By Prof. Al Mariam,
Last week, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times (International Edition), Alex de Waal from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia declared the end of the “era of great famines” and proudly announced to the world, “Ethiopians aren’t starving to death”, only their “animals are dying of thirst.” Of course, that is exactly what USAID Administrator Gayle E. Smith said in her recent interview. I guess they all use the same talking points.
de Waal proclaimed:
The worst drought in three decades has left almost 20 million Ethiopians — one-fifth of the population — desperately short of food. And yet the country’s mortality rate isn’t expected to increase: In other words, Ethiopians aren’t starving to death… [their ] animals are dying of thirst. (Emphasis added.)
de Waal feigns astonishment over the adeptness and resourcefulness of the Tigrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) in licking famine in Ethiopia (no pun intended):
I’ve studied famine and humanitarian relief for more than 30 years, and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw during a visit to Ethiopia last month. As I traveled through northern and central provinces, I saw imported wheat being brought to the smallest and most remote villages, thanks to a new Chinese-built railroad and a fleet of newly imported trucks. Water was delivered to places where wells had run dry. Malnourished children were being treated in properly staffed clinics.
de Waal is beside himself fawning over the TPLF’s savvy statecraft (I did not say witchcraft) which has delivered the coup de grace in the final conquest of famine and starvation in Ethiopia:
How did Ethiopia go from being the world’s symbol of mass famines to fending off starvation? Thanks partly to some good fortune, but mostly to peace, greater transparency and prudent planning. Ethiopia’s success in averting another disaster is confirmation that famine is elective because, at its core, it is an artifact and a tool of political repression.
After reveling in a hearty tribute to the TPLF’s masterful management of food security in Ethiopia, de Wall aims his rhetorical guns and blasts the “military regime headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam” whose “government blocked trade, bombed markets and withheld emergency supplies in rebel-controlled areas” in Tigray and Eritrea. Not to worry. The late Meles Zenawi and his TPLF rode their white horses into Addis Ababa and saved the day:
The Mengistu regime collapsed in 1991. Under the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a former guerrilla turned advocate of rapid economic growth, Ethiopia enjoyed internal peace for the first time in a generation. There were localized droughts but no famines — with one notable exception.
de Waal downplays the severity of “food shortages” under TPLF rule. He asserts that in 1999 there were “food shortages in the southeastern part of the country [which] killed 29,000 people.” That was certainly not famine. Just a garden variety food shortage (no pun intended). Another “major drought in 2002 caused hunger nationwide” (not famine), but the following year when de Waal visited, everything was hunky dory “in Wollo (north), Hararghe (east) and Sidama and Wollaita (south)”.
de Waal argues in 2015, “El Niño brought the worst drought in decades” but “Ethiopia was better prepared than ever.” The “government had begun programs to help families facing food shortages with various forms of food and cash assistance. It had taken measures to mitigate the effects of droughts, rehabilitating water catchments, reforesting and building roads and clinics, especially in the countryside.”
Managing the 2015-16 “El Nino drought” is a piece of cake (no pun intended) because the “government” had stashed “aside nearly $1 billion in case oil prices rose” which could be diverted to drought relief.
How does de Waal know all of these juicy tidbits of information on the final conquest of famine in Ethiopia? “Finance Minister Abdulaziz Mohammed told me,” says de Waal.
In his “there is no famine in Ethiopia” story line, de Waal cleverly slips in the old TPLF canard about skyrocketing economic growth rates in Ethiopia. de Waal laments, “The economy will take a hit. Animals are dying of thirst… The G.D.P. growth rate will drop to about 8.5 percent in 2015 and 2016, down from more than 10 percent in 2014. But that’s still 8.5 percent, an impressive figure. And people aren’t dying.”
Of course, de Waal is willfully propagating the lies, damned lies and discredited statistics of the TPLF. I have challenged the TPLF, World Bank, USAID and all others to prove up the double-digit growth claims in Ethiopia, or shut up. They have chosen to shut up. You don’t see the World Bank, the IMF, USAID and the rest of the poverty pimps making the double-digit claim anymore because they know it is a damned lie.
I have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt, time and again, that the T-TPLF claim of double-digit growth over the past ten years is a crock of statistical horse manure. I challenge de Waal to prove (not merely regurgitate statistics from the talking points handed to him by the TPLF and USAID) the veracity of his double-digit economic growth claim!
I also do not understand how de Waal can say the animals are dying of thirst but the people are not.
Isn’t livestock production the driving force of Ethiopia’s rural agricultural economy and the lifeline of the pastoralists? If the animals are dying, how long will it be before the people begin to die?
