The diplomacy of food

September 7 1987

The diplomacy of food

September 7 1987

The diplomacy of food


When the African famine captured the attention of the world in 1984, the Canadian government chose David MacDonald as Canada ’s emergency co-ordinator for famine relief MacDonald, now 51, a former Tory MP from Prince Edward Island, gained widespread prominence in his job of overseeing Canada ’s relief effort. In 1986 Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed him ambassador to Ethiopia. MacDonald, who in 1979 served simultaneously as secretary of state, minister of communications and minister responsible for the status of women in Joe Clark’s government, was recently in Toronto. He spoke to Maclean’s Senior Writer Mark Nichols:

Maclean’s: How do you split your time between aid and politics?

MacDonald: Aid is the predominant issue, although you can’t develop any kind of a program without taking seriously all of the political issues, particularly during this period. Ethiopia this year is going through a major political shift— from the military administrative council that has operated since the 1974 revo-

lution to the establishment of a people’s democratic socialist republic of Ethiopia. There were elections in June to elect an 835-member national parliament called the Shengo. And in February the country approved a new constitution. Maclean’s: Will this really change the Ethiopian government?

(We have slowly moved to the notion that there should he some criterion against which we mea -sure our programs'

MacDonald: I don’t know. It is going to change it in one sense. There is going to be a legal constitutional structure that every Ethiopian will be able to use as a reference point. There is already a fair bit of talk about all the political prisoners who will have to either be taken to court and have some new process take place or be released.

Maclean’s: What about the government’s controversial resettlement program? MacDonald: That has been on hold for more than a year and a half. But resettlement is only taking into account about 600,000 people who were basically moved from one end of the country almost to the other. The criticism focused particularly on the way they were moved, the involuntary nature and the conditions under which they were transported. The big program of social change is ‘villagization.’ We estimate that at least eight million people have been villagized—regrouped within the region where they have been living. Maclean’s: One contention is that this is just a step toward collectivization and that it is going to destroy the country ’s social structure. Do you agree? MacDonald: I honestly don’t know. Some would say it is benign. Others would say that it very much has the seeds of what you are saying. There is no consensus among the international community that I have found. But in the regions where the people have been keen, villagization has worked not badly. Maclean’s: Why would people want it? MacDonald: In most instances it means that they get better services. Clean water is the most basic thing, but some health services have come with the package, as well as some education and some community organization in terms

of improving their own farming situation. That is the good side. The bad is that in areas where people have resisted villagization, it seems to me not to have worked very well.

Maclean’s: In the part of Africa that you are familiar with, are our aid programs accomplishing the right things?

MacDonald: The starting point is that we don’t have a very large aid program. Our main field of activity has been in west Africa and in the key Commonwealth countries. But the horn of Africa has been almost beyond our range—we have had very small programs in both Ethiopia and Sudan for the past 10 years, but they are a drop in the bucket. Maclean’s: Why is the region important? MacDonald: To start with, there are about 105 million people in the horn of Africa. And we can’t avoid getting drawn in every time there is a major crisis—as happened during the famine. Roughly two-thirds of our famine response went into Sudan and Ethiopia. Having crawled back over the edge of the precipice, they are hanging on by their fingertips. One bad drought or collapse of a major commodity and they are back to where they were 2V2 years ago. It’s a question of whether we want to keep going in with the fire engines or whether we try to do something with other key players to get at the fundamental causes of the famine.

Maclean’s: What is wrong with our aid programs?

MacDonald: I’m not sure that we have ever taken a reference point and said, ‘Okay, here are our main objectives over the next five to 10 years in Africa.’ If we are going to do a whole bunch of programs in Africa, how do we measure

each of those programs or each of the commitments that we have made against the main goals that we have set for ourselves? I don’t think that we have taken that step. We have made a series of commitments that we haven’t bothered to put into any overall framework. Maclean’s: Why is that?

MacDonald: I think we have operated up until now with what has been described as a responsive aid program. We look at each possible project on a fairly case-bycase basis, and we have only slowly— and I think somewhat painfully—moved to the notion that there should be some kind of principal criterion against which we measure all these things.

Maclean’s: What should that criterion be?

MacDonald: I think the principal criterion at this stage is to try to develop an overall food-security strategy. In other words, the principal issue is some ability on the part of African countries to control their own basic food self-sufficiency. Most of them can’t do that, for a variety of reasons.

Maclean’s: Does such a criterion not exist in the Canadian government? MacDonald: I would say we are going through the process. The government has already made a declaration that this would in fact be a criterion. The pieces are gradually struggling to come together.