Ethiopians attack BBC’s doom-laden coverage
25 years after Band Aid, old footage ‘deters investors and scares off tourists’
Ethiopian tour operators, in London for this month's World Travel Market, have addressed a furious open letter to the BBC's Director General, concerning the Corporation's recent coverage of the drought in Ethiopia. The letter, signed by some 25 companies, accuses the BBC of casually dramatising its broadcasts with footage from the infamous 1984 famine.
"Ethiopia," they wrote, "has changed beyond all recognition since 1984, yet the BBC insists on showing images from that time. They are very intrusive and are deeply upsetting to many millions of Ethiopians."
But beyond the matter of stung pride, the tour operators insist that the "doom-laden scenario" implied by the BBC's use of old newsreel damages the national image, deterring foreign investment and scaring off tourists. "Investment, trade and tourism are key to Ethiopia's development," they claim "more so than aid."
Which is true. The tourism industry currently accounts for approximately five per cent of Ethiopia's GDP and tourism is a "featured component" of the government's Poverty Reduction Strategy. With about 400,000 tourists a year, the country is still not exactly a hotspot, but adroit marketing of events like the 2007 'millennium' and the annual Addis 'Marathon' (10km) have seen visitor numbers increase steadily over the last five years (visitors, incidentally, who invariably comment on green the country is).
The Ethiopians are not hiding the scale of the current problem, either - they can't afford to. Poor rains in the first six months of this year, above-average food prices, and shrinking levels of routine foreign aid, have resulted, by the government's own figures, in 6.2 million empty mouths. Just to see out the rest of 2009, Ethiopia will need some 350,000 metric tonnes of additional foodstuffs: $120m worth.
But "there will not be famine again in Ethiopia," promises Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The state has built (with Chinese assistance, of course) more than 100,000km of new roads to facilitate distribution, shelled out for more food, arranged for the berthing of extra supply ships in Djibouti, and increased trucking capacity. "The government has an efficient early warning system and keeps stores of food for times of shortfall."
Unfortunately, though, Ethiopia's shortfall policies can still only cater for a couple of million people in a good year. Moreover, these are all emergency measures, addressing the results of food crises, not the causes.
Ethiopia's constant need for aid stems largely from increasingly frequent droughts, wars both internal and external, and a population (thanks, ironically, to all the improvements of the last quarter-century) expanding by two million a year. But it is also the result of bad agricultural policies.
Chief among these is the fact that all land is state-owned (a hangover, perhaps tellingly, from previous famine-struck eras). This stifles growth, since farmers can't take out loans against the land, and fosters inefficient subdivision as plots are endlessly divided through the generations.
The result is that, in one of the fastest-growing economies in the world (according to Economist predictions), the agricultural sector employs 80 per cent of the workforce and yet 40 per cent of the country lives below the poverty line; agriculture accounts for half of Ethiopia's GDP and one of her chief imports is food.
Ethiopians, meanwhile, tend to blame donor nations for dumping grain on them, rather than giving them cash to buy it locally. My enquiries also met with a reminder that more than 12m Britons receive government subsidy of some kind (which would have been a neat comeback if, given the circumstances, the correspondence hadn't also sported the line: "Ethiopia, the water tower of Africa").
But whatever the immediate cause of the current crisis, the BBC's lazy Geldof-ite coverage certainly isn't helping its effect. Worse, it is not the first time this has happened. In 2004, Michael Buerk's '20th anniversary' broadcasts prompted a raft of cancellations from prospective visitors under the impression that famine was once again rife. Again, Ethiopian tour operators complained.
To date, neither letter has had a response. The BBC well deserves the rap on the knuckles and the Ethiopians deserve an apology. ·
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