Do a Google image search for “Ethiopia” most days and, three or four pictures in, you’re faced with the image that, if you’re honest, you probably associate most with the place: skeletal child, starving to death, swarmed by flies.
This is the picture Ethiopia is desperate for you to forget. But it faces an uphill struggle. It has now been 25 years since a million people died there because they had no food to eat and the grisly anniversary has seen those old photos published again, reinforcing Ethiopia’s basket case reputation.
The famine also provoked the biggest outpouring of charity the world has ever seen – something that has continued to this day, with Ethiopia the chief recipient of several western nation’s overseas aid budgets. So it took many by surprise when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said this month that he wanted his country to be able to feed itself within five years.
For some aid experts it’s an ambition too far, as some 13 million Ethiopians needed foreign food aid of some sort to survive last year.
“I think it’s a statement of intent,” a senior aid official in Addis Ababa told Monocle. “It’s the government sending a signal to the world.”
That signal is more complicated than it looks at first glance. The government wants to attract investment. It wants to shepherd the emergence of a middle class. It wants to industrialise, and to achieve that, it wants an image makeover.
But food can be political, too. African governments can sometimes find the food aid they profess themselves so grateful to receive every year used against them. Ethiopia got more than $3bn (€24bn) worth of help in 2008, which gives serious leverage to the countries that dig deep to provide it. Some of them tried to use that power after a disputed election in 2005 turned violent, threatening to cut their assistance. Meles told them to go ahead, correctly calculating that stopping feeding some of the world’s poorest people would not play well with western electorates. He was right. The cash flow continued.
Meles also knows that Ethiopia is a vital ally for the West in the Horn of Africa, where his secular government is seen as stemming the rise of militant Islamism in neighbouring Somalia.
Asked after elections in May of this year whether criticism of the poll from Ethiopia’s biggest donor, the US, worried him, Meles said, “If they feel that the outcome of the elections are such that they cannot continue our partnership, that’s fine. Clearly we are not a protectorate.”
And most Ethiopians support that stance, hoping the day will come when Google will throw up more diverse images of a slowly but surely emerging country.