Is there a way out?

Compassion | History tends to repeat itself when it comes to helping the poor and oppressed in countries like Ethiopia
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 1/05/19, 09:44 am

Here’s an abridged Chapter 1 of Freedom, Justice, and Hope: Toward a Strategy for the Poor and the Oppressed (Crossway, 1988). I wrote the full version a long time ago as a member of the Villars Committee, which led a partly successful drive to change thinking about international relief and development. The same old, same old still holds significant sway in practice, but some U.S. programs show understanding that person-to-person and church-to-church aid is usually far more effective than government-to-government grants.

As we in America ate up our Thanksgiving leftovers last year, the sad stories began appearing in newspapers and magazines—again. “Still hungry,” blared the headline over one Associated Press story. “Ethiopians reap fear of famine,” wailed another. These were not leftover stories, but ones newly carved. Despite the 1984-1985 efforts of Western governments, charitable organizations, individual citizens, and even rock musicians, another cycle of mass starvation was underway in one of the world’s saddest countries.

Flash back to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in September 1984: Huge triumphal arches, with slogans such as “Long Live Proletarian Internationalism,” stand erect in the center of the city. Big poster paintings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Ethiopian dictator Mengistu line the streets, as the government and those loyal to it celebrate the 10th anniversary of the military coup that overthrew the old regime. Ten thousand school children, drilled by North Koreans, parade in Revolution Square holding up colored cards that spell out in Amharic “Down with Imperialism.”

Addis Ababa has the look of progress in September 1984. Roads are freshly paved, and buildings freshly painted. Ethiopian Airlines has just become the first airline in Africa, and only the sixth in the world to put into commission Boeing 767s, two of them, bought for $120 million, with credit for the purchases arranged through the U.S. government–backed Export-Import Bank. A machine tools factory, a cement factory, and the “ultra-modern” Congress Hall that serves as the seat of government, complete with a 2,000-seat cafeteria, have just opened.

But at roadblocks just outside the city, soldiers are turning back starving peasant farmers and their families. Men, women, and children had walked for three weeks hoping to find some food—but they are not allowed to get close to the 2,000-seat cafeteria.

Journalists who began hearing of the story learn that thousands of Ethiopians are walking in search of food, and tens of thousands more are too weak to walk. In the northern countryside, nursing mothers are too malnourished to produce milk. Children lie crying on the ground, crying and dying. They are far from the 2,000-seat cafeteria.

When some journalists ask questions, the Ethiopian government denies that its economic programs have contributed to the famine. Officials blame Western countries for not sending more aid. Many in the West, particularly Christians, do respond. Food begins arriving. The International Red Cross then charges that the Ethiopian government is deliberately starving the non-Marxist peasants and diverting aid to military forces. “Either you just want to send a lot of food to the country, or you really want to help the starving,” Red Cross operations director Jean Pierre Hocke noted in February 1985. “In the second case, what is happening is unacceptable.”

Some food does get to those who need it, saving some lives. But much of what we sent out of Western goodwill never makes it to the starving. Probably 1 million Ethiopians die.

Much of what we sent out of Western goodwill never makes it to the starving.

End of flashback—beginning of current dilemma. History seems to be repeating itself. What can we in America do? Our first tendency, when we hear an appeal for government or private contributions for Ethiopia, is probably to say, “No.” Why should we come to the rescue of a government that wastes resources in such a profligate way and shoots farmers who try to act sensibly? One that suppresses trade and forcibly places its own people in collective farms likened to concentration camps? Won’t our aid end up hurting, by allowing the government to spend even more of its funds on centralized military and political power? What can we do when a government terrorizes its own people?

Time played off Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9), by asking, “What if my brother already has a keeper, one who has a gun and who claims the right to decide whether my brother will get any of the food I send him?” Time quoted a U.S. relief administrator’s complaint about Ethiopia’s Marxist leaders: “By forcing farmers who do grow more than they consume to sell to the state at prices below the cost of production, they are not providing the incentive to produce the maximum that the land, however poor, would yield.”

Time also noted comments by Rony Brauman of the French charitable organization Doctors Without Borders: “The aid Ethiopians need is diplomatic pressure, not food. If we have a duty, it is to pressure the government to change its policies. Otherwise, in two or three years, we’re going to see the same bodies, the same TV footage.”

And yet, when we look at today’s footage of starving children, it affects us far more than a thousand vehement words, however true. We want desperately to do something, anything, to help. If there is a chance of support getting through, we want to try. Some negative elements creep into our thought as well: If we do not do something, anything, we feel guilty. Or perhaps the subjective act of giving is vital in itself. Is it the thought that counts?

And so we end up asking our government to send aid—“with safeguards involved,” of course. And we contribute to charitable groups. We feel we have to. But we are gritting our teeth. And we’ll give and grit, grit and give, again and again. The contrast between our own Thanksgiving dinner and the starving child is too great to ignore, even though we have little hope about the outcome.

But at the same time we think that there must be a better way—if not for Ethiopia this year, in the midst of famine, then for Ethiopia over the next few years, once the greatest urgency is over, and for Botswana and Burundi and Burkina Faso, for Cape Verde and Chad and the Central African Republic, for Senegal and Somalia and the Sudan, and for other countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Must we go from famine to famine? Liberals tend to say that more aid is the answer. Conservatives often suggest those people should be self-reliant. Are those the only two alternatives?

Liberals tend to say that more aid is the answer. Conservatives often suggest those people should be self-reliant. Are those the only two alternatives?

Flash back to nearly 2,000 years ago. Thousands of hungry people gather around a new prophet. He teaches and heals them. Then, “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.’”

