Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One day in 1988

I have been a hunger activist since 1980. From street level volunteer work to the highest levels, where policy is determined in Washington DC.

I have also lived and worked among the homeless in various places in England and Australia, and in Los Angeles, CA and Washington DC in the United States.

For the period 1987- 1989 I was Legislative Director of RESULTS. In this capacity I was responsible for the creation of a microcredit program at the US Agency for International Development, and for establishing a relationship between RESULTS and microcredit that continues to expand, to the benefit of the poor and disadvantaged all over the world.

My boss at the time, and the other full-time staff member, was Sam Daley Harris, founder and Executive Director of RESULTS. Currently, Sam is CEO of the Center for Citizens Empowerment and Transformation.

During the early part of the campaign to get the Congress to earmark funds for microcredit, (then called micro-enterprise), I was ably assisted by RESULTS group leader and intern from Cornell University, Alexander M. Counts, currently President of the Grameen Foundation.

Congressman Ed Feighan of Ohio agreed to introduce the legislation. The staff person, serving as Legislative Director, and Chief of Staff for Rep. Feighan, was the very capable Mr.George Stephanopoulos, currently anchor of ABC's Good Morning America.

The two senior technical advisers were Dr. John Hatch, founder and managing director of FINCA (now retired). FINCA is one of the largest and most successful microcredit institutions in the world, with lending operations all over central and south America, as well as eastern Europe and Africa.

And Dr. Muhammad Yunus, founder and managing director of the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2006, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

It is my view that the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh is the most successful human endeavor in existence. This was my view in 1985 when I first came across micro enterprise, and lobbied in the RESULTS management committee for the inclusion of Grameen Bank as an institution RESULTS should specifically support.

It was view in 1987 when, at my insistence, micro enterprise became the sole focus for the first RESULTS legislation, which it was to be my job, as Legislative Director, to shepherd through the congressional maze.

It remains my view.

This is now supported by the fact of more than 100 million of the world's poorest families who currently enjoy a sustainable escape from poverty through the workings of micro-credit.

And the sustained drop in birth-rates that microcredit is certainly a factor in creating in Bangladesh is very significant -- demonstrating conclusively that the most efficient path to a stable population is to focus on improving the conditions of the poorest women.

There are many other profound, and significant external benefits to microcredit, but I have written of this elsewhere and that is not my purpose in this journal.

This story of two days in 1988 is singular, and of interest principally to the millions who were facing starvation at the time. But for those few million people it is a very significant story, and I place it here for the public record.

As best as I can remember, this is what happened over the course of two days in 1988.

In January or February of that year, Sam Harris and I had a meeting with Mr. Kelly Kammerer, who was the most senior AID official at that time in Washington, DC.

Mr. Kammerer had requested the meeting to discuss the possibility of a search for common ground. The Agency had found itself on the opposite side of many of our recent campaigns, most particularly microcredit, and wanted to see if there were some issues on which we could work together.

This meeting had been scheduled six weeks earlier, at about the time the passage of the continuing resolution sealed our victory in the initial microcredit campaign.

The day before the meeting Sam handed me a letter as I arrived at the office at about 9:30 in the morning. The letter was from a RESULTS volunteer in Leeds, England. On the first page, the word famine had been underlined in red.

In the UK there was a rumor of an impending famine in Ethiopia.

Less than three years earlier one million Ethiopians died as a result of famine, although aid efforts had prevented starvation for some seven million others before it was over. This event, which some remember as the "Live Aid" famine because of the concert organized by Irish musicians Bob Geldorf and Midge Ure, which resulted in a massive, though belated, aid effort.

Sam asked me to call the aid organizations and see if I could find out what was happening.

I called CARE, Save the Children, and Catholic Relief Services and the USAID Ethiopia Desk. I was told that there might be isolated pockets of famine, but nothing like three years ago, nothing like that.

I kept gathering information, because nobody I talked to actually seemed really sure what was happening. Eventually I was referred to Mr. Pierre Michel whom, I think, was responsible for the UNHCR program in Africa.

