Inside the Information Bubble during the Ethiopian Famine

In 2003, Vintage Books issued a new edition of Robert D. Kaplan’s Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (a collection of his magazine articles published in 1988 by Random House under the title, Surrender or Starve: The Wars Behind the Famine). The only thing added to the new edition appears to be a December 2002 postscript on newly independent Eritrea. But that hardly matters. While reading the book last year, I was struck by how little has changed, either in Western news reporting or in international relief efforts, over the past two decades.

The truth was that many in the Western community in the Ethiopian capital, who served as the West’s eyes and ears during the famine and provided the media with much of their information, did not want to admit the truth. Whatever nightmares the word “Ethiopia” may have conjured up in the United States, “Addis” was a nice place to be. (The same could not be said about capitals elsewhere in Africa, where the suffering in the countryside was far less.) The mountain climate was only partly responsible for the pleasant ambiance. As the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity, the Ethiopian capital was relatively clean, with good roads, a plethora of new public buildings, and well-manicured parks. The Hilton Hotel was one of the best managed, centrally located Hiltons in the world; the Hilton’s heated, outdoor swimming pool served as a magnet for the foreign community on weekend afternoons.

As for the food, millions may have been starving in the adjacent countryside, but for foreigners, “Addis” was one of the better places on the continent to eat: a well-prepared charcoal-broiled steak, Nile perch, and Italian and Chinese cuisine were always available. Not only was the Hilton equipped with several fine restaurants, but around the city there were several more. No nearby, heartrending scenes spoiled the repasts; just as walls of stone blocked off the sinister reality of the Dergue [the ruling party "Committee"], walls of corrugated iron blocked off the equally unpleasant reality of the slums. Nor were there many beggars in Addis Ababa; far less than in Egypt, for example, where nobody was starving. Christopher J. Matthews, in his article in The New Republic (January 21, 1985), made one of the most insightful comments ever about Ethiopia’s capital: “In a country where millions were starving, there was no sign of anyone begging or hustling to survive. I began to wonder. The price of coming into town must be higher than the price of staying away. If the price of staying away in the barren, dying parts of the country is near-certain death, the price of coming into the city must be even more terrible, even more certain.”

Matthews, perhaps without being aware of it, had stumbled close to the central fact of 1980s Ethiopia, a fact that many foreigners who actually lived there and many of the journalists who interpreted the famine for the public failed utterly to grasp–Ethiopia, in the manner of Syria and Iraq, was a modernizing and controlled praetorian police state, with a single tribe or ethnic group on top, supported by the most brutal and sophisticated means of repression. For the officers in charge, preserving the integrity of the empire against rebels was a far more uplifting and important goal than fighting famine was. The Soviets, the only great imperialists of the nineteenth century to have survived the twentieth, understood this. They helped, through massive arms shipments, the Dergue achieve its more important goal; the United States helped in the less important one.

As Matthews perceived, like the walls around the palace and around the slums, there was a wall around the famine, too. Destitute peasants were rounded up and arrested even before reaching the city limits. While Eritreans, Tigreans, and others in the northern provinces died by the hundreds of thousands, the markets of the Amhara fortess of Addis Ababa were brimming with grain. The price of it may have risen dramatically, but at least it was there. In Asmara, too, the government-held, fortified provincial capital of Eritrea, food was abundant because it was strategically necessary for the regime to keep the local population pacified. According to a confidential report by a Western relief agency, the “dedicated and efficient” RRC [the Dergue's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission] was virtually starving the worst famine regions in Wollo, while at the same time pouring food into the embattled, militarily vital areas of Tigre and Eritrea and stockpiling it outside Addis Ababa….

The sanitized reality of the Ethiopian capital, a condition that only the most chillingly brutal of regimes could create, helped make the place especially attractive for its foreign residents. “Addis” was a plum posting for a relief official. The situation in the country was “absolutely horrifying” and thus “in the news,” which translated into prestige and career advancement for those on the scene. Few seemed to want to rock the boat when rocking the boat could get you thrown out. In the Hilton lobby, it was easier to criticize the Reagan administration than it was to criticize the Dergue.


In 1921 the nascent Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union was shaken by a great famine that its own ruthless policy of crop requisition had caused. Foreign aid was essential and the U.S. proved to be the most generous. Herbert Hoover, who seven years later would be elected president of the United States, spearheaded an effort that put food in the mouths of more than 12 million peasants. The regime survived to inflict even greater famine in the following decade.

But in Ethiopia and in the United States, nobody paid attention to this legacy. In the February 7, 1985, report on the famine, issued by the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refuge Policy and arising out of Senator Kennedy’s 1984 visit to the emergency feeding camps, six previous famines were listed in the table entitled, “Famine in Modern History.” The famines in the Ukraine, which were the largest of all, were not included in the list.

SOURCE: Robert Kaplan, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (Vintage, 2003), pp. 37-39

This is one reason my regular list of news links includes only regional news aggregators, and not any of the major international news media.

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Filed under Africa, Ethiopia, war

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