It’s Not Easy to Help People

Food for Thought @ Moon Man

I stopped by Moon Man to check out his latest creation, “layer steam cake,” which was excellent. I parked myself by his booth and chatted with Nigel while he made new batches of coconut pancakes. The topic of Ethiopian food came up because of the recent video produced by @foodandfootprints. Nigel told me he hasn’t had Ethiopian food that impressed him.

When I think of Ethiopia, I think of my parents telling me to eat everything on my plate because children are starving in Ethiopia. After I moved to the US, I was surprised to learn that Ethiopia is globally famous for their starving children. The organizations like Band Aid and USA for Africa, and the songs like “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and “We are the World” cemented that fame forever, but I seem to recall Japanese parents using the “starving children in Ethiopia” argument at dinner tables long before Bono became famous.

Sure enough, Wikipedia has a page on “Famines in Ethiopia” that keeps track of the history since 1535, and a quick search on Google revealed that it’s still an ongoing problem. How could this be? Something is amiss, but the humanitarian organizations seeking donations do not explain why it’s still a problem. We know it’s a drought that causes food shortage, but droughts are not a new problem for Ethiopia. It’s a predictable phenomenon. The elephant in the room is: Why can’t they be prepared for it?

After digging around for about an hour, I found a compelling answer. “The 30 major famines during the 20th century all happened in countries led by autocratic rule or that were under armed conflict, four being in Ethiopia.” Famines do not happen in democratic states because the politicians do everything they can to prevent them for fear of losing their power. Dictators, on the other hand, have no such incentive. The aid organizations, therefore, have to decide whether to work with the autocratic government (thereby reinforcing their power) or to go undercover—a tough call because even the latter could help maintain the status quo.

As much as we love helping people (because it makes us feel good), there rarely are cases where we can do so guilt-free.