Uprooting the Root Causes of Famine in Ethiopia

Uprooting the Root Causes of Famine in Ethiopia
By Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia
Nov 3, 2002


                                    Uprooting the Root Causes of Famine in Ethiopia


                                                            Ghelawdewos Araia


            I am grateful to those concerned Ethiopians who have taken the initiative to extend their relief support to the starving fellow Ethiopians. In point of fact, one of these concerned Ethiopians is the Houston based group and I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse their noble initiative.

            However, while appreciating relief efforts, the main theme of this Article is ‘uprooting famine once and for all.’ Therefore, I will thematically highlight development strategies to eradicate famine from the Ethiopian landscape. In order to make a more meaningful discourse on the conquest of famine, I shall first address the misconceptions surrounding the causes of mass starvation.

            It is an elementary notion and quite obvious even to the uninitiated that the disappearance of rain can cause drought and subsequent famine in Ethiopia. But, it is also abundantly clear that the culprit behind drought and widespread starvation is not as such lack of rain but the vulnerability of a given society that wholly depends on a rain-fed agriculture. The incredible irony is, while Ethiopia encounters drought and famine almost every decade (now perhaps every half a decade) despite the blessings of hundreds of major rivers and thousands of streams, Egypt with an ecology that does not witness rainfall and the country depending on the Nile waters of Ethiopia, is a major exporter of food crops, especially beans.

            By the same token,  China and India, once known as lands of famines, now (thanks to their sound government policies and development strategies) they have not only gone beyond  rain-fed agriculture, harnessed their waterways, and diversified their economies, but also became relief donors themselves.

            Nature as a whole and climate in particular are not to be blamed for the cyclical famines if we critically examine it  in light of the living examples of countries mentioned above that managed to defeat hunger successfully. If we continue to blame nature for the causes of the Ethiopian famine (whether this conceptual framework is cynical or engendered by genuine ignorance is immaterial), we shall miserably fail to understand the vagaries of famine and possibly come up with a wrong diagnosis and hence wrong prescription.

            In order to have clarity on the phenomenon of famine, we must first be able to combat ambiguous, elliptical, and seductive explanations of the Ethiopian famine. Put otherwise, we must avoid sentimental and superficial analysis of mass starvation shrouded in mysticism and religious overtones.

            Once we begin to see beyond the rather seductive and ironic depictions of the famine encounter, we will be in a position to recapture a glimpse of the real causes of famine and cautiously avoid the conflation of natural calamities with ‘man-made’ famines. It is from this standpoint that I like to argue that the Ethiopian famine is largely caused by human forces and not by nature, and to be sure far from starving, Ethiopians should have enjoyed the fruits of a breadbasket  from “Garden of Eden.” (See my argument in The Paradox of Bread Basket Starving Ethiopia, September 2002 ).

            The ‘Garden of Eden’ and/or ‘Bread Basket’ theories are corroborated by the Pan African News Agency (Dakar, February 8, 2001) as aptly put in its report: “It may sound paradoxical, but as informed sources at the Global Environment Facility (GEF) assert, starving Ethiopia could well pass for the world’s seed basket! The very mention of Ethiopia readily evokes sad images of raging battles and starving children – of a people bereft of the bare necessities of food, clothing and tranquility. The last likely image is that of a nation whose farming practices help provide food and jobs in places as far away as Europe, Asia, and North America. Yet this largely unknown profile is a vital part of Ethiopia’s complex reality.”

            Ethiopian scholars and professionals (experts in agronomy, rural development, development economics, political economy, and related fields) have an opportunity to seize the moment and explore the true profile of the Ethiopian enigma and contradictions of a famine prone society. This complex and complicated scenario will ultimately be unraveled, though I gather there will be a tacit collusion with the powers that be and other global interests who wanted to bury the truth in the arid zones of Ethiopia.