The disciples, thinking as materialists, ask the logical question: “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” They have only seven loaves and a few small fish. But Jesus tells the crowd to sit down on the ground. He takes the seven loaves and the fish, gives thanks, then breaks the food into pieces and hands them to the disciples. They in turn distribute the food to the people.

Then comes one of the amazing lines of the Bible: “They all ate and were satisfied.” Was this a sense of comradeship that spread among the people so they have psychological fullness even when stomachs were distended? No, this was real food, for “Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” Were there perhaps not as many hungry people as there first appeared to be? No, the number of “Those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 15:32-38).

It is important to note that the people were fed, on real food. It is also important to note that those whose eyes were opened received sustenance far more lasting—they could also see, from Jesus’ dominance over nature, that He is the Son of God. They could learn, as Jesus told His disciples, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

That was an extraordinarily hard message for even the disciples, who were traveling with Jesus, to understand. They kept falling back into materialism—and so do we. Soon after Jesus showed the nature of the world and of Himself by feeding the multitudes, He again had to castigate the disciples: “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand?” (Matthew 16:8-9).

Today, we still do not understand. Jesus turned seven loaves and a few small fish into food for thousands. We take food for thousands, send it on ships or planes to Ethiopia or other countries with full knowledge that much of it will be siphoned off, and believe we are doing the best we can when seven loaves and a few small fish get into the stomachs of those truly in need. Are such miracles-in-reverse all we have to offer? We move from Thanksgiving leftovers to the singing of Christmas carols: “Joy to the world! The Lord is come. … No more let sins and sorrow grow. / Nor thorns infest the ground; / He comes to make his blessings flow / Far as the curse is found.” We sing those words—do we mean them?

Here is a test with one main question: Why are some countries prosperous and others poor? Many American Christians will give the same materialist answer as non-Christians: Look at soil, rain, and other natural resources, examine roads and machinery, and if a country is deficient in either food or factories, transfer what is needed from rich to poor. But what about the spiritual changes that are needed to make godly use of material? Do we talk about those? And if we do, do we talk about body and soul in a dualistic manner, with economic advance and spiritual uplift seen as two activities, separate and unequal, rather than a Biblical unity?

More questions come to mind. What if we were to look hard at the Biblical assault on materialism, an assault that does not deemphasize the economic but thrusts into deeper levels of alienation, imprisonment and enslavement? What if we were to emphasize the effects of spiritual reorientation on all areas of life, with salvation, repentance, healing, and restoration revealing their visible aspects? Are such questions merely theoretical, or will concentration on them help us find ways to break the cycle of famine in many countries, and the cycle of give and grit among economically blessed Christians?

In the Spring of 1987 a group of 40 evangelical Christians from around the world gathered in Villars, Switzerland, under the auspices of Food for the Hungry and the Fieldstead Institute. Our goal was to take a new look at Biblical mandates for international relief and development work. For five days we engaged in intense discussion, debate, and private reflection, our energies focused by a number of prepared study papers. This book represents an attempt to share some of that reflection with a wider group. The chapters that follow, all based on conference papers and discussion, are of wide variety, but a common denominator is the attempt to transcend materialists’ emphases without neglecting the mandate to provide real bread as well as spiritual bread to those in need.

Contemplating the sweep of history does not allow us to forget the crushing needs of today, but it does remind us how life can and does change over time, and how poverty can be turned into prosperity.

Three images remain in my mind from the consultation. First, I remember Udo Middelmann of the International Institute for Relief and Development, a brilliant speaker, looking out at night over the lights of Rhone River valley villages from our meeting place high in the Alps. He told of the long history of the valley, of Hannibal with his army and elephants marching through it, of early settlers fearing the mountain gods, but of the Swiss century by century turning inhospitable areas into pleasant places indeed. Contemplating the sweep of history does not allow us to forget the crushing needs of today, but it does remind us how life can and does change over time, and how poverty can be turned into prosperity.

A second image in my mind is of Ted Yamamori, head of Food for the Hungry, telling of an African girl dying, with the girl’s mother saying, “It is fated that she should die,” and Ted saying, “No, it is not.” When the girl received adequate medical attention, she did not die. Perhaps, among some people, a bit of their fatalism did die. Physical renewal and a change in worldviews could go together.

A third image that remains is of the assembled Christian leaders at the end of one long discussion, where many perspectives had been presented and some important but wearisome wrangling about the relation of law and grace had just ended. The person selected to close us with prayer had a hard task, since sometimes prayers can be used as weapons. What words would he choose? Would he lean to one side or another? That person chose—the Holy Spirit chose for him—the best words of all, and as he spoke all of us joined in: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread …”

This book is more a prayer than a textbook. It does not pretend to be in any way comprehensive. Instead, it tries to open up what we hope will be a fundamental debate on Biblical mandates for relief and development. It is evocative and tentative. But if the 21st century is to be a better one for the oppressed than the 20th, Christians cannot wait for every jot and tittle of analysis to be in place. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus had such compassion that He would give His life for all of us who recognize that we are harassed and helpless. In our helplessness, we want to begin an effort to help today’s harassed.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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  • CGK's picture
    Posted: Sat, 01/05/2019 04:34 pm

    Didn’t Ethiopia just get a new president, who has instituted several reforms over the last few months?  Ended the war with Eritrea? Liberalized the media restrictions?  Brought women into the government?  There are a lot of Ethiopians with FB accounts.  They can’t all be starving.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 01/06/2019 07:19 am

    It's not completely obvious, but this is republished from a few decades ago: " Here’s an abridged Chapter 1 of Freedom, Justice, and Hope: Toward a Strategy for the Poor and the Oppressed (Crossway, 1988)."