TIME: There has been some dispute over how big this emergency is. What is your assessment?
Meles: We have pockets of severe malnutrition in some districts in the south and an emergency situation in the Somali region. It's not small to those who are suffering, but it is a manageable problem.
Why the dispute with Unicef [which announced 6 million people at risk and 125,000 children with severe acute malnutrition, a figure it revised to 4.6 million and 75,000 after the government protested] over the scale of the problem?
Because their assessment was patently false. I do not think there was ill intention on their part. But every country is competing for emergency resources, and the more gruesome the picture [you present], the better chance you have of receiving a large share of those resources.
What's your view of emergency aid?
It's a mixed bag. When you have an emergency, there is the urge to do whatever it takes to see people get assistance. [But that can mean]the name of the game is [to] include a bit of hyperbole, and that can convey the message that the situation is hopeless when in fact it is not, and that might do some lasting damage, given the fact that all investors take their information and make their assessments on the basis of the 24-hour news cycle. Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long , it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch - emergencies, but no famines.
SF Switzerland just pulled out of the Somali region, saying the [Ethiopian] security services there [who are fighting an ethnic Somali insurgency] were placing too many restrictions on it. Are you placing security and politics above humanitarian concerns in that area?
That's not true. Most of the humanitarian agencies are operating there. Only those who find it difficult to distinguish between political interference and humanitarian assistance are restricted. I can give my assurance that the Ogaden is receiving the same level of care as other affected parts of the country.
Do you think donors and receiving governments strike the right balance between food aid and development aid?
Some humanitarian assistance is clearly required and we very much welcome it. But clearly a large percentage of this goes through all sorts of NGOs, and I am not sure whether the money is being spent in a manner that adequately promotes development. There are excellent NGOs, good ones, mediocre ones and good for nothing ones. [Then again], development is not going to happen on the basis of external assistance. [A lack of foreign assistance] does not mean that development has to be abandoned.
What about the idea that assistance undermines enterprise and self-reliance?
An expression of human solidarity between the rich and the poor should not automatically be demeaning to the beneficiaries. There has been a transformation of Western thinking [on that score]. [Most Western countries] no longer believe that aid implies the unfortunate are in that position because they are inadequate, that Africans have brought this on themselves - although that has not been completely eliminated. Some people think African states cannot be trusted with the cookie jar. But there are absolutely good NGOs who have this feeling of human solidarity and who also recognize that their work can only be supplementary to the government.
What efforts are you making to reform agriculture?
It's primarily focused on the commercialization of small scale farms so that they supply the market rather than just the farmers' own consumption: improving seed varieties, irrigation, the whole gamut of agrarian reform and transformation, and increasing private investment in more large scale operations. We promote agriculturally-led industrialization. Farmers grow crops like coffee and sesame, and that strategy is reflected in our exports, which have gone up 25% for each of the last five years. Incomes in rural areas have improved very dramatically; we have double digit agricultural growth. That's still not enough to get us out of the hole, however. So we have a safety net program, which is very similar to the social welfare programs in the US. We cannot afford it ourselves as yet, and it is not funded by our own resources, but I am not particularly ashamed or worried about that. I suspect we will always have pockets of hunger. The big question is whether we have enough in our own economy to be able to finance the safety net program. We have not reached that stage yet.