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Book: Ethiopia as a case study of how not to do foreign aid


I haven’t yet read the book, but it’s getting lots of attention for making the case that governance trumps all other factors when it comes to development.

We have a large and vibrant Ethiopian community in Seattle and I’d be interested to hear what they think about all this. Ethiopia gets a lot of aid from the U.S. and has recently been criticized for using it as a political weapon rather than helping its poor.

The book is “Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid” by Peter Gill. Live Aid was the event organized in 1985 by the much-heralded and much-maligned musician Bob Geldof in response to a famine in Ethiopia.

The development skeptics at Aidwatch have a post on it, noting both Bill Easterly’s review in the Wall Street Journal and another by David Rieff in the Atlantic. Here’s what Easterly says:

If it were possible to sum up in one sentence Ethiopia’s struggles with famine over the past quarter-century, I’d suggest this: It’s not the rains, it’s the rulers. As Peter Gill makes clear in “Famines and Foreigners,” his well-turned account of the country’s miseries since the 1984-85 famine and the Live Aid concert meant to relieve it, drought has not been as devastating to Ethiopians as their own autocratic governments.

And Rieff says:

There are fundamentally two views of development aid, and they are incompatible. The first … is essentially that, after many false starts, we now know how to do development, and that what is lacking is political commitment and money from the donor side, and political commitment and fiscal responsibility on the part of the governments and the elites of the recipient countries. The opposing view is that, no matter our good intentions, and the literally tens of thousands of people in development ministries, relief groups, international and local development NGOs, and popular movements, we still do not know what we are doing.

Hmmm, I’m not sure there are the only two views of development aid.

Another view might be that we don’t quite know, or can’t agree on, what we’re doing in development (which often seems to be the case for most human endeavors) and yet it remains a necessary counterbalance to massive global inequity.

Here’s the author’s blog post on the book.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.