Academic journal article African Studies Review

Beneath International Famine Relief in Ethiopia: The United States, Ethiopia, and the Debate over Relief Aid, Development Assistance, and Human Rights

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Beneath International Famine Relief in Ethiopia: The United States, Ethiopia, and the Debate over Relief Aid, Development Assistance, and Human Rights

Article excerpt


This article analyzes the conflicting interpretations of famine, relief aid, development assistance, and human rights by the Ethiopian and American governments, and the complexity of each government's policy and motives. It argues that in the 1970s and 1980s, the Carter and Reagan administrations faced the moral and political dilemma of assisting people in Ethiopia who were in desperate need without strengthening the hostile Ethiopian government in the process. And the government of Ethiopia had to make the difficult choice of accepting American aid on American terms at a period in Ethiopian history when doing so was politically suicidal. That America provided the aid and Ethiopia accepted it exemplifies the conduct of international relations in which human dignity compels nations to accommodate one another even within the boundaries of their mutual antagonism.

Résumé: Cet essai analyse les interprétations en opposition concernant la famine, l'aide humanitaire, l'assistance au développement, et les droits de l'homme pris en charge par les gouvernements éthiopien et américain, et la complexité des législations et motivations des deux gouvernements. Il est affirmé que dans les années 70 et 80, les gouvernements de Reagan et de Carter ont fait face à des dilemmes moraux et politiques concernant le devoir de soutenir le peuple éthiopien qui avait désespérément besoin d'aide, sans au passage apporter son soutien au gouvernement hostile du pays. De son côté, le gouvernement éthiopien a dû faire le choix difficile d'accepter l'aide du gouvernement américain selon ses termes, à un moment de l'histoire éthiopienne où une telle décision était un suicide politique. Le fait que les États Unis aient proposé leur aide et que l'Éthiopie l'ait acceptée est un exemple probant du principe guidant les relations internationale, selon lequel la notion de dignité humaine conduit les nations à faire des compromis au sein même de leur antagonisme mutuel.


Two polemical interpretations pervade the literature on the international response to famine in Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s. The first group of analysts argues that Western ideological antipathy toward "revolutionary" and "socialist" governments accounted for the anticommunist West's "erratic" and "reluctant" response to famine in Ethiopia. Writers who support such theories focus on the attitude of the United States. They argue that the conservative and anticommunist Reagan administration deliberately withheld or delayed American assistance to Ethiopia in the hope of inducing a change of government in that country and to make it an example of failure of revolution and socialism in Africa (Cuny 1989; Gill 1985; Hancock 1985; Jansson 1990; Shepherd 1985).

The second group of analysts argues that the authoritarian policies of Ethiopia's revolutionary government, and its hostile attitude toward Western countries, discouraged the United States from assisting Ethiopia at its moment of greatest need (Kaplan 1988; Clay & Holcomb 1986; Varnis 1990). According to Stephen Varnis, the problem was not American reluctance to assist Ethiopia, but rather the difficulty of assisting a government of Ethiopia that was reluctant to accept American aid (1990:7,143). David Korn, the American chargé d'affaires in Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, reinforces Varnis's argument about the Ethiopian government's uncooperative attitude (Korn 1986). Donald Peterson, the U.S. ambassador to Somalia from 1978 to 1983, who later served as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan Administration, takes a somewhat different poisition, contending that the American response to famine in Ethiopia was shaped by the appalling human rights record of the Ethiopian government under Mengistu Haile-Mariam and uncertainty in Washington about the extent of the famine (Peterson 1986).

However striking these perspectives are, the circumstances under which American aid was granted or withheld need more detailed analyses than have been attempted. …

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