I called UN Headquarters in New York, and I identified myself to the secretary as Michael Rigby, calling from RESULTS in Washington DC. I was surprised to be put through immediately, although I think it is fair to say that due to previous and successful campaigns on behalf of UNICEF and IFAD, RESULTS had a good reputation at the UN.

Mr. Michel explained the situation, and I report the content of our conversation as accurately as I can recall.

MJR -- I am hearing rumors of an impending famine situation in Ethiopia, and I am told that you are the most knowledgeable person on that matter.

PM -- There are three harvests every year in Ethiopia, the first two failed completely, the third is now lying dead on the ground. Even if it rains tomorrow there is no food for millions of people. We are looking at a situation every bit as bad as 1985. We need to ship a million tons of food, and we cannot do ANYTHING (emphasis in original) because we have not had an official request for aid from the Mengistu government in Ethiopia.

MJR -- I will see what we can do.

Mengistu was deliberately starving millions of Eritreans and Tigreans, and would not request aid, even though these people were Ethiopians, according to Mengistu. This was not the first time famine had been used as a weapon, and it probably wasn't the last, but it has been my experience that the real world is often nastier than most people believe possible. Mengistu was holding the capitol of the colonial territory that had been shaped by the Europeans for the specific purpose of corralling long time adversaries in the divide and conquer strategy favored by colonial powers since the time of Alexander.

Mengistu, from the minority tribe, held sway over the other two with the secret police, combined with massive brutality formula, much favored by cold war client states. Mengistu stands out though, even in that crowd, for his diversion of aid funds to military equipment, purchased to enforce his reign of terror. For his use of aid convoys as cover for moving his troops, during a massive and life threatening famine. And just for sheer brutality.

Ethiopia switched sides during the cold war, and in 1988, it was a US client state.

I reported the results of my survey to Sam Harris and he said I should call Joan Mower at Reuters and Andy Holmes at Cox Newspapers. I gave both of these reporters the relevant phone numbers and the situation as described above. Then I went back to doing my usual work for about forty-five minutes, at which point Sam suggested I call Andy and Joan again.

I reached Joan first. I asked if she thought she might be able to use the story I had given her and she said "its already on the wire" and "thanks, good story", and then I had an almost identical conversation with Andy.

Sam suggested I call the aid agencies back again. They all reported that they were gearing up for a major effort. Amazing what the attention of a couple of reporters can do.

So I called Pierre Michel at the United Nations, and asked him how much grain he wanted from the United States. He said it didn't work like that, because it was a donation, the donor countries decided how much they want to give. So I said "in previous famine situations, what proportion of the total has come from the United States", and he said "about a third" and I said "three hundred and fifty thousand tons," and he said "about that, yes".

I reported this conversation to Sam Harris. And later I went home to my wife and baby.

That night Sam called all of the regional co-ordinators, who called all the group leaders, who called all the partners, and the next day more than two hundred and fifty people spread across thirty-five cities and twenty six states scoured the newspapers looking for reports on a famine in Ethiopia. If they found one, they cut it out, and photocopied (with the masthead and the date), then faxed it  to the RESULTS office. Faxes poured in all morning, and when we left for our 11:30 am meeting with Kelley Kammerer I was carrying nine.

RESULTS was well named.

In addition to Kelly, and Sam, and myself, at the meeting there were three "gentlemen from The White House" who thought that it would be in our interests to get a hands-on understanding of the Agency for International Development, and they were prepared to fly us to any project we wanted to see, and as many projects as we wanted to see, anywhere in the world, at their expense, for twelve months.

Sam said we didn't need to fly anywhere, and we were quite prepared to cover our own expenses for research, if they would only point out to us which of their programs benefited the very poorest people, we would be happy to make them famous. They replied that there were no programs which benefited the very poorest, they preferred to target assistance a few rungs up, so that the benefits trickle down to those at the bottom. "In that case", said Sam, "we have nothing further to talk about".

