Skip to content

The myth of Ethiopia’s “natural” disasters

As Amartya Sen has shown, famines in our times are not true natural disasters, but more often the consequence of bad governments and their bad policies. Revisiting the era of Live Aid for a book review in The New Republic, David Rieff gives evidence of how the Ethiopian famine was framed as a natural disaster rather than a political one, so as not to “complicate” the picture for viewers:

… Michael Buerk’s first BBC report from the famine zone opened with the words, “Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plains outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century.” Apart from the facts that it was dawn and there was a famine, nothing in what Buerk said was right. It was precisely not a biblical famine, in the locusts/great flood/visitation-from-God sense that Buerk was evoking. It was, rather, a man-made famine—the direct and in all likelihood inevitable result of deliberate policies in Addis Ababa by the Stalinist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. That is to say, it was a famine that was more likely to occur in the twentieth century—the heyday of man-made famines—than at any other time in human history.

The book under review, by Peter Gill (also reviewed by Bill in the Wall Street Journal), takes stock of what’s happened and what hasn’t in Ethiopia since Geldof et al admonished us in 1984 to “pray for the other ones” living in a “world of dread and fear/ Where the only water flowing/ is the bitter sting of tears”:

[Gill’s] book is not just a look back at the great controversies of the famine years of the mid-1980s, but also an attempt to understand whether, as he puts it, “beyond the challenges of famine forecasting and hunger relief, are there [now] Ethiopian political institutions and policies in place to deliver the transformation known as ‘development’?”

Africa, “where nothing ever grows/ no rain nor rivers flow.” (Picture taken near Lalibela, Ethiopia)

The elision of the political causes of human suffering in Ethiopia has turned out to be a trend with more staying power than a few of the pop singers in Band Aid. Western governments, donors and academics have kept on admiring and abetting Meles even as he presided (this year) over an election of which Human Rights Watch said “the most salient feature … was the months of repression preceding it,” and called the government’s performance “multi-party theater staged by a single party state.”

As Gill points out, in the development world, Sen’s celebrated argument in Development as Freedom that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” and its corollary, “that a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have,” is considered to be proved, no longer open to dispute. But for Meles, as Gill reports, it is a neo-liberal myth, “not validated by historical facts.”

And today, despite some success in growing the Ethiopian economy:

[T]he food security of poor Ethiopians is anything but more assured today than it was a decade ago, and it is anything but clear that the country is any less dependent than it ever was on food aid from foreign donors.

Photo credit

This entry was posted in Books and book reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. JH wrote:

    Let us not forget Josue De Castro’s “Geography of Hunger”, which, many years ago, pointed the famine finger at politics and not natural disasters.

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink
  2. kevin denny wrote:

    “Do they know its Christmas?” by Geldof & Ure is only a bloody song not a QJE paper: get over it.

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  3. Dan Kyba wrote:

    If you say the right words, the more ideologically inclined side of the aid industry will go a long way towards overlooking your sinful deeds. This attitude goes as far back in the past as the continued support given to ‘aid darlings’ such as Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and for a long time Robert Mugabe.

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  4. duckrabbit wrote:

    ‘It was precisely not a biblical famine, in the locusts/great flood/visitation-from-God sense that Buerk was evoking’

    Come on, he meant ‘biblical’ in scale. Famine’s in biblical times were as much to do with politics as they are now. It was just then you could blame God.

    I lived in Ethiopia. The biggest issue is huge population growth. More people should be asking why birth control isn’t at the centre of policy.

    Blaming aid is like blaming a prophet for not feeding the 5000 with a couple of fishes and a couple of loaves. It has a role to play, but no-one in their right mind would suggest it is a solution to the problems in a county the size of France and Spain put together and with the third biggest population in Africa.

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  5. Jeff Barnes wrote:

    Add this to the list of political causes of food insecurity in Ethiopia: Only 5% of the irrigable land in Ethiopia is irrigated largely because of a colonial era treaty with Egypt over use the the Nile waters that Egypt has refused to renegotiate. Given Egypt’s geopolitical importance, neither the US or other large donors has been willing to push this issue.

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Raphael wrote:

    But we have to give credit where credit is due. Donors/govt/ngos have established a systematic and predictable safetynet of food aid and public works that is keeping millions from starving to death and depleting their productive assets. It is not development, but it is a better system than the annual underfunded appeals process that everyone had to deal with previously. The open question is whether this safetynet or other actions are spuring devt/growth? That is the conundrum.

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  7. Chad wrote:

    It’s sickening to think that genocide is still in full force around the world. Thankfully the powerful in the world are trying to help out as much as they can. Uwe Boll’s new film Attack on Darfur is trying to get people to pay attention. It shoves you into the horror that surrounds Sudan and isn’t afraid to show the unbearable. This film hits you hard and doesn’t let up for the sake of brutal honesty. I’m pretty sure the DVD comes out Oct. 26th.

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  8. Laura F wrote:


    I don’t think anyone is blaming aid for failing to solve all of Ethiopia’s problems. Perhaps this didn’t come across for you in the excerpts I chose, but I think that Rieff is principally blaming the Ethiopian government for the food security problems in Ethiopia. Aid donors share some of that blame to the extent that their aid props up a regime that uses their aid to persecute political opposition, influence elections and censor the press.

