Notes from the Drought

Prelude: Paris

I am here to collect my Mali visa. The Ethiopian one I already have. It came with a lecture from an embassy official on the correct attitude toward Ethiopia. It was absurd, as I must see, he said, to talk about political resettlement in that country; political resettlement is no kind of solution to anything; just by moving people from one part of the country to another you do not change their attitudes; that is not what the resettlement program is about; there is no such thing as political resettlement in Ethiopia.

As the lecture continued I looked hard and long at my shoes. It turned out, in the course of time, that there had been such a thing as political resettlement. It was we, the British, who had pioneered the art, during the Malayan emergency; we had moved thousands of Chinese as a buffer against the Communists. So who was I to talk about resettlement? In England, we decide to build a third London airport. People object. Of course they object. Then what happens? They are paid a few thousand pounds and nobody ever hears of them again. You see?

I saw. As a matter of fact, I had never mentioned the subject of resettlement. I had been asking for a visa. I was traveling, with a study group organized by Oxfam America, to look at the drought. The subject was new to me. Africa was new to me. I saw myself as an ordinary fairminded person with no particular ax to grind. How could I possibly have an ax to grind? Where would I have got it from? Still, there was beginning to be something familiar in the situation: I was beginning to remember that when you write about aid there is always an expectation of foul play.

Aid workers are if anything more sensitive and nervous than diplomats. They deal with governments of a peculiarly touchy kind. Journalists are bad news. They might be needed, yes, and they might sometimes do some good, but the rest of the time, it seems, they just fuck things up. Journalists are irresponsible. They won’t listen. They won’t learn. One stupid article can destroy years of painstaking work. These are the things you learn, as a journalist, from aid workers. Whenever I hear these things I look at my shoes. By now, I know them very well. My shoes need polishing. They are about to split at the toes. I have let them down in a thoughtless, short-sighted, and typically journalistic way.

Another lecture on Ethiopia comes from a London taxi driver, and this too has to be sat through with humility. It concerns the presumed corruption of the Ethiopian government, and it enlarges to include the corruption of all governments in the third world. The theme of the lecture can be seen coming a mile off: it is the pointlessness of charity. Look, it says, we do all this for them and what happens? Better never …

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