I can imagine how deeply embarrassing it could be to claim double-digit growth over the past ten years and simultaneously admit 20 million people are also facing famine in a country touted as having one of the red hot economies in the world.
But it is what it is.
Who is Alex de Waal anyway?
I do not know if Alex de Waal is a lobbyist for the TPLF.
I do not know if Alex de Waal is a publicist, media or public relations agent for the TPLF.
I do not know if Alex de Waal is the TPLF’s international strategic communications officer.
I do not know if Alex de Waal is the Leni Riefenstahl of the TPLF.
What I know is Alex de Waal is listed as Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He touts himself as “one of the foremost experts on Sudan and the Horn of Africa,” having done his doctoral dissertation on the 1984-85 Darfur famine. In his biography, he claims to be on “the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009.”
de Waal has been in “Tigray on a mission for Oxfam to study local food markets.”
de Waal has been the (un)official historiographer of the Tigrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF)and written “Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia”, a book which is basically a hatchet job on the “evil” military Derg regime and its relentless counter-insurgency campaign against the TPLF.
de Waal delivered the keynote address in 2013 “on the occasion of the first anniversary commemoration of the death of Meles Zenawi”. In his speech, de Waal said, “The second pillar of Meles’s security doctrine was national pride. He condemned what he called ‘jingoism on an empty stomach’”.
Today 20 million Ethiopians are dying because they have empty stomachs, and de Waal says, “There is no famine in Ethiopia.”
In July 2015, I had an opportunity to challenge de Waal over the pending Senate confirmation of Gayle E. Smith to become the Administrator of USAID.
In an “Open Letter” (a letter I believe should have been more appropriately captioned, “A Public Ode to Gayle E. Smith” since it read like a letter canonizing Smith instead of urging her confirmation”) in the Boston Review, Alex de Waal bloviated about Smith’s impeccable credentials and why she should be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Hubristically, de Waal pontificated: “No one should question your [Smith’s] credentials.”
Well, I questioned Smith’s credentials and fiercely opposed her confirmation. But she was confirmed by a vote of 79-7 in November 2015. In that roll call vote, we separated the wheat from the chaff (no pun intended). After Smith became Administrator, I have sought to hold her accountable; and will continue to do so.
de Waal Speaketh with Forked Tongue
de Waal has done research on “famine” and “food shortages” in the Sudan and Ethiopia.
In his book, “Famine That Kills” (1989), de Waal wrote, “When faced with a drought that left fifteen million Ethiopians facing hunger in 2002, the fiscal conditionalities for staying on track for HIPC [highly indebted poor countries debt forgiveness initiative] meant that the government had to reduce spending… Ethiopia had to rely on international agencies to bring huge quantities of food aid… which flooded the market… This is an example of a shockingly bad policy that fails to pass the simple test of being consonant with the realities facing rural people…”
In 2016, de Wall does not talk about the impact of “huge quantities of food aid flooding the market”. He glibly talks about seeing “imported wheat being brought to the smallest and most remote villages, thanks to a new Chinese-built railroad and a fleet of newly imported trucks.”
USAID bags (I don’t want to sound petty, but American taxpayers have doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to provide “huge quantities of food” to Ethiopia. In 2015-16, during the “El Nino drought”, U.S. taxpayers doled out USD$441 million in food aid to Ethiopia. A lot more has recently been pledged. In 2012-2014, when there was no El Nino drought, U.S. taxpayers doled out USD$759 million in food aid. I guess de Waal could not see the bags of wheat emblazoned with the words “USAID From the American People” loaded on the trains secured by Chinese loans (built by Chinese companies who brought their own workers on a no-bid contract) from the backseat of his SUV. Who gets the big THANK YOU at the end of the day? The Chinese! You are damn right, I am pissed!)
de Waal pontificated in his book that “most books about famine are written from the viewpoint of outsider, such as relief agencies and other organizations [committed] to alleviate famines.” His book “analyses famine from the perspective of the rural people who suffered it.”
de Waal castigates the international humanitarian donors and distributors for “arrogating to themselves the power to ‘cry famine’, at the expense of the local famine victims who are suffering.” The “foreigners create a perceived moral imperative for external intervention. The famine victims live (or die) under an alien definition. Another strand of this ‘famine industry’ of the specialized agencies , who see famines in terms of technical issues such as ‘early warning systems’, ‘food scarcity’, logistics, and ‘nutritional surveillance’”
de Waal declares, “The starting point for an analysis of famine should therefore lie with the understandings of those who suffer famine themselves.”
