[22 July 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“This is the rainy season here, and there has been no rain. The next drought may be coming.” As Aaron Brown describes the weather in northern Ethiopia, circa 2008, you’re looking at parched brown ground. As he’s just reminded you, many television viewers remember images of children from 1984, their eyes dull and wide, their tummies distended while flies swarmed round their heads. Indeed, Brown observes, a million people died of starvation that year, a tragedy made even worse by the fact that the southern part of the nation had produced a surplus of food—so much that farmers “let it rot in the fields.”
Brown recalls this history in order to set up the present, or, as he says more than once, the dilemma faced by Ethiopia, “caught between yesterday and tomorrow.” In that in-between place, Brown submits, even the imminent drought and “ever-present reality” of starvation needn’t mean catastrophe. Because now, former World Bank economist Eleni Gabre-Madhin, Ethiopian-born and U.S.-educated, has a plan.
That plan, as Brown says, is the focus of this week’s Wide Angle, airing 22 July. That plan has to do with delivery and dissemination. Or, as Gabre-Madhin phrases it, “Famine is not so much about lack of production as lack of entitlement, lack of access.” Her idea is to organize how food gets from producer to consumer, so that the traditional (lack of) structure, whereby there is no quality control, no guarantee of sellers being paid, and no dependable way of transporting food from one area of the country to another, is replaced by an updated model, a model based on national markets, rules, and warehouses.
Gabre-Madhin’s plan has been in the works for years, since she watched those images of starving babies on TV. Her recent research into markets in Africa led her to determine that if she “followed the grain,” she could come up with a sense of how it moved, and more important, how that movement could be ordered and controlled. She developed her ideas, presented them as academic papers, and eventually gained the attention of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. When Wide Angle picks up the story, Gabre-Madhin has been tasked with implementing her plan—to establish and put in motion the ECX, or the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange.
It’s plain that Brown thinks highly of her: he introduces himself by gushing that he is pleased to be meeting the “legendary Eleni.” And in the show, she appears super-competent and creative—whether overseeing her small but apparently remarkable team in Addis Ababa, visiting rural areas and village markets, or handling an unexpected workload when the nation’s coffee trade is removed from the notoriously corrupt auction houses and dumped onto her just-started exchange. As she must abandon her first plan—to build the ECX slowly—Gabre-Madhin frowns a bit in consternation, but never appears to lose confidence in her vision.
Still, following Gabre-Madhin around to watch her work the phones or inspect warehouses makes for a slow documentary. And so Brown speaks with a few other subjects as well, including her right-hand man, Ben Aschenaki, who extols her brilliance and the necessity of the ECX. Brown notes that he has left behind the “good life,” which translates as a “fancy finance job in Houston.” Aschenaki himself says he is dedicated “making a fundamental difference in their lives, change based on the little guy.”
This little guy is crucial to both the project and to the show. And Brown’s interview with a subsistence farmer named Mekonin Montboyer suggests the difficulties still facing Gabre-Madhin and her market experts. He’s focused on immediate, hour to hour issues, planting and harvesting and, in the face of the dry season, the inability to get his work done. He’s never heard of the ECX. “I met a farmer the other day,” Brown reports to Gabre-Madhin. “His concerns are basic. The idea of worrying about what something’s selling for in Chicago or New York? Please. He’s just trying to make a living.” Gabre-Madhin has an answer for this, a big-picture answer. She conceives of the effects of media and information technology, the consequences of “people” looking at trading screens and feeling the need to get on board with the program.
It does seem likely that this will all come to pass, that Ethiopia will let go of that “yesterday” and move forward. For now, though, Mekonin Montboyer’s weathered features and his sad smile as he notes he has six children to feed, suggest that the tomorrow in the traders’ minds still needs to reach to “little guys.”