    Agreed that rapid population growth presents a problem, though in this area, aid agencies do influence the policy agenda:

    In this century, [Gill] says, “it was the AIDS disaster that deflected the international consensus away from population growth.” And he cites astonishing statistics from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that show that out of the four principal program areas—family planning, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, and research—the percentage of funds allocated to family planning has decreased from 40 percent in 1997 to 5 percent in 2007. In this matter, he says, Ethiopia “has taken its cues from the development community at large,” seemingly in the belief that “patience and the development process itself will bring about sufficient falls in the birth rate and so stabilize population growth.”

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  9. Abram wrote:

    I think populations in “rich-democratic” nations have to worry more about themselves than about Ethiopians.

    What will be surprising to many people is that the coming devastation from alternating drought, fires, storms, floods and earthquakes, plus raging disease epidemics, will not occur primarily in Ethiopia, India or other “far off” places! Rather, these coming catastrophes will strike the Anglo-American nations far more than ever before in history! Many events that absolutely confirm this prophetic understanding are already taking place on the world scene.

    Ethiopians are doing fine, in fact, their poverty is their blessing.

    Posted October 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink
  10. News wrote:

    This story would definitely interest our news journal’s readers. You can submit them to us any time you write them again.

    Posted October 26, 2010 at 2:02 am | Permalink
  11. Joe wrote:

    For some 19th century examples, with the British Empire the culpable Government, see the brilliant book:

    Posted October 26, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink
  12. Aaron wrote:

    Abram ‘Ethiopians are doing fine, in fact, their poverty is their blessing.’

    Sorry I’m slightly confused with this statement. From time began, I can’t think of a time when poverty was a blessing?

    Moreover, those in ‘Anglo-American’ governments are far less likely to suffer from the same devastation than those in developing nations for many reasons such as technology, governance, trade policy, family planning policy etc.

    Furthermore, the rich democratic countries are worrying about themsevles, hence the reason why a lot of developing countries are still developing!

    Posted October 26, 2010 at 5:55 am | Permalink
  13. fundamentalist wrote:

    “Human Rights Watch have published a timely report on the use of foreign aid money by the Ethiopian government in repressing political opposition. ” from

    Posted October 26, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  14. Africanson wrote:

    You guys should just buzz off pontificating about Africa – about which you know very little. Aid is sustained more because the West wants it than because African want it. Clearly, Africa will be better off if all of you 0- including Bill Easterly and the whole lot who can come looking for consultancies and to re-engineer their relevance stay away.

    There was no development industry – the World Bank, UNDP, DFID, GTZ, USAID etc – at the time the west was developing and the East has done very well without its help. Western aid agencies, the UN, DFID, the World Bank, IMF et al should probably begin to tell the world what their exit strategy from Africa is.

    What is a “natural disaster”? Is ‘man’ part of nature? If yes, then perhaps disasters resulting from man’s bad government are “natural”.

    It would be helpful if Human Rights Watch would focus its attention on what is going on in the west too.

    Posted October 27, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  15. Christos wrote:

    It seems there is disconnect between those who study development for the sake of sustainable economic development, sustenance of the population and expenditure of foreign aid to prop up the status qua of the respective countries.

    The first, genuinely believe better governance and economic reform can make the economies to prosper and sustain. The second enjoy helping the unfortunate in what they believe is a God calling providing they are doing the giving on their terms. And the last, including the rulers wants to maintain the status qua and economic benefits out of Foreign Aid. Unless and until the three groups agreed to come up with a formula to overcome the stalemate for mutual benefits; the poor remain poor, the status qua depends on the poor to remain poor and those with a permanent solution will remain spectators since they are not organized and have very little leverage to influence anyone beside writing about it.

    To protect their interest human nature dictates they will do anything to keep the status qua going. A classic example is Abram from one extreme when he said ‘Ethiopians are doing fine, in fact, their poverty is their blessing.’ On the other extreme someone in the MDG said, “If we do not spend the money the children will die”

    There are no limits what humans unrestrained could go to protect their interest

    Posted October 28, 2010 at 12:45 am | Permalink
  16. Dawit wrote:

    Of course, it is not nature, it is leadership or the lack of it for the continued famine and suffering in Ethiopia, where land, technology, and main business and political power is controlled by a minority tribe at the expense of the majority.

    Until the current junta is evicted and democracy, free market, free and fair election, rule of law prevails, there will never be an end to the suffering.

    The West is over looking this because they do not want inconvenience their short term and ill devised strategic interest.

    Posted October 30, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  17. Ethiopian wrote:

    Well the West has made its contribution as well by pushing and selling surplus corn and wheat etc….to poor countries in the hopes of finding a market and creating addiction. Now the system in place is a vicious circle. Things are not alright. Each year there is an alert going off to prevent hunger for up to 7 million people. For the blogger that wanted to praise himself for this effort, I am sorry I wouldn’t be proud of this, there is ways to go. Development should be left in the hands of the people at the grass roots to drive and not be a career and adventure path for the rich folks from the West:) It is a feel good agenda for most or a way to spread their religious indoctrination….

    Posted November 4, 2010 at 1:31 am | Permalink

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Flagged at Poblish... on October 25, 2010 at 6:52 am
  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by OpenEye Group, Daniel Iggers and r3publican, Conduit Journal. Conduit Journal said: The myth of Ethiopia’s “natural” disasters […]

  3. […] UPDATE: Siehe auch Aid Watch: The myth of Ethiopia’s “natural” disasters […]

  4. […] development skeptics at Aidwatch have a post on it, noting both Bill Easterly’s review in the Wall Street and another by David […]

  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

    "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking." - H.L. Mencken

  • Archives