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by Helen Epstein
Parts of southern Ethiopia resemble the scenery in a Tarzan movie. When I was there last fall, the green forested hills were blanketed in white mist and rain poured down on the small farms and homesteads. In the towns, slabs of meat hung in the butchers’ shops and donkeys hauled huge sacks of coffee beans, Ethiopia’s major export, along the stony dirt roads. So I was surprised to see the signs of hunger everywhere. There were babies with kwashiorkor, a disease caused by malnutrition, which I’d assumed occurred only in war zones. Many of the older children were clearly stunted and some women were so deficient in iodine they had goiters the size of cannonballs.
This East African nation, famous for its ancient rock-hewn churches, Solomonic emperors, and seemingly intractable poverty, has a long history of famine. But I had always assumed that food shortages were more common in the much drier north of the country than in the relatively fertile south. Although rainfall throughout Ethiopia had been erratic in 2008 and 2009, the stunting and goiter I saw were signs of chronic malnutrition, which had clearly existed for many years.
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Ethiopia: Foreign Aid Subsidizes Repression, Says Expert
A month ahead of national elections, the Ethiopian government has come under critical Western scrutiny in an article which accuses foreign donors of "subsidizing a regime that is rapidly becoming one of the most repressive and dictatorial on the continent."
Writing in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Helen Epstein suggests that Western aid officials "seem reluctant to admit that there are two Prime Minister Meles Zenawis.
"One is a clubbable, charming African who gives moving speeches at Davos and other elite forums about fighting poverty and terrorism. The other is a dictator whose totalitarianism dates back to cold war days."
Epstein, a specialist in public health in developing countries, declares in an extensive analysis:
"The problem with foreign aid in Ethiopia is that both the Ethiopian government and its donors see the people of this country not as individuals with distinct needs, talents, and rights but as an undifferentiated mass, to be mobilized, decentralized, vaccinated, given primary education and pit latrines, and freed from the legacy of feudalism, imperialism, and backwardness."
She says Meles' government has received U.S. $26 billion in development aid from the West in an experiment "to see whether 'the big push' approach to African development will work." In 2008 it received more aid than any other sub-Saharan country.
"The big push," writes Epstein, "has financed 15,000 village health clinics, seventeen universities, countless schools, and the beginnings of a new road network that will bring trade and services to many previously isolated rural areas."
But the aid subsidizes repression, she adds.
"On May 23, Ethiopia will hold its first parliamentary elections since 2005, but the results seem foreordained.
"Opposition groups have been prevented from opening local offices and some opposition candidates have been assaulted by [ruling party] officials or arbitrarily detained by the police.
"The government uses Chinese spy technology to bug phone lines and Internet communications, and countless journalists, editors, judges, academics, and human rights defenders have fled the country or languish behind bars, at risk of torture.
"New laws passed since 2005 have made political activity more difficult than ever."
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