World View

Famine or farce in Ethiopia?

Sixteen years after television cameras first brought the plight of Ethiopia’s starving millions into our living rooms, sparking the Live Aid rescue mission of 1985, history appears to be repeating itself on the Horn of Africa.

Just as it needed live images of children starving to death to shake Western governments out of their complacency all those years ago, having had prior warning that a famine was on the cards, so too now has the full threat of a famine had to become a reality before the world could sit up and take notice.

This time round, the Ethiopian famine was well predicted. In April of last year, the UN’s early warning system (GIEWS) reported that two years of drought were threatening two million people in Ethiopia with starvation. Nobody listened. Five months later, with further rain failures, the World Food Programme warned that 5.3 million Ethiopians faced starvation. Still, the cries fell on deaf ears. In January of this year, a UN mission in Ethiopia reported that 8 million faced starvation and that 800,000 tonnes of food were urgently needed to avert catastrophe.

At the beginning of April this year, the Ethiopian story finally hit the news headlines, but now with 16 million facing starvation in Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, and with a further two million expected be added to this figure if the May rains fail to save the June harvest.

Perhaps many Ethiopians will recall the comments made by one key Ethiopian minister back in 1998 and recounted recently in the editorial of one Ethiopian daily.

In Kissingerian* fashion, the minister in question announced that “hunger in Ethiopia is already a thing of the past . . . has already been eliminated” and that Ethiopia would be food self-sufficient within five years and producing a food surplus ( Tamret Bekele in the Addis Tribune, 6 April).

Of course, we cannot criticise this individual for failing to foresee the present tragedy. He after all has no more control over the weather than the Ethiopian economy. But his remarks do point to the misplaced confidence people have in the present system and the inability of capitalist society to avert catastrophe because of its insistence in prioritising profit before need and in failing to implement long-term provisions.

Most of the aid given to Ethiopia in the 1980s was spent on emergency provisions, with little set aside for forward planning and for heading off the problems that made rescue missions so difficult back in ’85. Roads and bridges came low on the list of priorities, as did systems for storing what water did fall on the drought-prone regions. Vulnerable areas, like the Ogaden region were known to offer precarious living conditions but no plans were made for population relocation.

Again, much is hampering the current relief effort. Firstly, as in 1985, there is another war with Eritrea, sparked by an Eritrean invasion over a border dispute and which provides western governments with an excuse to cut aid – the logic being that aid is side-tracked into the military machine. Though not exonerating the likes of Clare Short, Britain’s overseas development minister whose idea it was to penalise Ethiopia for its border dispute nor the Ethiopian government who claim they did not start the conflict in the first place, as socialists we are upset that in an area desperate for concerted human co-operation and a willingness to work together in face of an overwhelming crisis, half a million men are dug into trenches preparing to kill one another over a piece of land none of them will profit from.

As in 1985, food distribution is also proving a logistical nightmare, with poor roads and the threat of inter-clan warfare and banditry halting the relief effort. Moreover, since the conflict with Eritrea, land-locked Ethiopia has since lost the use of two key Eritrean ports And, at present, mid-April, only 50 percent of the food needed has actually been pledged, with only a small percentage of this actually getting through.

Again, the current crisis and the famine of 1984-5 were sparked off by rain failure. But there are major differences now. The Ethiopian population is now 60 million, twice its size in 1985, which means an increasing rural population has had to work, and overwork, smaller parcels of land, which could only ever produce weaker and weaker yields. Added to this has been the shrinking availability of fertilisers. Ethiopia’s use of fertiliser, at 7kg of nutrients per hectare is half the sub-Saharan average and about seven percent the world average (statistics from Addis Tribune, 6 April).

After the 1985 famine the Ethiopian government sought to hold 350,000 tonnes of food in reserve to help avert further crises, but with 50,000 tonnes remaining at the beginning of April, it is evident a massive overseas contribution is needed to help provide the basic 7.2 million tonnes needed to feed the Ethiopian population in the year ahead.

What percentage of pledged food actually gets through remains to be seen, but it’s a fair guess it will fall far short of the 1.2 million tonnes the Ethiopian government estimates is needed urgently. Again, it is too early to predict whether or not the May rains will come and provide a desperately needed source of water to a country in which only 27 percent of the population have access to clean water even in the wet seasons, as well as saving the June harvest.

