The Time Dimension of the Famine

The Time Dimension of the Famine

By Kifle Wodajo and Abdul Mohamed

 

Across the world, Ethiopia is again synonymous with starvation. In Ethiopia itself, there is growing dismay that the ghosts of

1984-85 are being resurrected, and our country will once again be depicted as the helpless recipient of western charity. We

welcome and encourage international media attention-but journalists also have a duty to report the reality in a balanced way.

 

The actual situation is both simpler and more complicated. It's simple because this is not 1984/5 when up to one million people

died in the famine. Although the UN and Ethiopian Government agree that about eight million people are 'affected', at present

there are only small pockets where death rates have begun to rise. The vast majority of the affected people are many months

away from starvation. At present they are receiving food aid, bought in the surplus-producing areas of the country by the

government, and distributed in the drought-affected regions. (So far this year the government has spent about $40 million on

relief.) If the rains fail again, and distribution programmes are not stepped up, then there may be serious hunger later in the year.

But journalists who are looking for mass starvation, or huge camps of the desperate, will not find them.

 

The national disaster preparedness and prevention strategy has been working pretty well. Warnings were given, food needs

worked out, distribution programmes begun. The strategic food reserve is almost empty-but ironic reason for this is that

international donors borrowed about 150,000 tons of cereal last year, for various relief and development programmes - and

have not repaid it. This is more than one sixth of the country's overall food deficit of 800,000 tons.

 

Since the middle of last year the response of the international donors has been sluggish, as Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Seyoum

Mesfin, pointed out at the Cairo summit. With obvious reference to the ongoing war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, International

Development Secretary Clare Short implied that any country at war did not deserve priority in British humanitarian aid.

 

Ethiopia is at war with Eritrea. It is a hugely expensive war. But it is very different from the war that devastated Ethiopia in the

1980's. It is confined to the border-while the previous civil war affected half the country, with the previous government

deliberately starving entire provinces as part of its war strategy. In the 1980s, relief deliveries faced huge problems in simply

reaching the hungry, today there are no such problems. True, the Eritrean port of Assab cannot be used-but the ports of

Djibouti and Berbera, the latter in a stable part of Somalia, are not congested, and are closer to the drought-affected area. The

controversy over Assab is a red herring.

 

In short: the famine is containable, and a combination of national and international efforts should be enough to avert it.

 

But the food crisis is also more complex. It raises a fundamental challenge to the current government, which came to power

nine years ago with a promise of consigning food crises to history. For most of the 1990s it seemed to be succeeding, and

Ethiopia posted record growth rates and excellent harvests. And Indeed last year's harvest, at more than ten million tons, was

the third highest on record. But at the same time, a substantial sector of the Ethiopian population has suffered ongoing

impoverishment. All across the country there is a growing class of destitute people - young farmers who cannot obtain land,

herders who cannot sustain their families by raising animals. Year on year, several million Ethiopians are chronically dependent

on food aid. When drought strikes, entire regions - this year the lowlands of the north-east and south-east are reduced to

collective immiseration.

 

Can Ethiopia adopt economic policies that halt this cycle of impoverishment? What will it take to provide a basic living for

Ethiopia's sixty million citizens? This is proving an even greater challenge than we had thought.

 

Ethiopia's appeals for food relief also raise a fundamental question about the priorities of government, and the ethics of

international aid. While the war is not the direct cause of the food crisis, the world is asking a simple question of the Ethiopian

Government: while ready to spend many hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons for its war with Eritrea, can it not find the

$400 million or so to feed its people in the face of drought?

 

The Ethiopian Government has had an excellent record of commitment to food security and anti-poverty policies. Over

1991-98 it cut defense spending by 60% and demobilized over 80% of soldiers, while increasing resources devoted to

development Now, due to a war imposed on us, spending on arms has shot up to high and unsustainable levels. We hope that,

when this war is over, the former priorities will be restored.

 

But today, government faces its biggest-ever challenge. Even under the current severe constraints we hope that the government

will find the resources to match, or exceed, international contributions to famine relief.

 

Many Ethiopians suspect that international donors have been withholding food relief to pressure our government to make peace

with Eritrea. Much as we hope for peace, this is neither a moral nor an effective course of action. This government is resistant

to any form of pressure, and making food aid conditional on peace is unacceptable to both the government and people of

Ethiopia.

 

For Ethiopians such as ourselves, the prospect of another famine in our country, with international agencies leading the way in

feeding our people, fills us with sadness. We do not want to be humiliated again, by running begging to the international

community. We have made enormous progress in tackling the blight of hunger and the scourge of dictatorship. Until the tragic

outbreak of war with Eritrea two years ago, our country was held up as a model of development in Africa.

 

Our government must lead the way in responding to the disaster that is threatening us. It is perfectly capable of doing so. It is a

serious, caring government that has the expertise and can find the resources. We are confident it will demonstrate the

commitment too. The international community can then join our national effort as equal partners.