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The Gentle War: Famine Relief, Politics, and Privatization in Ethiopia, 1983–1986



  • The views expressed here are Alexander Poster's and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.


Alexander Poster's article, “The Gentle War: Famine Relief, Politics, and Privatization in Ethiopia—1983–1986” examines the Reagan administration's efforts to resolve Cold War disputes through humanitarian assistance. With the Vietnam War fresh in minds of both Congress and the American public, Reagan officials dealt with hesitancy when they pressed for military and developmental grants for foreign nations. M. Peter McPherson, administrator for the Agency for International Development, discovered a solution to the Reagan administration's problem. McPherson noted that Americans still supported humanitarian objectives abroad and sought to incorporate humanitarian relief into President Reagan's foreign policy strategy. The Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s resulted in the largest mobilization of relief resources in U.S. history. The American response was both a humanitarian effort and a targeted attempt to discredit socialist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. American policymakers drew up their policy with the intent to strengthen rebel areas, discourage collectivization of land, and take credit for most of the relief effort. Thus, disaster relief in Ethiopia served a dual purpose: to provide humanitarian aid and to further American security interests.