Only a month ago this journal reported on the natural disaster Mozambique encountered when the skies dumped a year’s rain on the country in a few short weeks, flooding tens of thousands of square miles. It seems something of a sick irony that we now comment on a country a few thousand miles up the same east coast of Africa that has awaited rain for three years.

In the years ahead we can well predict to comment on further natural disasters as the effects of global warming kick in and, more, to continually point to the failure of capitalism to effectively mobilise its vast technological resources to the benefit of those in direst need. As in Ethiopia 15 years ago, so too now will history continue to repeat itself, as tragedy, then as farce.

*At a world food summit in 1973, Henry Kissinger announced that global hunger would be eradicated within 10 years. There were then 400 million chronically malnourished people on the planet (a 75 million increase over the previous ten years). That figure now stands at 800 million.
John Bissett

Target Indonesia

Is Australia preparing for a possible war with its erstwhile ally Indonesia?

In outback Western Australia, on a road to nowhere (actually a place called Warburton north of the Great Victoria Desert), lies Laverton; and nearby there is a forest of metal towers, military structures, which form part of a new, until recently secret, “Jindalee” over-the-horizon radar network that spies on Indonesia. There are similar radar sites at Longreach in Queensland and at the United States/Australian Joint Defense Space Research facility at Pine Gap, south-west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. These link to 16 beacon sites from Ajana, north of Geraldton in Western Australia, through RAAF Leamouth, RAAF Curtin, Broome, Humpty Doo, Horn Island south of the Torres Straits opposite New Guinea, Queensland, and downwards to RAAF Schenger and Lynd River¸ also in Queensland. Importantly, they link to a beacon station on Christmas Island, an Australian possession 250 miles south of Jakarta. The while system connects to RAAF surveillance headquarters in Adelaide.

The network enables radar operators to observe all air and sea traffic up to 2,000 miles beyond the Australian northern coast, and halfway across the Indian Ocean, to link up with the United States base on Diego Garcia, without the need for air or sea patrols.

According to the West Australian (18 March) the Jindalee network underpins “Australian defence planning based on repelling an invader through the Indonesian archipelago”. The Laverton base has twice the range of the Longreach and Alice Springs sites. The new radar system is so accurate that its operators in Australia can see RAAF Hercules C130 troop carriers turning on their final approach Dili Airport. And Jindalee radar can also detect US stealth bombers, which normally remain invisible to ordinary conventional, land-based radar. The cost, however, has not come cheap. Comments the West Australian:

    “Jindalee’s losses have contributed to more than $1 billion overspent on botched Australian defence projects. Mismanagement of the original Jindalee project cost prime contractor Telstra a whopping $609 million in cost overruns before the project was rescued in 1997 by Lockheed Martin.”

Another $250 million was required for the first two of Australia’s six new Collins Class submarines; and another $272 million is needed in the current year to top up the original “defence” estimates to refit two former United States Navy ships for the Royal Australian Navy.

At the time of writing, there are about 40,000 Australian troops in East Timor. They are not there to defend Timorese workers, but to defend Australian business interests and investments, the vast oil fields and reserves under the sea between East and West Timor and northern Australia and, if necessary, to take on the Indonesian armed forces in any future dispute. It should not be forgotten that, in 1964, the government of Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, planned to bomb Indonesia and its capital, Jakarta, if it escalated its confrontation with Malaysia. And, in fact, Australia sent troops as well as the SAS into Indonesian Borneo/Kalimantan. Such are the priorities of capitalism.


Irish workers feel the pinch

All is not well in the “Celtic tiger”. Just after trade unions, employers and the government were passing the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF)—a national agreement on pay and conditions—Dublin bus drivers were taking strike action in support of a 20 percent pay claim with the promise of more to come.

For the employers, government and trade union leaders, the PPF is presented as a genuine attempt to divide up Ireland’s new found wealth equitably between capitalists and workers, but in fact it is an attempt to head off the increasing likelihood of further class struggle as the Irish economy shows signs of slowing down.

