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They didn’t know it was Christmas. But they do now.

2009 December 18
by Paul Vallely


“Do they know it’s Christmas?” said Bob Geldof with irony last month as the tiny plane banked over the Ethiopian highland town of Lalibela. The site of the place reminded him of the time in 1985 – as he looked over the firefly night-time fires of an impromptu refugee camp – when he heard the sound of his own record of that name playing over an aid worker’s tinny transistor radio.  It had seemed surreal then; “the triteness of our response”, as he put it, set against the immensity of the reality before his eyes.  Twenty five years on it was a world away.  “Of course they didn’t know it was Christmas,” he said when he revisited the country a few weeks ago. “It wasn’t. Because they operate on a different calendar to us.”

He did not know that then, but he knows it now. And that was true of so many issues which were sparked, a quarter of a century ago, by what turned out to be the biggest fundraising effort in human history. £100 million was given by the public for that Band Aid record, and the Live Aid concert which followed it, for the victims of the terrible Ethiopian famine of 1985 in which a million people are thought to have died.

One of the key things he has learned over those years is to pay small heed to the criticisms of  those cynics who constantly decry the efforts of Africa, Africans and those who would seek to help the disadvantaged continent.  Even as we set out for Ethiopia the media was littered with the voices of naysayers attempting to find some intellectual rationale to justify their own hard-heartedness in refusing to assist a continent struggling against the odds. This year at least six million Ethiopians would be in need of food aid after three years of poor rains.  Twenty five years on, they said, Band Aid, and everything that sprang from it, had all been a waste of time.

There was an easy way to put that to the test. Geldof was back in the country to tour a number of the projects that the Band Aid Trust has financed over the years with the continuing record and DVD royalties. One project after another gave the lie to the calumny that Africa is a hopeless case.

An Oxfam project we saw near Bahir Dar was an exemplar. It is replacing traditional African beehives, which destroy the honeycomb as the honey is extracted, with modern ones which can extract it by centrifugal force. It has increased productivity 400 per cent, transformed lives by adding $3 a day to family incomes, and offers a model of sustainability because, unlike the old way, it does not routinely kill off the swarm of bees.

Then there was at the rural school run by UNICEF near Mekele, one of the epicentres of the 1984/5 famine, which has brought what is normal in the UK to Africa: children sit at desks rather than on the floor; there are toys and playground equipment; children learn through interactive styles rather than chalk and talk; boys and girls have  separate latrines – to stop the girls dropping out of education at puberty as is all too common. The school is so popular it has to run a shift system to fit in all its 1,300 pupils.

Throughout Ethiopia the numbers in school have trebled since the famine. Today 71 per cent of Ethiopian children are in education. This is not just the result of aid. “It is the fruit of the campaigning to drop the debt,” said Geldof. “Ethiopia’s annual interest on debt was slashed from $195m in 2001 to $86m in 2007. The extra money has gone into schools and hospitals. As a result of what was done on debt at Gleneagles and elsewhere 37 million more children are in school. So much for aid not working.”

Geldof’s reference to the Drop the Debt campaign is instructive. Band Aid did not just raise money. It did not merely prompt government aid budgets to follow where it led. It created a new constituency for change. Out of it came Jubilee 2000, Drop the Debt, the Trade Justice campaign, and Make Poverty History. “From Charity to Justice,” became the cry. Out of it came the lobbying of the G8 at Birmingham, Cologne and Gleneagles. From it came the Commission for Africa which provided the blueprint for the Gleneagles deal which wiped away multilateral as well as bilateral debt and substantially raised global aid flows – though not, sadly, by as much yet as the G8 leaders promised.

And there has been huge change in Africa. That was obvious in 2005 when the Commission for Africa published its report. Democracies rather than dictatorships now constitute the majority of African governments. Many of the continent’s wars are over. A new generation of political leaders has emerged, many more committed to the common good of their people. Africa’s institutions are being reformed. Economic growth has been consistently higher in a score of African countries than it has in the developed world. A new entrepreneurship is in evidence. There is a growing middle class. A rich variety of pressure groups and community organisations are learning how to hold African governments to account.

In the four years since our 2005 visit to Addis, we discovered, change has been proceeding apace. All across the country people look healthy and children are well. Almost everyone has shoes and there are few eye infections –  both big contrasts with 1985. Deaths among under fives are down 40 per cent. Malaria cases have been reduced by two-third since 2006, with the number of deaths halved thanks to the spraying of a million houses and the distribution of 20 million bednets. Tigray in northern Ethiopia is one of the few places in Africa on course to meet the Millennium Development Goal to half child mortality by 2015.