            In any event, in spite of the hidden profile of Ethiopia, the cruel irony is that the country is unable to feed its own people. What is to be done to stamp out famine from Ethiopia?  In one of my articles (Combating Future Famines in Ethiopia, East African Forum, April 2000), which I still consider relevant to the current situation in Ethiopia, I have posed the following questions and attempted to discuss them vis-à-vis the relapsing hunger and the miserable condition of the Ethiopian people:

            “What can we do to deny famine a future in Ethiopia? Can we really conquer famine and usher development agendas for the 21st century? To answer the above questions, we need to seriously engage ourselves in addressing strategies for development in Ethiopia, the only sure way to stamp out famine from the Ethiopian landscape…”

            The precondition to development and the eradication of famine in Ethiopia, should, as a matter of course, entail ‘ecological awareness’ that will enable Ethiopians to preserve the remaining forests (only 2.7% of the original forest is now in existence) and replenish the now barren lands with a massive reforestation program. Planting trees, however, is not enough unless supplemented by a sustainable and stringent forest  management program.

            The second major undertaking that Ethiopia must consider is to harness the major rivers and utilize them for irrigation and hydroelectric purposes. In this regard, some projects were developed during the Derg regime and the present government of Ethiopia, but it is not adequate when it comes to the conquest and eradication of famine. Irrigation will enable Ethiopia to bid farewell to rain-fed agriculture but it is not going to be an easy development strategy, for it will require a huge capital intensive initiative. But it does not mean it is not realizable at all. With sound public policy, domestic devotion, and international aid, Ethiopia can successfully overcome the drawbacks of a rain-fed agriculture.

            Irrigation also will have its side effects. There are some scientists who are opposed to the extensive use of water through irrigation, because the latter cause salinity and sedimentation problems. However it is better to use irrigation and pay the price of ‘silt and salt’ later than depend on rain-fed culture and suffer mass starvation. After all, desalination programs can drastically lessen this problem and also help prevent the destruction of algae and midges, which are sensitive to salinity.

            On top of the above two major undertakings, Ethiopia can also consider scientific methods to combat drought and famine that I have cited in The Politics of Famine and Strategies for Development in Ethiopia ( Doctoral dissertation) and that is also recommended by the US National Academy of  Sciences:


            . Expansion of water supply through such means as publicly financed irrigation

            projects, water catchment projects, wells and desalination efforts.


. Expansion of both central and local, on site food storage facilities to reduce waste through improved handling and distribution techniques and to facilitate pest control.


. Crop selection substitution and multiple cropping development activity over an extended period and should consider a middle and long-term effort.


          Similar recommendations were made by the FAO dry land agronomist P. T. S. Whiteman who undertook “Agronomy Research in Drought Affected northern Ethiopia.” In 1977.  Incidentally, one off the objectives of the Whiteman team was to “conduct observation on soil-water-plant relationships and introduce and test measures likely to conserve moisture and/or enhance the efficiency of its use.”

            Most importantly, famine can be defeated with certainty if a holistic and highly diversified development package is seriously considered to overhaul the Ethiopian economy and lead the country toward a sustainable agricultural and industrial development. In this context, the ‘agriculture-led industrial development’ is a suitable policy and development agenda if fully implemented to realize a situation beyond famine.

            Diversification of the economy could embark Ethiopia on the threshold of ‘denying famine a future,’ but it could not be a guarantee unless the country makes a transition from a mono-culture agriculture to a multi-cropping system with emphasis on food crops, and this transition will certainly serve as a lynchpin for industrial development.

            Once the cornerstone of  the above development strategies is laid, it would be of utmost importance to consider the participation of the Ethiopian peasants so that they themselves could experience food self-reliance. Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, in their remarkable book Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcities, have promoted insightful ideas that are essential to grassroots rural development and food self-reliance:

1. Food self-reliance requires the allocation of control over agricultural resources to local, self-provisioning units, democratically organized.


2. Food self-reliance depends on mass initiative, not on government directions.


3. With food self-reliance, trade becomes an organic outgrowth of development, not the fragile hinge on which survival hangs.


4. Food self-reliance requires coordinated social planning.


            The participatory mobilization of the Ethiopian peasants, as we shall see below, is prerequisite to the overall food security and the ultimate objective of uprooting the root causes of famine. In relation to the “social security of food”, I am tempted to recommend the reader to have a look at a very important book by R. E. Downs et al entitled Political Economy of African Famine (Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology, 1992) and read especially Chapter Two, “Cultural Construction in a “Garden of Eden”: The Influence of Ontological Acquiescence in an African Development Projects and Its Implications for Food Security.” Any open minded and sincerely concerned person can get the gist of what I am trying to emphasize in this article.