The PPF which is set to run for a period of 33 months, allows basic pay to rise by 5.5 percent for each of the first 12-month periods and four percent in the final four-month period. However, linked to pay rises are agreements on productivity increases. This had led to unions such as the Teachers’ Union of Ireland rejecting the deal outright whilst others such as SIPTU (public-sector—including bus drivers) and building workers (BATU) are threatening militant action.

Dubbing Ireland the “world’s fastest growing economy” has almost become a cliché of late. Over recent years a combination of EU membership and subsidy plus massive Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from American multinationals desperate to set up inside the single market has propelled the economy forward. Last year a growth rate of 7.5 percent was recorded and this year, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) a rate of 7.25 percent is expected. However, with six percent being predicted for 2001 the importance of the PPF for the employing class should be obvious. However, many Irish workers do not feel that they are fully participating in this new prosperity. They are certainly working harder—often in low paid employment—but the capitalists have been the main benefits of the boom.

Another problem for the capitalist class is that the Irish economy is facing a potential labour shortage which on its own terms threatens the growth of the economy. This has led to the government actively recruiting skilled labour from overseas (including Irish emigrants) to bridge the gap. Some economists have pointed out that such a policy is likely to put intolerable pressure on public and private housing in terms of provision and surging house prices (especially around Dublin). However, a labour shortage puts the working class in a strong position and clearly the employers wish to counteract this.

The labour shortage problem was foreseen by the government as early as 1995 when it passed immigration legislation deliberately widening the definition of “refugee” in order to recruit skilled labour. This, however, has not prevented anti-asylum seeker outbursts from leading politicians and headlines in Irish newspapers talking of “floods” in much the same way as tabloid newspapers do in Britain. Asylum-seekers have been blamed for the shortage of public housing, but a cursory look at the government’s own figures reveal that this problem already existed. The Labour Party leader Rory Quinn has even suggested that asylum-seekers with skills should be integrated into Irish society for everyone’s benefit, which is reassuring for everyone but especially the capitalists who can smell profit from asylum-seeker labour power.

As boom turns to recession, which under capitalism is as inevitable as night following day, expect to hear more from the Emerald Isle as workers begin to fight for a bigger slice of the pie and the capitalists remind everyone of “social partnership” and the PPF, not to mention the asylum-seekers—the usual scapegoats.

Highland Hypocrisy

Spare a tear for that hard-up aristocrat John MacLeod of MacLeod. The poor man’s castle is badly in need of repair so he has had to put on the market his beloved Cuillins. This is an area of real estate consisting of 35 square miles of mountain range, bordered by 14 miles of coastline and two salmon rivers. So desperate for the readies is the poor fellow that he is prepared to let it go for a mere £10 million.

    “I regard the Cuillins as priceless”, he said. “They are part of my soul and putting them up for sale is an extremely painful experience. They are my ancestors. Our clan grew out of the history of the Cuillins” (Times, 23 March).

What the fellow doesn’t tell us of course is that, like all Clan Chiefs, his ancestors stole the land in the first place. The ownership of the land was vested in the whole clan until the Chiefs stole it from them. It is a process that is well-documented by Karl Marx in Capital:

    “The Highland Celts were organised in clans, each of which was the owner of the land on which it was settled. The representative of the clan, its chief or ‘great man’, was only the titular owner of this property, just as the Queen of England is the titular owner of all the national soil. When the English government succeeded in suppressing the intestine wars of these ‘great men’, and their constant incursions into the Lowland plains, the Chiefs of the clans by no means gave up their time-honoured trade as robbers; they only changed its form. On their authority they transformed their nominal right into a right of private property, and as this brought them into collision with their clansmen, resolved to drive them out by open force” (Volume I, page 681).

The journalist John MacLeod mockingly describes how the title of “MacLeod of MacLeod” is another piece of robbery as the man exulting in that grandiose title was actually born John Wolridge-Gordon. Commenting on the proposed sale of the estate, he digs up some edifying information about how a previous MacLeod “great man” tried to raise money:

    “In 1739 The MacLeod kidnapped dozens of his tenancy and attempted to sell them as slaves to Barbados” (Herald, 4 April).

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