When de Waal wrote his N.Y. Times op ed piece, did he step out of the TPLF-provided air conditioned SUV to talk to the “rural people who are suffering” from the “drought” or famine?
Did de Waal talk to any villagers and ask them how many have died from the “drought”?
Did de Waal talk to starving (excuse me, extremely food challenged) mothers and ask them how many of their children have died?
Did de Waal talk to health workers in the clinics and ask them how many people died from extreme food challenges?
Did de Waal talk to herders whose animals have died?
Did de Waal talk to any malnourished children and ask them how they feel about not eating for days on end?
There is absolutely nothing in his piece that suggests that he talked to any victims or those helping victims on the ground.
It seems de Waal told his driver to scoot along the Chinese-built roads surveying the Chinese rail lines and trains carrying food aid paid for by American taxpayers (thank you very much, Uncle Sam).
Why didn’t de Waal report a single statement he heard from those suffering the effects of the “El Nino drought”?
The answer is simple. He never got out of his posh SUV to talk to the “drought” victims.
de Waal forgot in his op ed piece his own admonition written long ago. “Famines are not situations where dying people are constantly and everywhere to be seen. They are situations of acute poverty and destitution are most prominent.”
If he had talked to the famine victims, he would have gotten an earful. If he had gotten out of his SUV and talked to the mothers, children, herders, the men too weak to go out and beg, he would have seen the savage face of FAMINE etched on their skins and bones.
Who did de Waal talk to for his op ed piece to conclude that “there is no famine in Ethiopia” and “people are not dying”?
de Waal talked to TPLF “Finance Minister” Abdulaziz Mohammed. He mentions no one else in his piece.
Abdulaziz told him there is a stash of a billion dollars available for the drought. I imagine Abdulaziz told him there is no famine. Abdulaziz told him only animals are dying and not people. Abdulaziz told him the TPLF has “devised a national drought insurance plan”. Abdulaziz told him there is a big pie in the sky that will fall down and feed the people! Abdulaziz…
(In 2011, Meles Zenawi pompously declared, “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.” In other words, famine, starvation, severe malnutrition, etc. will be banned from Ethiopia for eternity!)
In 2016, the TPLF is talking about a national drought insurance plan? (They must think we are all damned fools!)
de Waal wrote in his book that “Mesfin Wolde Mariam has perhaps more experience of famine in Ethiopia than any other social scientist.”
Did de Waal talk to Mesfin Wolde Mariam who currently lives in Addis Ababa for his op ed piece? No, de Waal preferred to talk to Abdulaziz Mohammed.
de Waal wrote in his book, “In Ethiopia, a major relief operation distributed immense qualities of free food to about fifteen million people, and the government and most of its donors concurred that no famine occurred. The affected people were not consulted over this, and the data that might reveal excess mortality are only now being collected and analyzed (July 2004).”
Do we need to wait for a few more years to accurately determine how many Ethiopians died from famine in 2015-16?
The fact of the matter is that calling the famine-spade, a famine-spade is a power relationship. In the days when de Waal was critical of the international poverty pimps, he wrote:
Who defines an event as a “famine” is a question of power relations within and between societies. Certain famine-relief technologies, serve to give foreign relief organizations more power to define famines, at the expense of rural people…. I am going to argue that the herder’s concept is fundamentally more accurate when it comes to analyzing the nature of famine in this part [Horn of] Africa.
Did de Waal talk to the herder or pastoralist whose livestock are dying for his op ed piece? No, he talked to Abdulaziz Mohammed.
Truth be told, de Waal is right. There is no famine in Ethiopia until and unless the foreign relief organizations, foreign powers and people like de Waal say, “There is famine”. To be sure, there is no famine in Ethiopia UNLESS USAID, UN agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the rest of the international poverty and famine pimps say, “There is Famine in Ethiopia!”
If 29,000 people die from lack of food, that is just too bad. They died of hunger.
It is precisely because the international poverty and famine pimps have arrogated to themselves the power to “cry famine” that I have raged against them all these years. Whether there is a famine in Ethiopia is a question to be answered by Ethiopians suffering famine, not USAID, the World Bank, the IMF or the de Waals of the world.
Let me repeat it: The only way to know if there is famine in Ethiopia is talk to the people suffering famine conditions.
That is what Jeremy Konyndyk, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, found out when he recently visited the Tigray region in Ethiopia.
