Politics and the Ethiopian Famine 1984-1985

[Cultural Survival’s Report]

When [Peter] Niggli, Bonnie Holcomb, and the research director of Cultural Survival, Dr. Jason W. Clay, arrived in Sudan in February 1985 to interview the Tigreans and others who had escaped over the border, the resettlement issue was an interesting sideshow to the main famine story. Western journalists and diplomats in Ethiopia had caught glimpses of people being herded onto trucks and airplanes. One U.S. diplomat went so far as to say that “the selection process recalled Auschwitz.” From the little that could be discerned, resettlement appeared to be yet another indication, if any was needed, of the Marxist regime’s insensitivity to its own people. But there the issue ground to a halt for lack of evidence. Resettlement areas simply were off limits to almost all foreigners, except those on prearranged tours to model camps. The government denied that the program was not voluntary or that it was motivated by any factor besides the humanitarian desire to relocate drought-stricken peasants to more fertile areas in the west and southwest of the country. Western relief officials stationed in Addis Ababa, whose presence depended on the good will of the local authorities, tended to back up the regime’s assertions….

Cultural Survival, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came to Sudan with especially impressive credentials. Founded in 1972 by a group of social scientists at Harvard University, its reports on endangered ethnic groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have criticized right-wing and left-wing governments alike and have been utilized by the World Bank, USAID, and foreign governments to judge a country’s human rights record and need for development assistance. Clay’s team interviewed 277 Ethiopian refugees at six sites in eastern Sudan … using local translators who were not connected with the TPLF [Tigrean People’s Liberation Front]. (Bonnie Holcomb, who speaks Oromo, helped with some of the translations.) All interviews were taped and then translated a second time by other translators back in the United States. More than half those interviewed were selected at random and, in almost all cases, involved more than 5 percent of the total population of each camp. This was a statistically huge sample. (Harris Polls, for instance, rely on .0004 of 1 percent of the U.S. population.) As Clay told me in a letter, “Methodologically, you cannot touch [criticize] the data that we collected” about conditions in Ethiopia ”as it relates to the refugees in Sudan.” …

To my knowledge, no study of the Great Leap Forward in China or the actions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was as well packaged as was Cultural Survival’s Politics and the Ethiopian Famine 1984-1985, a 250-page monograph, served up with an array of attractive maps, whose results–if you could wade through the overwhelming details (few could)–were absolutely devastating.

“All those interviewed insisted that they had been captured by government troops and forced to resettle…. Ten percent of all those interviewed reported that they witnessed people being killed who tried to escape.” More than 40 percent said they were beaten. More than 85 percent said they had been separated from at least one member of their immediate families; 70 percent were separated from all members of their immediate families. Amete Gebremedhin, a Tigrean in her early forties, stated that after she and a group of other captured women protested to the militia about being separated from their husbands and children, “the soldiers laughed and said: ‘What do you care about your children, you will find new ones in Asosa.'” …

Everyone interviewed said people had died en route to the resettlement sites; 60 percent said they actually saw people die. Clay’s analysis of the death figures was the most comprehensive and the most controversial part of his research.

The death rates reported by the refugees ranged from 33 deaths per 10,000 people per day to 270 deaths per 10,000. These rates are extremely high given that the camp populations were comprised almost entirely of adults. Such figures were consistently reported from a number of different refugees from different areas. Furthermore, they were relayed by people who did not know each other…. Some of the resettled people were undoubtedly malnourished as a result of declining agricultural production in their homelands, but many had not experienced famine until they were captured for resettlement….

These figures raise … the question of how many of the 400,000 people who were resettled by June of 1985 are still alive. If even the most conservative estimates of the death rate (33 per 10,000 per day) are halved and then halved again (i.e., reduced by 75 percent), then 50,000 to 100,000 of those resettled in this massive program may already have been dead by July 1985.

[Diplomat and NGO Reaction]

The figure of “50,000 to 100,000” dead set the aid communities in Khartoum and Addis Ababa ablaze. It was a higher death rate than that at the emergency feeding camps on the Sudanese border at the height of the famine, and most of the Ethiopians who perished in Sudan were children and old people–of which there were very few in the resettlement program. Father Jack Finucane, the head of Concern, an Irish aid group in Addis Ababa, saw the death rates in an article I wrote for The Wall Street Journal about Cultural Survival’s report and told a group of sixty foreign aid workers assembled on October 19, 1985, at the RRC headquarters, “I’ve read it and I don’t believe it.” Finucane said that in visits he and other members of Concern made to the resettlement area, there were no indications of any such horrors. But as it turned out, one month earlier, at a private meeting at the Hilton Hotel where only Western ambassadors and some aid officials were present, Finucane told a different tale; about a half million people were being displaced in “horrible conditions.” Of seventy-seven resettlement areas, only two or three had succeeded, he had said. In a July 29, 1985, letter to his home office, Finucane wrote it was safe to assume that 25 percent–or 125,000–of the settlers had died.

Finucane’s reversal, whereby he independently confirmed from the Ethiopian side the main points of Cultural Survival’s Sudan-based research, only to deny it all at a public forum in the presence of Ethiopian officials, was laid out in a November 3, 1985, article by David Blundy in the Sunday Times (of London). When Blundy, then one of the paper’s leading foreign correspondents, asked the chair of the Band Aid coordinating committee in Addis Ababa, Brother Augustus O’Keefe, about the discrepancy, O’Keefe replied, “That was a private meeting [the meeting between Finucane and the ambassadors]. I won’t talk about it. The press have done a lot of damage here. I have never heard about any problems with resettlement.”

