Ethiopia 20 years on from Live Aid: Did we make a difference?

Four million Ethiopians are dependent on food aid, HIV/Aids is rife and life expectancy is just 42 years. But there are signs of change in a proud and independent land, reports Meera Selva in Addis Ababa
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The Independent Online

Dabotsa Deselega has walked for miles in the cool, thin air of the Ethiopian highlands to tell her story. Each step is painful; her blistered and callused feet poke through torn sandals and although she is only 45, she is bent almost double in a perpetual stoop after a lifetime of carrying firewood.

Dabotsa Deselega has walked for miles in the cool, thin air of the Ethiopian highlands to tell her story. Each step is painful; her blistered and callused feet poke through torn sandals and although she is only 45, she is bent almost double in a perpetual stoop after a lifetime of carrying firewood.

"I try so hard to feed my children. I buy sacks of potatoes and carry them to another market where I can sell them for a little more; my husband stays in Addis [Ababa] weaving clothes and only comes home once a year," she explains.

Those children peer out at the world from behind her skirts, with the hungry eyes that seem to always be filling our television screens. "We work, work and work, but still there is not enough and they go hungry," Deselega says.

Twenty years ago the Irish singer and political activist Bob Geldof organised the biggest concert in history to help people like Deselega. The famine that had struck Ethiopia in 1984 killed half a million: those in the northern highlands starved under the unrelenting gaze of the Marxist military dictator Haile-Mariam Mengistu.

His military junta, known as the Derg, launched the red terror as Mengistu hijacked the revolution to target his political opponents. He was determined to crush rebel movements in the north of the country, so he cut off food to the civilians. When the rains failed, they could not grow their own food and the famine began.

Two decades later, the Derg regime has fallen, defeated by the current government in 1991, and the rebels succeeded in gaining their own country, Eritrea. And there are signs of hope.

This month Ethiopia held multi-party elections. A massive turnout of voters gave an unexpected shot in the arm to the country's shaky democracy. The provisional result appears to have given the opposition party a record number of seats and while the elections were not completely free and fair - there are still allegations of vote-rigging and electoral fraud - the opposition's success does indicate growing levels of democracy.

Ethiopians also take great pride in the fact that the nascent African Union is based in Addis Ababa and that the Italian government has finally returned an obelisk to its home in Axum. In February, thousands of reggae fans descended on Ethiopia to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Bob Marley's birth amidst lofty words about African empowerment and Ethiopia's renaissance.

But on lower plains, Deselega and thousands like her are still hungry. In the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, beggars crippled with polio drag themselves up to the new rich in their overheated cars stuck in traffic jams and plead for alms. In the countryside people are quieter, but they still live in poverty.

Four million still receive food aid, and almost half of Ethiopia's babies are still malnourished. The rains failed for three consecutive years from 1997 and the country entered the new millennium by once again filling television screens with harrowing images of famine victims.

By 2003, 14 million people faced starvation. Ethiopia had to receive 1.44 million tonnes of food to avert another disaster. And if famine does not kill them, disease will - Ethiopia has the third-largest number of people living with HIV/Aids in the world and life expectancy is just 42 years.

Asked if they have heard about Live Aid or Bob Geldof, most people in the countryside look blank. Darote Wantella, who was 20 when Live Aid powered her country into the consciousness of the Western world, has only a vague recollection. "Someone helped us once I think, but they did not stay and now the land is more tired than it was. I don't think it can feed us much more," she says.

The agricultural sector, which accounts for half of the country's GDP, desperately needs far-reaching reform. The Ethiopian government has tried to implement the necessary changes, but the country still bears traces of its socialist farms. Most state-owned land has now been given to private investors, but the poorest subsistence farmers still know little about property rights and even less about fertilisers and crop diversification.

More than 55 per cent of Ethiopia's farmland is used to grow tef, the delicate grass-like plant that makes injera, the soured pancakes that are the staple diet. It is one of the few crops that will grow in Ethiopia's erratic climate, but it is also one of the lowest-yielding food crops in the world and makes the country's soil erosion problems even worse.

Economically, the country is still one of the poorest in the world and in the past 20 years the price of coffee, Ethiopia's major export, has fallen by 73 per cent. Aid agencies say that unpopular resettlement policies, under which farmers are moved from less fertile areas to more fertile but unfamiliar ones, still continue. Under the Derg regime these moves took place forcibly.

The government now offers incentives and warnings, but many people still feel they are being coerced into moving away from their ancestral homes in the highlands.

To make things worse, the famine hit the north, which has been worst affected by the vicious, prolonged and expensive border war with neighbour ing Eritrea. The leaders of both countries fought together to overthrow the Derg regime, but began squabbling over the border town of Badme in 1998.

In 2000 the two states went to war and the economies of both became paralysed. Northern Ethiopia also got cut off from its most important trading town, the Eritrean capital of Asmara, which was six hours away by bus.

Now, traders must rely on Addis Ababa, which can take two days to reach. Akul Siltan, who lives near the Eritrean border recalls: "I used to go to Asmara for my summer holidays; the weather was so nice, and we could go to the cinema or play football. I think Ethiopia lost some of its soul when it lost Asmara."

After years of stalemate, both sides have begun gathering troops on the border again amid fears that war is about to break out again. If it does, Ethiopia's already fragile economy will collapse and the north will again be starved of food and development.

"If we go to war again, we are finished, Siltan said. "Ethiopia is my country and I know it is right, but this fight with our brothers will kill us more than hunger."

The government says it wants to be able to feed its entire population without outside help within five years, but agriculturalists say that the country will depend on foreign food for at least another decade unless radical reforms are implemented fast.

All over the country, no one, however, seems to have a clear idea of whether to welcome or be suspicious of foreign aid. About one quarter of Ethiopia's budget comes from foreign donors, and another 12 per cent in the form of international loans.

There are so many aid agencies working in the country that more money is often spent on administration than on the necessary projects. A report by Wateraid found that although only 22 per cent of the population has access to safe water, co-ordination among the donors is so poor that almost 70 per cent of the entire water budget goes unspent.

Elsewhere, Ethiopian scientists have tried in vain to persuade the government to look for homegrown remedies instead of importing solutions from abroad. "Artemesia, which is widely recognised as the best cure for malaria, grows wild in Ethiopia but the government insists on buying in Swiss anti-malarial drugs," complained Theopholus Tesfaye, a scientist in the southern town of Chencha.

"We have tried for months to persuade the ministry of health to help our farmers grow artemesia, dry it out and sell it, instead of buying in chloroquine or quinine. We need to believe we can solve our own problems," he said.

That might be symbolic of the way Ethiopia's grim present is at odds with its history. In the north, the spectacular rock churches of Lalibela and towering obelixes of Axum are reminders that the country was once home to one of the world's greatest civilisations.

People still point out that Ethiopia is the only country never to have been colonised in sub-Saharan Africa, and many of the elder generation feel that it is beneath the country's dignity to hold out a begging bowl to the rest of the world.

"Ethiopia is unusual among African countries because it has a pre-colonial culture that left books and artefacts and I do wish the West would remember that," said Professor Andreas Eshete, president of Addis Ababa University. "These songs about famine and poverty are good if they help people but they do nothing for our self-esteem or our image in the world."