Global Policy Forum

Ethiopian Crisis is Real but not New


By Ruth Gidley

November 15, 2002

Reports that Ethiopia again faces the prospect of a severe famine made headlines in the world's media this week but aid organisations have been sounding the alarm for months that millions will go hungry unless the international community launches a major relief effort.

At the same time, some relief professionals familiar with Ethiopia's cyclical droughts said the country could withstand them better if the root causes of poverty were tackled, farming methods were improved, food distribution was free from government control and stocks were built up during good harvests.

The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) said this week that the drought was expected to push the number of people needing food aid to between 10 and 14 million next year from a six million now and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi appealed for two million tonnes of food, saying the looming crisis could be worse than the famine that killed nearly one million people in 1984.

"Drought has already occurred. People have got food shortage problems," Tadesse Mukaro, a development official with World Vision in Ethiopia, told AlertNet:

The short February-May belg rainy season failed this year and the main mehr rains, which typically last from June to September, started late and finished early.

ActionAid said food prices had increased sharply. This in turn contributed to the death of animals, a source of sustenance and income for pastoral communities in the Afar region in northern central Ethiopia, parts of the southwestern Somali region, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' region in the southeast and the Oromiya region, also in the south.

Mukaro said: "The incident has not come overnight. It has been developing over a long period of time. The nomads and the farmers in this part of the world live on subsistence and any failure in the normal climatic situation could cause such a big type of problem, any time."

Donald Mavundese, ActionAid's emergencies programme adviser, told AlertNet: "The next conceivable harvest will be August 2003, so from now until that time the families that do not have food will have no other sources. They will not be able to get food from their own production, even if they plant in March/April."

NGOs last sounded alarm bells about food shortages in Ethiopia in 2000.

Paul Smith-Lomas, humanitarian director of Oxfam GB told AlertNet: "There was a bit of a drought two years ago and therefore some of the coping mechanisms that people have are exhausted. This is another wave on top."

Mukaro said that even more people were affected by the current crisis.


NGOs said familes had sold tools and other assets, food stocks were depleted, cattle had starved, and people had already exhausted all of the loans at their disposal. Marcy Vigoda, CARE director in Ethiopia, said in a statement: "This is not only a food emergency but a water, health, agriculture and livestock emergency."

Aid agencies said that parts of Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Somaliland and Sudan were also suffering from drought. "The whole Horn has got a problem," said Mavundese. Mavundese said more than four million Ethiopians had been living on food aid during the past five years, and 80 percent of the population lived below the poverty line, putting a large burden on the government.

Average life expectancy in Ethiopia is 44, according to the U.N. Development Programme. Just 24 percent of the population have access to treated water and more than one-tenth of babies -- 117 of every 1,000 live births -- die before reaching the age of five.

Smith-Lomas said: "Drought shouldn't always necessarily translate into a food crisis if you had a healthy economy and alternative agricultural methodologies that weren't entirely reliant on rain-fed agriculture."

Fabrice Weissman of the Paris-based Médecins sans Frontií¨res (MSF) Foundation told AlertNet that droughts were localised in Ethiopia and the centre-west -- Ethiopia's grain basket -- had good harvests. "It would be perfectly possible to come up with a distribution system that didn't penalise producers," Weissman said.

Mavundese, who returned from a trip to Ethiopia last week, said: "In our travels we came across some families harvesting, and then you go into an area where there is a food deficit and a problem. It's an oversimplification to say that the people who are experiencing food shortages should have some access to those who have harvested."

He said African subsistence farmers worked the land to meet their family's immediate needs. "They have to send their children to school, they have to pay for some health care, so they sacrifice overstocks to sell to get money to meet some of the household needs. It means that if they have a drought they have nothing to fall back on, but if a child needs health care, they can't not do that."


According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Ethiopia exported 200,000 metric tonnes of coarse grains during the 2001/2002 marketing year. "Even if there's a drought, you can't help but see that some regions produced plenty," said Weissman.

Aid agencies said the root causes of poverty needed to be addressed, and the focus should be on long-term solutions. Mukaro said: "Currently, the only way out is to give grain so that life can be saved. In the long term, we have to plan for such incidents."