It was a familiar pattern: back up the research of Cultural Survival and Berliner Missionswerk in private, but condemn it in public. The Red Cross League, for example, did a study on resettlement in the summer of 1985 that corroborated much of what Clay’s resettlement study had found, including the death rate. But the report was kept secret. (Oddly enough, the Canadian Embassy in Addis Ababa was a true believer in resettlement, even in private. One Canadian diplomat actually told me that the West had to get involved in a big way in resettlement, in order to have “influence here.” When I mentioned to another Canadian official, whom I met in Sudan, that Canada was assisting resettlement through funding to private agencies involved in the program, he got very angry and proceeded to launch a tirade against U.S. human rights abuses in the Third World. At the time I knew of no other country about which the views of the Canadian and U.S. governments were as divergent as on Ethiopia. Officials in the U.S. State Department and National Security Council had been extremely critical of Canada’s policy toward resettlement. In Addis Ababa, the two embassies literally represented opposing camps. Some of the Canadians I met appeared absolutely driven about proving that–at least as far as Ethiopia was concerned–they had a foreign policy truly different from that of the United States. In Canada itself this policy was criticized. This was one of the stranger aspects of the famine emergency.)

The spinelessness of the aid community in Addis Ababa was demonstrated a few months later, in December 1985, when the inevitable happened–one of their own went public about the appalling consequences of resettlement. Medecins sans Frontieres [MSF] published a report entitled, “Mass Deportation in Ethiopia,” alleging that with a death rate of 20 percent, as many as 300,000 people were likely to die in the resettlement program, of which up to 100,000 already had. The report noted that “one of the most massive violations of human rights” was “being carried out with funds and gifts from international aid.” The French group quickly was expelled from Ethiopia, while the rest of the aid community chastised the group for getting involved in “politics” when it should have been keeping its nose to the grindstone of relief work. Apparently, nobody in Addis Ababa was drawing the distinction between “politics” and gross violations of human rights. The kiss of death to the French group’s presence in Ethiopia was administered by the United Nations, which publicly defended resettlement by saying that the French organization’s charges could not be taken seriously because it was the only group in the field making such accusations….

[U.S. Media Reaction]

In early 1986, MSF took its case to the court of U.S. public opinion, which barely paid attention, even though the United States was providing almost as much aid to Ethiopia as was the rest of the world combined. A Washington press conference, among other activities, got the French doctors onto the front page of The New York Times for a day and into the editorial pages of several important dailies. But the story had difficulty making the evening news on the major networks because there was no footage of the settlers being abused. Also, this was the period of the Challenger disaster. Therefore, the impact of MSF’s revelation on the general public was marginal. And as one refugee official in Washington explained to me, “Suzanne Garment of The Wall Street Journal was the only big columnist to write about it, so everyone around here dismissed it as just a right-wing issue.” As limited as MSF’s effect was, it was still greater than that of Cultural Survival. This was in a way unfortunate because MSF, a relief group whose investigation was not as well grounded academically proved a much softer target for supporters of resettlement than did the Harvard-based Cultural Survival…. The daily news media, by this time obsessed with the southern part of the African continent in place of the Horn, did little to put the findings into perspective or to investigate the matter further. The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal was a constant exception to this rule, but like all opinion pages, it didn’t have quite the credibility of a hard news section, and the page’s conservative slant meant that liberals often distrusted it….

Even after Clay and Holcomb’s report was published, journalists tended to write about the skeptical reaction in the relief community, rather than to hunt down the actual victims in order to hear their firsthand accounts….

As I see it, the fundamental flaw in the resettlement story was that it was a foreign news item with no domestic spinoff. Because the United States, despite its generous aid, was not influential in Ethiopia–and had not been for a decade–it was a tragedy for which the Reagan administration bore absolutely no responsibility. Although private donations to certain charities were indirectly assisting resettlement, as were public donations from other governments, USAID always was careful to channel U.S. aid to relief operations unconnected with the program. Thus, there was nothing to dig up against the administration, and the herd instinct in the media never was activated. Even after the MSF visit, journalists almost never raised the matter at State Department briefings. Ethiopia had been “lost” years before, and U.S. interests were not being jeopardized by the inhuman actions of Ethiopia’s regime. The country now was part of that zone of darkness where literally anything could happen away from the television cameras. Had the deaths occurred at the hands of a colorful madman, like Idi Amin or Muammar Gaddafi, or even someone less well known but just as crazy, like the former “emperor of the Central African Empire,” Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the story could have been rescued from oblivion. But Mengistu was far too efficient a killer to be distracted by buffoonery, so his crimes had little mass-market appeal….

But, again, it wasn’t only the media, nor even just the human rights organizations that weren’t interested, but Western governments as well…. In fact, as a National Security Council staffer revealed, after the United States got independent intelligence confirmation of the main findings of Clay’s report, Secretary of State George Shultz was ready to enter a U.N. resolution condemning the Mengistu regime, but backed down after receiving absolutely no support from the United States’ Western allies, who did not want their aid programs in Addis Ababa jeopardized.

SOURCE: Robert Kaplan, Surrender or Starve: Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea (Vintage, 2003), pp. 111-127

Has anything at all changed in the modus operandi of the International Community™ since 1984? Anything?

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One response to “Politics and the Ethiopian Famine 1984-1985

  1. Pingback: NGOs Drive Negative Reporting | Far Outliers

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