May 20, 2003


Helping Binyam, When His Mother Won't


DI KEIH, Eritrea

Alas, there are several good reasons not to help starving Africans.

I wish the famine were as simple as the local governments portray it: as a drought that has left 40 million Africans at risk of starvation. But after jouncing over rumors of roads in Ethiopia and Eritrea, I've met too many children like Binyam Berhane.

Binyam is a 14-month-old boy in this town in southern Eritrea who came within a whisker of starving to death. But before you reach for your checkbook, I should add that his mother, a 20-year-old woman named Senait Derhane, looks healthy and plump. She was wearing a nice dress and had purple nail polish on her toenails.

She acknowledges that the reason she doesn't have food for Binyam is that the Eritrean government drafted her husband to fight a (senseless) war still simmering with Ethiopia. In his absence, she has no income and no one to work the fields.

So sure, there is a severe drought. But it has only aggravated a chronic shortage that is the fault of governments and individual families.

What breaks your heart is the sight of healthy parents cradling skeletal children. Petros Loka, for example, is a young man with the hint of a potbelly — yet he was at an Ethiopian clinic with his 7-year-old son, David, who was admitted at 31 pounds and looked like a ghost. Trying to puzzle out how this could happen, I asked how the family ate.

"The man eats first, and then the children and the wife eat together," Mr. Loka explained. Others confirm that across rural Ethiopia, the father eats first and the mother and children get leftovers — with the smallest kids mostly squeezed out. To address that problem, we need not just more food but, above all, education, so that, as in Ethiopia's cities, families eat together and understand the need to look out for their youngest members.

Moreover, even in a good year five million Ethiopians need food aid, and Georgia Shaver, head of the World Food Program in Ethiopia, says that "normal" may need to be redefined as 10 million in need. So the problem goes beyond the weather and includes insecure land tenure, the 29 million Africans with AIDS or H.I.V., and the lack of irrigation.

I talked to members of one family who were hungry because their crops had failed from the drought, just 100 yards from a lake. Why hadn't they irrigated? The risk of being stomped by hippos was one factor, but another was that carrying water is women's work and tending the fields is men's work, and this cultural impasse left them stymied — and starving. [women is 2nd class citizens, when you make a donation to starving kids, you are perpetuating sex discrimination against women ... like being against slavery but subsidizing the wages of slave traders]

Another problem is that food aid solves immediate problems but adds to the underlying one. U.S. gifts of grain save lives — but also lower local food prices. This reduces incentives for farmers and leaves them poorer, and thus arguably more vulnerable in the next famine.

So there are plenty of reasons not to help the 40 million at risk of starvation in Africa. And yet. . . .

I've never seen anything like the wizened children dying of starvation in Ethiopia. Even if we do our part, perhaps 100,000 Ethiopian children will die of malnutrition-related ailments in 2003, as they do in a typical year. But if the drought persists and we don't do more, the toll will rise to several hundred thousand or more.

When children are dying in front of you — or at risk of permanent brain damage if they survive — practical objections to food aid lose their force. And it's not true that giving such aid is always pouring food aid down a rathole. In the 1970's, Bangladesh perpetually seemed in famine and was famously dismissed by Henry Kissinger as an "international basket case." Since then, Bangladesh has grown economically faster than the U.S.

So just because famine is chronic doesn't mean that we shouldn't help. This fact simply underscores the importance of focusing not just on relief, but also on longer-term development. While preventing today's famine with food, we can prevent tomorrow's with irrigation ditches, schools and AIDS education campaigns.

It's astonishing how easy it is to save lives here. Give a starving kid a bit of milk and high-nutrition grain, and within a few days the eyes shine again and a smile reappears. At a Catholic-run clinic near Awassa, Ethiopia, the Italian medical director, Dr. Isabel Arbide, suddenly dashed over and embraced a small boy.

"Oh, look at this child!" she gushed delightedly as the boy beamed back. "I thought he was going to die. I wouldn't have given five centimes for his life. Now look at him!"

We also hold these lives in our hands. And while there may be several good reasons to turn our backs, kids like Binyam provide 40 million even better reasons to help.


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