THE ETHIOPIAN government's latest contribution to the welfare of the Ethiopian people is a forced evacuation of some 50,000 people from a refugee feeding camp, ostensibly to resume a normal life in their home villages. The resulting international outcry forced the country's leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, to disavow the action. The sequence underlines the continuing tensions between Marxist-led Ethiopia and the democratic nations supporting it, and the difficult new stage of the country's ordeal.
In Ethiopia, the West has made possible a relief effort of nation-saving dimensions. For Ethiopia's rulers, it is a great embarrassment to need help from countries they profess to abhor, to suffer the interventions the donors rightly insist on in order to bring mercy and to have to accept criticism of the regime's policies that caused or aggravated the crisis. Among the donors the thought regularly stirs of whether it is worth providing help that saves lives but also props up a squalid and hostile regime, one that has countenanced massive suffering -- especially in rebel-held areas -- to stay in power.
The very success of relief may be sharpening these tensions. The camps offer refuge but also spread disease and dependency: they are not for all time. Meanwhile, foreign donors have, through their efforts, created a possibility of starting to move people back to their old villages or to new villages. But the donors are ill-prepared for this necessary next phase.
For instance, American law permits only relief, not rehabilitation, in countries such as Ethiopia with which the United States has unresolved property and debt disputes: grain for bread, yes, grain for seed, no. In all the donor countries, the compassion that sustained the rescue of stricken children diffuses as families, saved, trickle back to the land. Development was faring poorly before the present drought-plus-mismanagement crisis. Few in the West think it makes economic sense, let alone political sense, to rebuild the country the Marxist leadership's way.
There is no clear path through these difficulties, but it helps to keep in mind what the West's priorities should be: 1) to save lives; 2) to ease the political disputes between Ethiopia and some of its neighbors that generate refugees; and 3) to let Ethiopia, for its rehabilitation, move out of the charity ward back into the realm of the international development institutions.