Dust of the Danakil by Ian Mathie
|Dust of the Danakil by Ian Mathie|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: The latest in Ian Mathie's African Memoir series gives a close-up on international aid in Ethiopia in 1974, as Ian heads up a water engineering scheme to help the drought-ridden Danakil region. Exciting, well-written and true!|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 264||Date: March 2012|
|Publisher: Mosaique Press|
|External links: Author's website|
I enjoyed all three of Ian Mathie’s previous books so it’s probably no surprise to find me praising this one too. Already, for me, this writer has set a high bar with his pared, modest prose and authentic descriptions of life as an educated white man with unsophisticated mid-African tribes in the middle of the twentieth century. His everyday life in this book is a perilous adventure – modern travel memoirs seem banal by comparison.
In Dust of the Danakil, we hear about conditions in drought-stricken Ethiopia in 1974, some eleven years before Live Aid. The author, a water engineer, is sent by the British Government to the Danakil region, on an unworkable project to harness seasonal rainfall and encourage hitherto nomadic Afar tribesmen in static arable farming. Ian Mathie surmounts huge difficulties at every step to deliver the low-tech project. Sadly, it is obvious that the scheme is doomed to long-term failure despite his successful technical abilities and diplomatic management skills.
By the way, Ian Mathie points out some piecemeal responses to drought, famine and human need. A local stockpile of grain is provided by international aid agencies but is held back from distribution for so long it is spoilt. Medics in the enormous relief camp where people die every day still care about individuals brought in from the tribe for medical attention. Corruption is endemic, cultural issues get in the way of solutions, yet some leaders wield power locally or nationally with justice and integrity.
Dust of the Danakil is in slightly different format because Ian Mathie devotes his epilogue to an indictment of Aid to Africa issues. His comments, based on experience in the field, are worth our attention. Relief alone is not enough … it just keeps alive a lot of people who would otherwise have died, to starve next year. He argues the need for development aid, educating at ground level in resource management, hygiene, nutrition and smaller families. He points out that change is possible in farming and irrigation methods, with help and encouragement, saying, I know; I was there.
Ian Mathie argues that politically-driven governmental aid is questionable, since it is inevitably tied to loan and trade agreements. Little aid filters down to ground level, due to corruption. He argues for transparency and payments conditional on output in the future, as well as cancellation of Third World Debt at the highest level. In order to escape the downward spiral of repeated famine (the numbers affected in 1974 were two million, whereas today it is twelve million), Africa essentially must become economically viable and attractive to investors, taking control of its own destiny.
In reality, I expect the world will carry on as it does now, he concludes. Can any of us offer a more optimistic view?
Aid and Other Dirty Business: How Good Intentions Have Failed the World's Poor by Giles Bolton and Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty by Scott Kilman and Roger Thurow both give interesting overviews of the problem and possible solutions.
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