Smith-Lomas said trade imbalances with the developed world needed to be addressed and falling coffee prices had hit the Ethiopian economy.

Mavundese said: "Governments have the responsibility to assist their nationals and should be at the forefront of digging deep. However…poor families are affected by trade decisions made in the West. He said that alternative methods should be investigated, such as restructuring the layout of communities to make irrigation more viable, or water harvesting in areas where water was close to the surface.

According to Weissman: "It's the government who evaluates the population's needs, evaluates the comparative needs of different regions, and gives the statistics of people in need, which receives the aid and then distributes it." As a result, he said, the WFP and aid agencies depended on government evaluations and distribution. "It's not really possible to carry out an independent study."

Weissman said that the government's hold on power was precarious. "The coalition in power is controlled by a minority party, so they want to use their power to stay in government. Food aid is used to satisfy the sectors who legitimise their political survival."

He added: "Food provision in Ethiopian rests on two pillars -- national food production and international food aid. There's very little commercial importation of food, because the economy is so weak, so the stocks are only just enough to feed the population.

"In 30 years the population has doubled, but food production has only increased by 50 percent."


Weissmann said farmers were particularly affected in the Highlands, where they were plagued by soil erosion, deforestation and basic agricultural techniques.

The nomadic pastoral peoples of the Somali region were equally hard hit, he said, adding that their way of life had been endangered in the past 50 years by developments such as the encroachment of irrigated farmland on ancient grazing lands.

"Ethiopia is likely to be faced with growing food crises in the future and it's not even down to drought or locusts, but the product of an economy that's tilted against certain sectors of the population," said Weissman.

"Perhaps there is a need for emergency food in some areas right now, but an alarm cry is simplistic in denouncing drought as the principal cause and it covers up political and structural causes and perpetuates the system that creates the famine. It's sensationalist and irresponsible."

In Weissman's view, a better response from NGOs would be to pressure the government to authorise independent Ethiopian NGOs to work on strictly humanitarian criteria. "Donors don't question the government control over distribution, because they perceive it to be very efficient." "A more responsible position to take would be to acknowledge that the governmental system works badly."

Despite his criticism, Weissman said: "There has to be response. It's ridiculous to say that Ethiopians are receiving too much food aid. It's true that it's a country with chronic food shortages, and even the people in a better situation are still borderline. In a precarious situation, you have to decide to help the people whose lives are in danger."

Referring to comparisons with the disastrous famine 18 years ago, Smith-Lomas said: "People seem to forget that in 1984 that there was a massive war going on and lots of the food needs were the result of the war and not the result of a natural phenomenon. The problems of moving food around then were more to do with war and security than roads and infrastructure."

Despite the high-profile Live Aid fund-raising promotion of 1985, many people in the aid industry now say that humanitarian assistance became a tool of war.

Fiona Terry, director of research for MSF and author of "The Paradox of Humanitarian Action: condemned to repeat?" writes: "Drought, harvest failure, and unsound government agricultural policies were secondary causes...Relief was thoroughly manipulated, denied to areas not held by the government (of Mengistu Haile Mariam), and used as a weapon to control populations."

Mavundese said: "Any agency like ourselves are concerned in any country where you have a food crisis and you also have conflict. That can degenerate into a famine. The challenge is that the poor people are not players at that political table, even in their country. The democracy is not transparent."

NGO representatives said the food crisis in southern Africa was worse than in the Horn of Africa, and pledges covered less of the south's needs.

However, Elizabeth Brown, press officer of CARE International UK told AlertNet: "If the countries that have pledged to support with funds or cereals or supplies come through, that would be very helpful, but many of those pledges in response to the requests of the government of Ethiopia have fallen short so far and even the estimates are short of the likely needs. They just haven't delivered yet."

Mavundese said there was credible room to source grain within Ethiopia. "Before looking outside, let's explore the avenues to find the grain within the country. That helps the local economy as well." "Ethiopia strikes me as an abnormal situation that becomes normal, so that is what we have to guard against," Mavundese said.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.