Starving Ethiopia

Today’s column is going to make a brief and provocative claim: the third world needs more corruption, not less. What sparked this? I saw in the AP that the United States would be joining the UN in suspending food aid to the war-torn Tigray region in Ethiopia. Why? The AP reports: “USAID Administrator Samantha Power said Wednesday that her agency “uncovered that food aid, intended for the people of Tigray suffering under famine-like conditions, was being diverted and sold on the local market.” Oh, so they mean capitalism.

No one is defending stealing food from those who need it. But using this as an excuse not to give food is worse. Especially when the entire country is reliant upon it. If these people stealing the food are so horrible, which they are, but no worse than those of us participating in the capitalist economy in other ways, well if these people are so horrible, why would they give in to hungry people? But this isn’t really what it is about. It is about the same kinds of means testing we see here for the poorest among us. The idea is that unless the charity system works perfectly, it can’t work at all.

Such discretion is not used for the military budget. No one seems to care that the weapons shipped to Ukraine are so much more than what anyone could use that they go into the hands of terrorist groups in Africa. Gun control in Africa? Gun control in Russia? What would be the use the liberals say? They’re all corrupt.

I certainly am not one of those liberals who think it is racist to shine a light on the poverty of exploited countries. When Donald Trump called African countries “shitholes” I was thrilled. Finally, someone was talking about Africa and acknowledging its poverty. This didn’t go as planned, in large part because of the fascist white supremacist messenger. But also in part because of tolerant people wanting to be tolerant of the present state of things. The problem with tolerance is that it involves acceptance when we need the opposite. We need radical change and radical intolerance of our present systems, even if they have some merits and even if we risk making things worse by changing them.

I had a similar thought as Minnesota and South Africa work to remake their racist flags. While I support this action, I have to wonder if the silencing of the historical flags is similar in some ways to the silencing of history books that address racism. It seems in both cases, while seemingly opposite, the result is the same: the history of racism is erased.

It is certainly a good thing for a Native American to not see racist images every time they look up at the Minnesota state flag but given the state of the average Native American, this would hardly be their only, or most impactful reminder of racism. However if one was not experiencing the effects of racism, having racist symbols and racist history removed could land you in a place of satisfaction and de-radicalize you. But at the end of the day I am planting my own flag on not being such a reactionary leftist. We have enough of those. The theory of starting with seizing the flag, and ending by seizing the land is certainly less far-fetched than the theory many on the online left hold: start with coddling the white snowflakes, end by abolishing capitalism.

But I bring up the example of Native Americans because their story in the United States fits with my earlier theory. We started with simply theft and genocide. That was how we built wealth. This was the only mechanism. As wealth grew we diversified our ways to make money but we needed that initial mass grab, obviously. Once you have that big of a head start you can exploit anyone, and do it many ways and you can look smart and complicated while doing so. But everyone knows the story.

Why couldn’t the same opportunity be given to leaders of the third world? Whatever happened to trickle-down economics? Once you have money the way to make money is to invest it in the economy, exploit land and labor, and you get more out. Simply giving aid prevents any country from building wealth because no one receiving charity is allowed to exploit others. Without exploitation, no wealth can be built. Warlords don’t want to be warlords forever. They want to develop civilizations and compete with the imperialists who run civilizations.

All of this points to why we should not believe in capitalism. Universal exploitation is not the solution. However solving poverty, within capitalism, does not come from aid. Rather it comes from local communities being able to build an economy that can grow. This growth inevitably destroys the resources we need to sustain ourselves and competing growers collide and go to war in one way or another to win. So it makes sense why many countries must be kept in permanent poverty and dependence for the system to function. But if we did want to overcome capitalism, perhaps we know the right pressure points.

Sa’eed Husaini was talking on the Bungacast that while Nigeria, for example, is a tremendously corrupt country there is a different way to think about it: scale. He broke down the numbers Nigeria’s revenue since independence is about 800 billion, about the same as an annual United States military budget. So if a Nigerian steals it is the same as if a Nigerian earns. It’s not nearly as much as an American. It may hurt Nigeria internally but the idea that it is something that will be felt around the world is nearly as silly as those who blame shoplifting.

A shoplifter who can steal clothes for her children is growing the economy far more than any of those big job creator types who skim off the top. She is successfully investing in where dollars make the most impact.

Another part of the Ethiopia story confused me: “Power told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 26 that the food theft appeared to involve “collusion between parties of both sides of the conflict.”” So the two sides could progress from barbaric war to collaborating to a monopoly on selling food to the poor? Isn’t that what we call progress?

Capitalism is no alternative to war. It is the generating of resources through coercive exploitation. To make money one must have those who will work, those who will buy, those who will invest, and so on and so on. All of these things rely on some version of peace and anyone who wants to maintain peace in their region will have the incentive to take care of their population, not give them power, but at the very least, find a way to distract them, keep them desperate enough to work, send some to school to learn how to not fight, train these people with skills to make capitalists more money by increasing technology, throw some in jail, but not all, give some charity, but without a guarantee, all these things we have come to know. Complexity. Diversification.

We know why Ethiopia won’t be allowed to sell its own food. We know why its people will starve until they cave in to the imperialism of the UN. We are in the age of post-colonialism. An age where the grip colonial powers have is more totalizing than during colonial times. Presently, according to Husaini, Nigeria is giving 96% of its taxed money to its debt to other countries. This is the goal and this is why competition within capitalism will not be tolerated by the imperialist powers.

The result of course is far more brutal than any dictator could dream up. Starve your entire population or let us win. This is why, even those with the most egregious human rights violations give in to the US and its allies. It’s a game only the most ruthless can win. It’s a game you only win when you believe your own propaganda. Famine leads to civilization.

The West did two things recently that have sparked tremendous strife in the Global South. The West locked down the economy during COVID and provoked a war in Ukraine. While I have taken on the anti-vaccine left and the pro-Russia left, they get some things right. One of the benefits of these two all-consuming events in Western media was that both of them created chaos in the third world during a time when the ruling countries felt internal strife.

Now that the adults of Western democracy have returned to the room and the dust has settled it is clear that the past few years have effectively sent the Global South into a debt crisis and a food crisis far greater than before the war and the shutdown of the economy boxed out exploited countries from independent production. We shouldn’t believe that the lockdowns were about science (the working class were forced to work anyways). We shouldn’t believe the Ukraine war is about peace (we won’t let Ukraine come to the table to talk). And we damn sure shouldn’t believe that starving Ethiopians is about stopping corruption.

I never buy into the 1984 comparisons. Things aren’t the opposite. They are dialectical. It’s not true that allowing corruption stops corruption. It’s true that allowing corruption involves a mechanism of exploitation to be formed to build more wealth and that the role for the working class grows beyond fighting in a war and spreads to other tasks for capitalists. This peacetime furthers destruction because the exploitation of the environment runs without disruption thanks to a brokered agreement that can only be temporary.

Even if it weakens my argument I won’t leave things tidy. Ultimately I don’t take sides in capitalist wars. I won’t be in Russia and I won’t here. The scenario of all nationalist powers being able to exploit their populations equally or something just doesn’t seem possible or even desirable. I am merely pointing out that in this case that the starvation of Ethiopia has a political goal not unlike the war in Russia. It is to weaken the enemy at the expense of the working poor in that country. In its own backward way, the starving of Ethiopians is as exactly as it sounds. Evil may be banal but our allegiance to it is deep and must be overcome by deconstructing systems rather than passively pointing to enemies.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at