From The Union Leader
New Hampshire's Daily Newspaper
Manchester, N.H., January 12, 1989
By Werner Erhard
The height of the traditional famine season in Ethiopia has come and
gone. Yet in a year in which the devastation of drought and war have
left millions without a harvest, there has been no mass starvation, no
horror pictures like those which shocked the world in 1985. This year,
thanks to an extraordinary cooperative effort of governments, private
voluntary organizations and the Ethiopian people, there will be no
For most people, the news of this remarkable accomplishment comes as
a surprise. There have been reports of war, corruption, failure and
occasional breakdowns in the relief operation. But little has been heard
about the thousands of times the operation worked. The focus on
isolated incidents rather than on the whole picture has dramatically
distorted the public perception of the situation.
In the ordinary course of events it is easy to assume that
geopolitics and political ideology form a barrier to effective humanitarian
assistance. Here, the United States, the U.S.S.R., Ethiopia and many
others, working under the leadership of the United Nations, managed to
pull together in spite of their very real differences, not merely to react
to a widely publicized disaster as they have before, but to keep the
disaster from happening in the first place.
Our images of the Ethiopian people also fail to reflect reality. We think
about the people of Ethiopia in terms of the television pictures of 1985:
pathetic, helpless victims, sitting on barren plain, waiting for rescue or
death. We certainly don't see them as the key players in the relief
effort - the people who carry the lion's share of the burden for the
campaign to avert the famine. The women, children and men of Ethiopia
- the people whose lives are at risk - are people whose courage, hard
work and determination to stay on their land, to care for their families,
to make it through the lean times, are virtually unknown to us.
We often talk about learning lessons from our failures, but equally
important is the need to learn from our successes. Most of us cloak
ourselves in a sophisticated air of resignation called "hard realism" which
does not allow us to see a future better than the present. What is
happening this year in Ethiopia is something we can learn from - a
demonstration that even in a situation perceived by many as hopeless,
genuine accomplishment is possible.
Ethiopia's problems are by no means over. Its government is far from a
model of openness and reform. It remains embroiled in two protracted
civil wars. Even when harvests are good, Ethiopia faces substantial
food deficits. It remains one of the poorest countries in the world, a
place where the persistence of chronic hunger keeps people weak,
productivity low, and vulnerability to famine high. And now it must also
deal with a new tide of refugees from Sudan and Somalia coming into
the country at a rate of nearly 2,000 per day.
While the picture is far from rosy, some promising developments are
- The lessons of the last year are being applied as governments and
organizations gear up to meet the new refugee situation before it
becomes a spectacle of death.
- The Ethiopian government is confronting the need to make the
country "famine resistant," seeking support for a nationwide program of
food banks, transportation, rainfall and crop monitoring and
labor-intensive projects to build irrigation systems and dams.
- Even more important in the long term, small but real first steps are
being taken on the difficult road of agricultural and economic reform.
Nothing will really happen, however, unless there is a demand, and
demand for action is generated when people can see both the need to
intervene and the chance for a successful outcome. Governments now
respond very effectively to famine, because pictures of starving
children call forth massive support for quick action. Yet when it comes
to development, to addressing the much more complex and frustrating
problems of chronic hunger and poverty, they remain mired in the mud,
with no sense that anything can be done to actually get things
When we realize what we have accomplished and are accomplishing, we
begin to see new possibilities - new ways to get things done in
situations we previously considered with a sense of helplessness, of
resignation to the "hard realities."
Even knowing that we do not have all
answers, we are stirred to act.
It is then that movement begins, that priorities get shifted and
resources reallocated. It is then that our actions go beyond the mere
ceremonial, the making of "politically correct" gestures and become
forward motion toward real solutions. For people committed to ending
the needless persistence of hunger worldwide, the remarkable
accomplishment of averting the famine in Ethiopia in 1988 can bring
that reality one step closer.