A massive road-building programme is underway. Factories, power stations, dams and hydroelectric plants are being constructed everywhere. In Addis Ababa the city council is building 54,000 houses for poorer families. Ethiopia has never seen such a construction boom. Everywhere privately-owned businesses, banks and hotels are springing up. Ethiopia last year rose 29 places in the World Bank’s Starting A Business index. It now has Africa’s first Commodities Exchange. There are 23 universities instead of two; we met graduates including an accountant, mechanical engineer, information systems analyst and an international lawyer.  Addis has regular traffic jams, a sure indicator of economic success. The Economist has forecast Ethiopia to be the 5th fastest growing economy in the world in 2010.

Yet for all that, there have been three consecutive years of drought which has badly hit the poorest. Six million of the 80 million population will again need food aid next year. UN agencies have suggested the figure could rise as high as 14 million, an estimate which has incensed the government. That became clear when Geldof had a two hour private meeting with the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi. “Since the end of the last famine our overriding aim has been to make sure that there isn’t another one,” the politician told the singer. “We’ve put in systems to alert us to that and mechanisms to reverse the problems that led to it. We’ve had several droughts but no famine over the past 18 years.”

Part of that system is a Safety Net programme which gives food to 7.6  million people in exchange for labour on public works for part of each year. It is an effective cushion if crops fail. Even so Ethiopia receives only half of the foreign aid received per capita by many African countries, and around 8 per cent of the population relies on food aid, compared with more than double that percentage in 1985. So to suggest that nothing has changed “is not just a lie, it is also disempowering,” the prime minister said. “It implies that all the efforts in the meantime have been useless – and that leads to paralysis rather than action. Many people are working their hearts out, and they have made real progress – not enough perhaps – but real progress… You can’t shock people with high figures every year; there’s no need for it; it won’t get any extra aid; and it creates the image of permanent crisis”.

Another important innovation is that those who do need help are not in large insanitary refugee camps. The government has trained 30,000 healthworkers and placed two in every village. There they weigh and measure children and those found to be malnourished are given a supplementary food of enriched peanut butter paste, in their homes, which is ready to eat and does not need mixing with water, which might not be clean, as happened all too often in the huge feeding centres in 1985. It is a revolution in childcare.

The village programme is also impacting on population growth, another of the areas in which sceptics commonly say Africa’s poverty is beyond hope. In one village health centre we visited the use of family planning has risen from 7 per cent in 2000 to 27 per cent today. In another women were spacing their children three or four years apart, rather than having another child every year, and the average family size had fallen from an average of around 10 to five children. None of that is surprising; all the evidence points to the fact that population comes down when poverty is tackled, in contrast to the latter-day Malthusian insistence that unchecked population growth is at the root of Africa’s problems.

Not all the changes Ethiopia faces are benign. The huge influence of China is evident throughout the country. Beijing is behind much of the road-building, factory development and two massive new hydroelectric plants. It is ploughing billions into Ethiopia and in much else of Africa. This year China is set to overtake the US as Africa’s biggest trading partner. The West is clearly now in a race with China for influence in Africa. China wants Africa’s minerals and other resources. It also wants land on which to grow food for its massive population. It is offering aid without the conditions on human rights and good governance which the West has demanded in recent decades. If there is a black mark against Meles government it lies in its lack of regard for civil rights; it arrested a hundred opposition politicians after the last election and charged them with treason and recently it passed a law controlling the activities of non-governmental organisations, most particularly those which get more than 10 per cent of their funds from overseas. China could prove to be a mixed blessing for the people of Africa.

The biggest challenge facing Ethiopia, however, is one which was on no-one’s horizon in 1985. It is climate change. You can set aside the controversy about whether or not global warming is man-made; spend any time in Ethiopia and you soon understand that climate change, whatever its cause, is not a future threat so much as a present reality. And it is hitting the poorest first and worst. Everywhere I went, highlands and lowlands, over a two week stay I heard the same story: that the short rains have vanished and the long rains start late and finish early. There was unexpected rain last week mid-harvest, which was very unhelpful. Each year it is getting worse. When I asked one farmer whether this year had been good, bad or normal, he replied: “Bad and normal are now the same”.

And yet it is a challenge rather than a disaster. Adaptation was in evidence in many places too. All across Ethiopia farmers have made terraces to prevent soil erosion, learned to make compost and harvest water, stopped their animals grazing in vulnerable areas and planted trees – some 800 million in all. Wastelands are being reclaimed in just four years with such work. More will be possible if the rich world stumps up the compensation it pledged at Copenhagen last week. There is much much more to be done but the distance that Ethiopia has travelled in the past 25 years is extraordinary. 

Paul Vallely is Associate Editor of The Independent and was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa.

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