Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, by Peter Gill, Oxford University Press, $18.95, £9.99.
In 1984, the terrible famine, which swept across the north of Ethiopia claiming some 600,000 deaths, gained unprecedented, but late, media attention in the West. In particular, the Live Aid concert initiated by Bob Geldof brought together international artists in an attempt to raise awareness. The operation, motivated by genuine concern and empathy, proved to be a media success. But it also attracted much criticism. For example, the image of Africa as portrayed in the Live Aid concert may have contributed to constructing and fueling a stereotypical image of Africa as the ‘Dark Continent’, a place ‘in despair and beyond repair.’ Since then, Ethiopia in particular has become the focus of this myth of ‘starving’ Africa. According to Gill, it has reached such a point that ‘food’ has become the F-word, difficult to use without raising the suspicions and affronting the sensitivities of the Ethiopians themselves. As a press and TV journalist, Peter Gill was the first reporter to reach the epicenter of the famine in 1984. Since then, he has closely followed the changes in the country, its development and politics. His book tries to grasp the evolution of the last 25 years, partly relying on interviews, including ones with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and development economist Jeffrey Sachs. In addition, he collected a wide range of testimonies and opinions through his travels from towns to countryside, from schools to local organizations. It provides interesting insights into the practical difficulties of implementing development, and the complicated relationships between the people, the local politicians and foreign aid workers. But there is an irresolvable contradiction in Gill’s book. In the new preface he recognizes that, in the one-dimensional image of Ethiopia and Africa created by the media and aid agencies in the Western world, “there is a real danger that we ignore the progress – and thus the potential for progress.” Similarly, he points out the failure of current media to recognize the broader economic changes overtaking the continent. However, his book does not aim to fill such a gap. In fact, the book is underlined by a strong sense of Afro-pessimism, which is made explicit in the conclusion. Discussing the possible failure of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to open up the political space and leadership in the years leading up to 2015, he predicts: “There will be a cost to the modest but real progress that Ethiopia has made under his government. It will be borne by poor and hungry Ethiopians.” Despite his awareness that one-dimensional, negative and pessimistic images of the continent are self-fulfilling, he seems to be contributing to this very image. If even self-aware journalists do not provide us with ‘different’ stories (if not in their news reports, at least in their books), the perception Western societies have of Ethiopia, and Africa more generally, will take a long time to change. An interesting read for those who want to update their knowledge of the current political context in Ethiopia, and to hear first-hand testimonies from players and people involved in development; not so good for those waiting to read new news out of Africa.