of the fact that proper attention has not been given to addressing youth issues and their organizations, therefore, mutual cooperation and networking among youth, family, society, other partners and government had hardly been created.” Much needs to be done to give Ethiopia’s youth hope in the future. Whatever is to be done to help the youth, the starting point must necessarily be a de-marginalization of youth through an explicit acknowledgement of their role in solving problems affecting them. They must be included in all decision-making concerning youth issues and consulted extensively in the policy planning and implementation stages. The bottom line is that without the youth, Ethiopia has no future. Those who ignore the youth should understand that hungry children grow to be angry children and a ticking demographic time bomb.

Empower Ethiopian women.

Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia's foremost political prisoner until her release last year and first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, enjoyed talking about an allegorical ‘future country of Ethiopia’ that would become an African oasis of democracy and a bastion of human rights and the rule of law in the continent. In Birtukan's ‘future Ethiopia’ women and men would live not only as equals under the law, but also work together to create a progressive and compassionate society in which women are free from domestic violence and sexual exploitation, have access to adequate health and maternal care and are provided education to free them from culturally-enforced ignorance, submissiveness and subjugation. But if the situation of women in the ‘present country of Ethiopia’ is any indication, Birtukans “future country” is in deep trouble.

The 2000 US State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in appallingly disheartening terms: “The Constitution provides for the equality of women; however, these provisions often are not applied in practice… Discriminatory regulations in the civil code include recognizing the husband as the legal head of the family and designating him as the sole guardian of children over five years old. Domestic violence is not considered a serious justification under the law to obtain a divorce. Irrespective of the number of years the marriage has existed, the number of children raised and the joint property, the woman is entitled to only 3 months' financial support should the relationship end.”

The 2010 US. State Department Human Rights Country Report on Ethiopia described the status of women in similar stark terms: “The constitution provides women the same rights and protections as men. Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) such as FGM (female genital mutilation), abduction, and rape are explicitly criminalized; however, enforcement of these laws lagged. Women and girls experienced gender-based violence daily, but it was underreported due to shame, fear, or a victim's ignorance of legal protections. Domestic violence, including spousal abuse, was a pervasive social problem. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey found that 81 percent of women believed a husband had a right to beat his wife. Sexual harassment was widespread [and] harassment-related laws were not enforced.”

The current dictatorship in Ethiopia manifested its latent misogyny not only by giving lip service to women’s issues but also by dehumanizing the symbol of women in Ethiopia, young Birtukan Midekssa. During her incarceration, the U.S. Government regarded Birtukan a political prisoner because she was imprisoned for her political beliefs as did all other major international human rights organizations. But Zenawi threw Birtukan straight into solitary confinement after arresting her on the streets, and boasted to the world: "There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That's a dead issue." He later literally added insult to injury by mocking her that she was in “perfect condition” in solitary confinement and was eating and sitting around idly and likely to “have gained a few kilos”.

Ethiopian women need to be empowered in all spheres of life. But without young women leaders like Birtukan who can fight for Ethiopian democracy and human rights, and women’s rights, talk of improving the status of women in Ethiopia is a mockery of women.

Only Ethiopians can save themselves.

Ethiopians should know that the West and its billions in aid and loans will help but not save them from a famine of food and democracy. Ethiopians in the Diaspora can help by becoming the voice of Ethiopia’s voiceless. But only Ethiopians can save themselves from famine, poverty, dictatorship and division. Only they can solve their problems by creating common cause, building consensus and forging genuine brotherhood and sisterhood among themselves regardless of ethnicity or other factors. Only when they are able to forge unity of purpose and are irrevocably committed to democracy and the rule of law will they be able to cast off the boots of dictatorship from their necks. There is no need to look for answers to what troubles Ethiopia in Washington, D.C., London, Bonn or Beijing. The solution for Ethiopia’s problems is in Ethiopia.

Give hope. Always keep hope alive.

The old saying is true that “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” When dictators swagger arrogantly to show the people that they are omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, they are telling them they have no hope. Their message is the same as the one inscribed on the gates of Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But Ethiopians must never abandon hope. To abandon hope is to lose faith in Ethiopia’s children. When the dictators say, “Look how powerful we are. Give up!”, hope says “keep on keeping on. Tyrants for a time seem invincible but in the end, they always fall.” As Martin L. King said, “We are now experiencing the darkest hour which is just before the dawn of freedom and human dignity.” That is why it is important to keep hope alive in Ethiopia.

Tyrants always fall, but what happens the morning after?

Gandhi spoke an eternal truth: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall -- think of it, ALWAYS.” In just the past few months, Ben Ali fell in Tunisia; Hosni Mubarak fell and is standing trial in Egypt. Moammar Gadhafi fell and is hiding out in a spider hole somewhere in southern Libya. Bashir Al-Assad is teetering as he continues to butcher Syrians who have kept up the pressure through acts of mass civil disobedience. He too will fall. The question is never, never whether tyrants fall. The question is always, always what happens after they fall!

1This commentary builds upon my set of ten reasons to questions posed by Time Magazine nearly a quarter of a century ago: “Why are Ethiopians starving again? andWhat should the world do and not do” to help them?

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Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/


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