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An eyewitness report on the `Aidgame' and the Ethiopian famine

Breakfast in Hell, by Myles F. Harris. New York: Poseidon Press. 271 pp. $18.95. ``Africa's villains are no longer exclusively white, male, or poor, nor its heroes invariably poor and black. They lay beyond such divisions....'' These lines, appearing halfway through Myles Harris's book about his recent experiences in Ethiopia, are one of two leitmotifs that run through the pages of his provocative and disturbing report.

Harris is an English physician with years of service in ``frontier medicine'' in many parts of the world. In 1984, while on duty in Australia, he was asked to head a medical unit in Ethiopia under the auspices of the Red Cross. He and his wife, Janet, a nurse, accepted immediately and flew to Geneva to receive their marching orders. There they met a number of high- and middle-level players in what Harris calls ``the Aidgame.''

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His commentaries on the activities of international civil servants, relief work administrators, FAO agronomists, World Bankers, and representatives of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) are the secondary theme.

According to Harris, the Aidgamers come in many guises. Some are cold technicians: well-trained, polished, efficient specialists, unconcerned with the sources of the problems they are set to address. They see their job as short-term crisis intervention. Some are passionate ideologues, ever willing to lay the blame for disasters like the Ethiopian famine on the economic or environmental effects of colonial exploitation, never on the machinations or manipulations of local politicians. Some are naive volunteers who raise vast amounts of money to buy food and pharmaceuticals to be distributed by ``people who see them only as prey.'' And these are only the good guys!

On the other side are the traffickers in human misery - the exploiters; the manipulators; the frightened, fawning bureaucrats; the spies and informers, and the arrogant henchmen who do the bidding of their leaders - in the case of Ethiopia, the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The two themes are interwoven as Harris takes his readers on a guided tour down the ``relief trail.'' From the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva and various offices in Addis Ababa, he leads us down rutted roads to the provincial town of Sodo, where his international team was based, back to Addis to a surrealistic meeting of representatives of major relief organizations, donor nations, and TV networks, and on to the fetid, overcrowded camps like Bati where the barren land was covered with thousands of ``ghostlike, grey, ragged figures everywhere.'' It is a study in revelation and frustration.

Harris points to the sharp difference he sees between the ``medieval village Africa'' and the ``twentieth century city Africa,'' the former ``a place [still] balanced by the strict accounting of birth and death, seasons, and the rain ...,'' the latter ``a place of fear.'' The local officials he encountered along the way and met in the offices, warehouses, and dispensaries were ``city Africans.'' For them the famine camps meant foreign aid, and foreign aid meant jobs. They constantly interfered with the execution of relief efforts as they asserted their control over the people and the would-be Samaritans, laden with their largess of compassion.

Harris's reaction to what he witnessed vacillated between awe at the sorry state of the starving ``ghosts'' who were the centerpiece of the worldwide effort to save them, and outrage at the indifference, incompetence, and mendacity of many of those he had to rely upon to help him help them. His mounting anger is palpable. It explains the bitter tone of the book.

``Breakfast in Hell'' is billed as an eyewitness account of the politics of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa. It is that and more. It is a highly personal, no-holds-barred expos'e from which one learns much about contemporary Ethiopia, the power of low-level gatekeepers, the greater power of those they fear, and the sheer magnitude of the suffering itself. One also learns much about a side of the organization - and disorganization - of relief efforts rarely seen on the nightly news.

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Peter I. Rose is the author of the forthcoming volume ``In Aid to the Tempest-Tost: The Making and Implementing of US Refugee Policy.''

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