Described by one reporter as “a biblical famine in the 20th century,” the 1983-1985 Ethiopian famine was a humanitarian crisis that was initially little known to much of the rest of the world. For six months, General Mengistu Haile Mariam, the leader of the military junta ruling Ethiopia, refused to acknowledge the famine–even as millions of people starved. When USAID Administrator Peter McPherson visited Ethiopia at the height of the famine, he was appalled by the scope of the suffering. And he resolved to take action.
Back in Washington, McPherson met with President Reagan and showed him photographs of the famine. In an Oval Office meeting, Reagan agreed to overlook political differences with the Mengistu regime and uttered the famous words, “a hungry child knows no politics.” U.S. policy changed, and the aid began to flow. The Live Aid concert and expanded press coverage solidified public engagement and support. But McPherson’s engagement with Reagan was also critical.
McPherson returned to Ethiopia and was again outraged, this time by delays in food delivery. USAID hired its own vehicles to transport food aid from Ethiopian ports to people in need. Other donors relied upon the Mengistu government to transport the food, and refused to publicly hold the government accountable when the vehicles did not show up. McPherson asked a colleague to surreptitiously photograph other donors’ clearly-marked food assistance lying uncollected at the ports. Armed with photographs of wasted food and visible donor names, McPherson gave local ambassadors a choice: join USAID in issuing a public call to action or be embarrassed before a global public that was finally beginning to pay attention to the crisis. Days later, a press conference was held and the food began to move.
During his tenure as Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (1981-87), Peter McPherson combined realism and idealism to protect USAID from budget cuts, a loss of relevance, and domination by the State Department. He worked on diverse challenges—from family planning in China to economic policy in Egypt—and was equally adept in political battles as in meeting the challenges of promoting development and providing humanitarian aid around the world. Read more