This drought is massive. It is the worst drought in 50 years in most of this country… When we were out in Tigray yesterday we spoke with many people living in communities there who told us this was the worst drought they had ever seen in their lives — worse in many cases than the conditions that their areas had seen in 1983, 1984. And yet we also know that the outcomes of this drought don’t need to look like the outcomes in 1984…”
de Waal fully adopts Amartya Sen’s “reconceptualization of the nature of famine” that “Famine is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there not being enough food to eat.”
It seems 20 million Ethiopians today do not “have enough food to eat”.
I ask de Waal straight up. By his own definition, do 20 million Ethiopians today have “enough food to eat”? Is there famine in Ethiopia today?
In his article, “Famine and Human Rights” (1991 Development in Practice, Vol. 1, No. 2), de Waal talked about solving the problem of famine:
History is replete with successful methods of preventing famine. Common to them are versions of ‘political contract’ that impose political obligations on rulers. In the most effective anti-famine contracts, famine is a political scandal. Famine is deterred. The contract is enforced by throwing out a government that allows it to happen or otherwise punishing those in power.
How the hell can you have a “political contract” when the TPLF says it has won 100 percent of the seats in parliament?
In his book “Famine Crimes” (1997), de Waal argued that the cause of famine is not necessarily drought but political pigheadedness and lack of accountability on the part of African governments and international humanitarian organizations. He urged the creation of a political environment where food entitlement is a right and government that fails to ensure food sufficiency could be held accountable by its citizens.
de Waal even argued that liberal rights and democratic institutions are critical in preventing famine. He proposed the idea of a political contract which imposes obligations on those in power making famine itself a legal, political and moral crimes for which governments can be brought down, held accountable and replaced. He suggested that the international famine aid industry (international poverty pimps, as I like to call them) including the elite staff of international relief agencies, academics, consultants, specialists, journalists, lobbyist have tended to obstruct the establishment political contracts against famine by eliminating the political nature of famine and making it a problem of a technical fix.
(Is de Waal one of the obstructionist “academics, consultants, specialists”?)
In his 1991 article, de Waal argued:
When famine looms in a society without a free press and democratic political institutions, there is little pressure on the government to do anything about it. On average, Africans eat more than Indians. But India has not suffered famine for more than 40 years, and this can largely be attributed to the free press and adversarial politics of the country. (The other factor in India’s success is the government’s willingness to intervene in the economy to support the poor when famine threatens.) The occurrence of the great famine of 1958-61 in socialist China has been attributed in part to the lack of information about the crisis, deriving from Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the strict censorship that entailed. Politicians who were aware of the crisis were unable to publicise it or organise to represent the interests of the vulnerable people, on account of the authoritarian political system. Similarly, the occurrence of the famine of 1984-5 in capitalist Sudan can be attributed in part to the strict controls on the press and government actions against groups that tried to organise on behalf of the stricken people. The Sudan government did not want to discourage private investment by admitting to the embarrassment of a famine. These examples demonstrate that political rights – to information, to free association, to representation – are important in fighting famine, irrespective of the economic system. They are important in two ways. One, the free flow of information means that the powerful people in society know about the plight of the poor. Two, the rights of association and representation mean that the poor are able to press for their material needs to be met through adversarial civil politics. These rights are of direct concern to human rights organisations, both because they are prized in themselves, and because their violation makes a poor country vulnerable to famine.
de Waal pulls no punches as he demonizes the Derg military regime and its weaponization of famine. He says, “Ethiopia is notorious for its famines, and the government which fell from power in May 1991 was notorious for its violations of human rights. [The factors] which have turned hardship into famine and famine into mass starvation [during the Derg period] include among others “forced removals and displacement by resettlement, villagisation, and military campaigns, heavy taxation, diversion, obstruction, and destruction of food aid.”
In my August 2011 commentary, I demonstrated how the TPLF had weaponized famine to cling to power. Indeed, the T-TPLF has used “famine as a tool of political repression”, to borrow a phrase from de Waal.
de Waal says absolutely nothing about TPLF land grabs that have left hundreds of thousands landless. He says nothing about TPLF mass villagization in Gambella and other regions. He says nothing about TPLF forced removals in the outskirts of the capital.
de Waal says absolutely nothing about diversion, obstruction, and destruction of food aid by the TPLF.
de Waal says nothing about the TPLF’s use of food aid for political coercion and recruitment of party members.
de Waal says absolutely nothing about the total and complete ownership of all land in Ethiopia by the TPLF and its cronies!
Does de Waal Speak With Forked Tongue?
Were there a serpent seen with a more practiced forked tongue than de Waal’s, to paraphrase Shakespeare?