            Having made clear what we must do to defeat famine, we can now turn to the significance and importance of relief measures for our fellow Ethiopians. This too requires some scientific explanation as opposed to sentimental depiction of famine which is intertwined with mirage sensations (obscurantism!).

             There are plethora of perspectives on relief operations, but we can confine ourselves, at least for now, to only four “schools” of thought that I have discussed in my previous works and that were inspired by Thomas Stephens: 1) Relief as Humanitarian Task, sees disaster in terms of  unexpected human deprivation; 2) Relief as a Managerial Task, sees the problem of disaster relief stemming  from the need for bringing coherence and order to relief operations; 3) Relief as Development Task: If assistance is to be effective, it must concentrate on pre-disaster planning and preparedness and from an integral component of the overall development plan; 4) Relief as Confrontational Politics: the government policy of the donor country may see relief  assistance as a means of obtaining influences with the recipient country’s government.

            From the above “schools” of thought, Relief as Development Task comes very close to the  central theme of this article, and Ethiopians must not lose sight of the significance and relevance of this form of relief in the struggle to wipe out famine for good. ‘Relief as Development Task’ is inextricably linked to crisis management in wide spread famines and relief operations.

            In Anatomy of Disaster Relief, Randolf C. Kent discusses disaster in three phases:


1.      1.      Emergency phase: entails measures to ensure the immediate survival of victims. At this phase, ideology becomes irrelevant and the humanity school prevails.

2.      2.      Rehabilitation phase: assistance of materials to rebuild housing, provision of seeds and equipment to produce crops, to dig wells etc. Rehabilitation is concerned with those basic steps required to restore the community to a point where it can stand on its feet again.

3.      3.      Post-rehabilitation: overlaps with general approach to development. This stage may also promote pre-disaster planning by community organizations.


On top of the above disaster phases, other important criteria for relief are:


1.      1.      Preparedness: usually incorporated within ‘National Disaster Plans’ critical resource lists maintained and updated, emergency simulation exercise undertaken, risk areas monitored and Early Warning Systems (EWS)developed.

2.      2.      Prediction: Famine indicators can now be analyzed with more accuracy, thanks to technological advancement and the interplay of the latter with socioeconomic understanding. Satellites can now detect pre-famine syndromes such as soil erosion and deforestation.

3.      3.      Assessment: must include at least the following: provision of food, transport, medical supplies, water supply, financial supply; the condition of rainfall, crop production, and market prospects; aid for relief and rehabilitation

4.      4.      Appropriate Intervention: follows ‘Assessment’. If the assessment is correct and reflects the social and economic complexities of the famine situation, it will enable domestic and external relief workers to intervene accordingly.

5.      5.      Timely Intervention: if aid is not received on time, i.e. when the famine victims needed it most, it is not aid. Timely intervention also includes when to stop aid; it is not only an awareness when aid should be delivered. The objective is to defeat famine and not create permanent beggars! Hence, our ‘Post-rehabilitation’ phase mentioned above.

6.      6.      Coordination: is by far the most important tool in the criteria of relief, but cannot be effective without the other five criteria.


Ethiopia is a poor developing country suffering intermittently from famines of great proportions. As per the UNDP Human Development Indicators 2002, Ethiopia ranks # 168; the life expectancy at birth is 43.9, human development index (HDI) is 0.327, adult illiteracy rate 60.9 %, population not using improved drinking water is 76%, population below income poverty line (1983-2000) is 76.4%, people living with HIV/Aids: women number up to 1,100,000 and children up to 230,000, and  traditional fuel consumption as % of total energy use is 95.9.

The UNDP Report is a wake up call for all of us and it is for this simple reason that we need to seriously engage ourselves in any way we can for the development of Ethiopia.   Ethiopia may have exhibited some “stride in economic growth,” but the latter is meaningless unless it is meant to consciously design a  development package that, in turn, is geared toward the final blow of famine.       

Concluding Remark: As I have indicated in Combating Future Famines in Ethiopia, “it must be known that the conquest of famine in Ethiopia is a mammoth historical task and it should not be left to squarely fall on the shoulders of the Ethiopian authorities. The Ethiopian intellectual and professional in the Diaspora must be willing to contribute in the reconstruction and development of Ethiopia, and the government must create a fertile ground and incentive so that Ethiopians can demonstrate commitment. Collectively, we must deny famine a future in Ethiopia.”