Dec 29 2014

Tigray: 30 years after hell on earth…

(Greg Dorey – UK’s Ambassador to Ethiopia)

The latest Band Aid song focuses on Ebola. Rightly so, whether or not you agree with all the lyrics. During the festive season 30 years ago, when the original track was cut, the focus was on Ethiopia – specifically the northern region of Tigray.

Everyone old enough will recall the news reports and the images accompanying that 1984 song. Starving and lifeless children. Desperate parents. Dry, baked earth. Flies. Tigray was understandably described as “hell on earth”.Tigrai map

The 1984 famine was “biblical”. Eight million people were directly affected. Up to a million died. Warfare and severe drought were the main causes.

Bob Geldof launched Band Aid and the public response was immense. When we visited Tigray last week the Regional President told us: “help from the people of the UK is something we still remember until now”.

The 7-minute BBC report which drew attention to the famine has been called the most influential TV footage of all time. And the famine images still affect the perceptions of many people when they hear about Ethiopia. But 30 years later, the reality couldn’t be more different.

Today’s Tigray must represent one of the most impressive development stories of our time. Last week we had the privilege to visit Korem, the epicentre of the 1984 famine, and Mekele, the booming, industrial capital of Tigray.

Korem

In 1984, Korem was a barren plain. 300,000 suffering people were gathered in makeshift shelters. Epidemic disease was raging and 100,000 died there. Farmers became gravediggers.

We visited the graveyards of the famine victims with Ato Haile Melekot, who worked for Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) in Korem during the 1984 famine. He told us: “there was no hope”. 100,000 Christians and an unknown number of Muslims lie in those graveyards.

But today Korem has an estimated population of 150,000 healthy inhabitants. The hills are green. Fields of wheat and millet are being harvested. The mountains are covered with indigenous trees.

And the future? We visited Kola Tsihidi primary school on the site of one of the camps set up during the 1984 famine. Few of their parents had been to school – certainly not the mothers. Now many of the 800 children there want to be teachers – or doctors.

Why doctors? Next to the school is the Korem general hospital, built as a (very practical and useful) monument with UK funding from Band Aid, The Volant Charitable Trust and The Rowan Trust. UNICEF help manage it.

Towards food security …

In rural Tigray, poverty is down and people are increasingly food secure. We visited a site of the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), supported by UK aid. In the area surrounding Korem there are 25,157 beneficiaries. Now leafy and green, the landscape has been rehabilitated through public works to build terraces and irrigation schemes. Across Ethiopia as a whole, PSNP has lifted an estimated 1.6 million people out of poverty.

The Tigray Agriculture Research Institute (TARI) – just outside Mekele – is defining the future. It develops crop varieties (many of them climate smart) and technology for smallholder farmers.

TARI was recently presented with awards by Prime Minister Hailemariam for developing two new strains of sesame which are being exported to the UK.

30 years ago there was not a green leaf to be seen. Now there are fresh vegetables in the markets. A senior researcher told us: “There’s no such thing as bad land, only bad people!”. It seemed to sum up Tigray’s past.

…and industrialisation and international investment

We also visited the very impressive MAA Garment and Textiles Factory. An example of best practice, MAA is operating to international standards, supplying top class companies like Tesco. 30 years ago the MAA site was next to a military camp. Now the factory has a workforce of 1,600, of whom 90% are women.

Mekele is fast becoming a textile hub. Two new factories are being built – by Italian and Bangladeshi investors. Tigray is famous in history for its warriors, but now the talk is of economic advance. Making wealth, not war.

In discussion with the Mayor of Mekele and the Heads of the SME Association and Investment Promotion Office, the talk was of one-stop-shops, industrial zones and economic clusters. Again and again, one word dominated – “opportunity”. Opportunity in tourism. Mining. Livestock. Textiles.

Mekele itself is forecast to grow from 400,000 to 1.5million people by 2040. There is an ambitious urban development plan underpinning this. Building modern industrial zones is central to the plan.

The Regional President was understandably bullish. About the progress made. Poverty and unemployment down. Improved access to health, education and water.   And the future – with plans and priorities for investment (rail, roads and telecoms). We also spoke about the 2015 national elections – where it was encouraging to hear of plans to make these “transparent, free and fair” – and the impact of refugees fleeing from Eritrea.

Full circle

The Ethiopia famine of 1984 changed the face of modern humanitarian work. But from being famine-ravaged itself, Ethiopia is now host to the more refugees than any other African country. They come from Somalia and Eritrea – and an additional 200,000 arrived in 2014 alone from South Sudan. Here too, the UK response has been substantial and swift in proffering support to the UN and a range of NGOs.

While many humanitarian challenges sadly remain across the world, one that will not be in the headlines this Christmas is Tigray.

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*Originally Published on FCO on December 9,2014

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