Why is de Waal so blind to the FAMINE CRIMES of his TPLF buddies but is so strident in condemning everyone from Mao Zedung to Mengistu Haile Mariam?
Is it not ironic that the China whose population was decimated by Mao’s famine is today saving Ethiopians dying from famine? (U.S.A., who?)
de Waal skewers Mao for “strict censorship” during the great famine of 1958-61 and the “lack of information about the crisis.” He castigates the Sudanese government for strict controls on the press and government actions against groups that tried to organise on behalf of the stricken people.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “Ethiopia was the second-worst jailer of journalists in Africa.”
de Waal says nothing about TPLF’s “strict controls on the press” and indiscriminate jailing of journalists and bloggers.
No matter how de Waal sugarcoats it, the only difference between Mengistu Haile Mariam and Meles Zenawi is that the former is a brazen criminal against humanity and the latter a smooth criminal against humanity.
Why is de Waal so blind to the famine that is killing 20 million of Ethiopians today one person at a time?
de Waal wrote in his book, “It is distasteful in some ways to build a career on the suffering of other people…” I say to de Waal, “Look in the mirror!”
de Waal likes to criticize “disaster tourists” who are “drawn towards aspects of the famine that reinforce their prior conceptions of what famines are” and exaggerate the severity of famines. “Failing to comprehend how rural people really survive, disaster tourists often predict that in the absence of external aid, millions will starve…”
I wonder if the same can be said of “Disaster Scholars and Researchers”.
Whitewashing Famine in Ethiopia: The Axis of Famine Deniers
de Waal asked in his op ed piece if the “era of great famines is over”.
I regret to tell de Waal that the era of great famine never left Ethiopia. It is alive and well in Ethiopia in May 2016.
I regret to tell de Waal that the era of hidden famines, creeping famines, famines that kill and famine crimes that are perpetrated on innocent victims is upon us.
The era of famine apologists who obscure the truth is upon us.
I am pleased to tell de Waal that the era of international poverty and humanitarian pimps in Ethiopia is over. Y’all can’t tell us when we hungry, starvin’ or just dyin’ of famine.
You have taken everything from us. But we ain’t gonna let you take our dignity to suffer and die. Drown in your own crocodile tears! Stop telling us we are just hungry when we are dying of famine!
When the great Harry Belafonte went to Ethiopia (Live Aid) in 1984 to visit famine victims, he said what impressed him most was the fact that the famine victims maintained their utmost dignity, not fighting to get more food or to get more than their share.
There is no need to add insult to the injury of famine victims by telling them that the fact that do not have enough to eat is the equivalent of missing afternoon tea.
There are all sorts of “deniers” in the world. They are willfully ignorant of the fact that as hundreds of thousands die in genocide, war and famine, they see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing.
I have no problems with de Waal’s support of the TPLF or his deification of Meles Zenawi. I respect his right to support whomever and whatever he wishes.
But when he gets involved in matters of life and death of my people and whitewash to the world a notorious famine that is taking place today, the least I expect is full disclosure of his affiliation, service and comradeship with the very people who are, in my view, responsible for the famine.
Everyone knows how I feel about the late Prince of Darkness, the Prince’s surviving Horsemen and the Devil’s Advocates. I do not hide behind the veil of scholarship to hide the truth. I remove the veil of deceit and hypocrisy so all can see the face of EVIL.
That EVIL is FAMINE and those responsible for failing to plan and prevent it.
Thousands have died in the famine (and many more will die) and the TPLF, with the aid of the international poverty and famine pimps, has so far succeeded in keeping the famine crime hidden from public view.
In his op ed, de Waal said Ethiopia used to be a “a synonym for shriveled, glazed-eyed children on saline drips.”
Is that the litmus test to be met before the international famine pimps officially declare famine in Ethiopia?
I hope this commentary will be food for thought for de Waal and his ilk.
Finally, I ask de Waal two simple question:
In 1991, his Comrade Meles said he would consider his government a success if Ethiopians were able to eat three meals a day.
In 2011, Meles Zenawi pompously declared, “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.”
Are Ethiopians Eating 3 Meals a Day in 2016? Are Ethiopians able to produce a surplus and be able to feed themselves in 2016?
There are famine crimes, and they are taking place in Ethiopia today. There is also a “failure to report a famine crime” crime. J’accuse de Waal!
THERE IS FAMINE IN ETHIOPIA!!! THERE IS FAMINE IN ETHIOPIA!!! THERE IS FAMINE IN ETHIOPIA!!!