At that point the White House contingent left, and into the somewhat embarrassed silence that followed their departure I interjected, "Kelly, have you heard anything about a possible famine situation in Ethiopia?" He said, "I think there was something in this morning's clippings" and undoubtedly glad to have some way of changing the subject, he checked his whole file, while I laid my nine on the coffee table in front of me.

It wasn't a big table and so the photocopied newspaper clippings completely covered it, and were falling off the edges. Kelly pulled out two sheets from his file of maybe twenty five photocopies.

And then I said. "Kelly, how long will it take to ship three hundred and fifty thousand tons of grain to Addis Ababa?".

 He said that the Agency's emergency allocation was good for something like thirty-nine thousand tons, and three hundred and fifty thousand also exceeded some other threshold, so that it would require primary legislation, for which you would have to arrange a special session of this committee and that committee and a whole bunch of other committees and then you get the President to sign it and then you can get three hundred thousand tons.

As he spoke, and named the committees we'd have to bring together, I ran through a best case scenario in my mind. If we really pushed, we could make a big enough deal out of this situation that the various committees would rapidly find a quorum, and still it was going to take months. So when he had finished speaking I responded "So, August" , this being a date several months from when this conversation was taking place.

He seemed a little surprised, because I think he knew that if we really pushed it we could make all that happen by August. I certainly believed we could have done so, (and I am also sure we would have done so, had that proved necessary). Kelly said, "Yes, that might be possible by August."

"Kelly", I said, with some considerable feeling, "Tens of thousands of people will be dead by then."


Kelly knows that on the first day of this campaign, at eleven thirty in the morning, we have press in eleven (my nine and Kelly's two) newspapers. This situation is as new for Kelly that morning, as it had been for me the day before. He knows that we are only just getting started.  Add to this that we successfully overcame the administration's opposition in the matters of microcredit, IFAD and UNICEF, largely as a result of our very effective media campaigns.

I think that the swift response of the volunteers had helped make it clear to Mr. Kammerer that we were very serious about this matter. As for the amazing coincidence of this meeting having been scheduled six weeks earlier - who can say? A cubic centimeter of chance, perhaps.

He said that he would bring the matter up at the daily briefing of the Agency Director, Mr. Alan Bond.

I don't know what Kelly Kammerer said to Alan Bond but I think its likely he recommended a significant response.


If you want to succeed in a campaign you have to go full tilt until they actually sign the necessary document -- no matter how much they protest that you are pushing too hard. The steamroller method is the only appropriate strategy in an emergency situation.

Over the course of the next few days we sent out at least twenty six newspaper clippings in daily mailings to a whole bunch of Congressmen - all the members of the relevant committees, all the members whose districts were covered by whatever particular newspaper printed the item (and once you got on our list you got all of them, whether they were in your district or not). A whole bunch of AID people, committee staff, aid agencies, and people at the UN.

To make all this happen, in Washington at that time we had a couple of cheap IBM clone computers (and sufficient expertise on hand to make them productive) and we had Sharon Mason - our secret weapon of a secretary, originally a volunteer from Tulsa, Oklahoma. And we had me and Sam.

And across the US we had Dorsey Lawson - a little old lady from Pasadena, and a couple of hundred really serious volunteers.

We were the kind of organization where the Executive Director, and the Legislative Director regularly spent Friday evenings standing at the counter in the photocopy store, folding letters and stuffing them into envelopes.

Within a few days Alan Bond was in Addis Abbaba where he announced an immediate shipment of ninety thousand tons.

The rest of the world, (prodded by [among others], RESULTS partners in England, and Canada, and Germany and Australia as well as the larger United States organization.) quickly emulated the United States, (whose subsequent further contributions brought them close to three hundred thousand tons by the time it was all over) and almost all one million tons were committed in about two months.

Not all of the aid got to where it was most needed, and probably ten thousand people did die as a result of famine that year, but that's a lot less than a million. And that's got to be a good thing.

Dreadful conditions, and frequent outbreaks of violence continue to make parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia very difficult places to live. But for a few months, many of the people who do the right thing were calling the shots, and so it allowed some of humanity's brighter lights to shine for a while. And that's a good thing too.

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