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Aid and famine in Ethiopia

I was struck by the article [``Ethiopia makes money on donated food aid,'' May 20] that explained Ethiopia's profit scale on donated grain. By charging an entry fee of $12.60 on every ton of imported grain, the Ethiopian government will make $15 million in 1985. Such a policy creates serious ethical questions as to what United States response should be, especially considering the corruption already existent in Ethiopia's Marxist regime. America's history of generous humanitarian aid is to be commended. But when assistance is used improperly, US means to the end must be reassessed. In Ethiopia's case, long-term agricultural development will benefit the poor citizens in a more effective way than tons of grain blocked by a confused system.

The United States does have a responsibility to Ethiopia's famine victims. But if assistance is used unethically, it is our duty to channel the dollars in other ways. Unless entry fees are eliminated, and grain utilized, the US should drastically reduce direct food aid. The greater responsibility, then, is for the US to pour energies into development and political programs. In this way, ethical politics will merge with the meeting of human needs. Karen Zimmerman Seattle Pacific University Seattle

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As an Ethiopian social scientist, I feel that Jason Clay's May 16 letter to the editor describing Cultural Survival's upcoming report on the causes of Ethiopia's famine leads the public to jump to dangerous conclusions on the basis of unreliable information.

The assertion that ``Policies of the government are the primary causes of famine'' is disputed by some experts on Ethiopia who are critical of the government policies. Some say government policies by themselves did not cause the famine. Famine in this area has been witnessed since the 9th century. Such factors as soil erosion, deforestation, high population growth rate, civil war, and topography are what makes famine so severe in this region.

The study Clay writes about is based on interviews with refugees who fled to the Sudan. But an understanding of the current crisis requires examination from many angles that no such one-dimensional approach can possibly reveal. Trying to identify the causes of famine from speaking only to the refugees is as unreliable, not to mention as unscientific, as trying to analyze the course of unemployment in the United States only by interviewing the unemployed. Incidentally, Mr. Clay asserts incorrectly that ``Research on the causes of famine is not allowed in Ethiopia.'' A leading Ethiopianist, Mesfin Wolde Meriam, for one, has for years conducted such research to produce his recent book ``Rural Vulnerability to Famine in Ethiopia: 1958-1977.''

The letter implies that humanitarian aid advances the policies of the government and therefore should be withheld. While Mr. Clay is entitled to his political opinions, nowhere has he made it clear how this opinion can be substantiated even by Cultural Survival's own dubious findings.

World hunger is a physical and spiritual threat to humanity. Until we know for sure the causes of Ethiopia's famine, based on a more scientific research, I would hope that humanitarian agencies will continue their efforts to relieve the immediate misery of Ethiopia's famine. After all, as Goethe once wrote, ``The question to ask is not whether we are perfectly agreed, but whether we are proceeding from the common basis of sentiment.'' Alemneh Dejene Harvard Institute for International Development, Harvard University Cambridge, Mass.

Letters are welcome. Only a selection can be published and none individually acknowledged. All are subject to condensation. Please address letters to ``readers write.''

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