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Feature - Stopping the cycle of famine

[Ethiopia] Drought victims
The insurance plan should protect against the ravages of drought, as experienced in Ethiopia in 2003 (irin)

Twenty years ago he helped raise US $60 million to fight the devastating famine that hit Ethiopia. The world vowed never to let it happen again. On Monday, Sir Bob Geldof returns to the impoverished country as it stands on the brink of yet another disaster, and millions once again face starvation.

The drought has provoked renewed dismay that such a tragedy can befall the Horn of Africa country, but also anger as to why has it happened again.

Currently more than 12 million people face starvation – one in five of the population – a disaster that is expected to cost in the region of US $800 million.


Both the government and international community acknowledge that while aid may have failed to stave off famine, key lessons to prevent future tragedies have been learnt.

In those two decades, they say, radical changes have been made in tackling crises in Ethiopia – lessons which now underscore that continual food aid is not the answer.

Since the terrible famine of 1984, Ethiopia has continued to face major food shortages in 1992, 1994 and the drought in 2000 where up to 50,000 people died.

Paradoxically, even during bumper harvests, some five million each year face hunger and are dependent on handouts. Many are simply so poor they cannot afford to buy food.

In fact Ethiopia produces more of its own food than most European countries, but with average incomes at just US $1 a day and a cash-strapped government, importing additional food is out of the question.

Yet now key institutions are now playing an integral role alleviating the situation - something that was lacking 20 years ago. Among crucial organisations and systems that have emerged, is the food reserve and the government's improved relief agency - the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC).

Simon Mechale, who heads the DPPC, told IRIN that in terms of the population and scale, the current drought is unprecedented in Ethiopia’s history.

“This is not a one time problem we are now facing," he stressed. "It is a cumulative effect where the problem has been increasing over the years."

“The problem is one of development – poverty and lack of purchasing power," he said. Unless these are answered the problem will always be there. The development question has not been answered and the poverty has not been eradicated.”

The government and aid agencies have prevented the biblical scenes witnessed in the 1980s where tens of thousands packed up and moved to feeding camps, he added.


The timely response and awareness of the international community and government mean that far fewer people will die – as long as donors respond.

As yet, the government is unaware how many people may have died in the current drought – but senior sources within the aid community estimate at least 30,000.

“In terms of avoiding mass deaths we have also been successful,” Simon said. “The donor community has also been helpful in providing on time whatever they could.”

The food reserve – which now can hold up to 400,000 mt – also plays a vital role.

In the past once famine reared its head, donors pledged food which often took many months to arrive in the country.

But under the reserve scheme, donors can pledge the food and borrow against it from the reserve so immediate aid can be supplied.

An early warning system, at the local level which feeds into national resources, means officials have an accurate picture of the country's status.

A warning was sounded for this current drought in mid-May 2002 - well before widespread starvation. However the early warning system is only as good as the response by donors.


Humanitarian agencies also point to the commitment of the current government compared to the former Marxist military regime - the Derg - headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The government, donors and the non-governmental organisations also work together on Ethiopia’s food appeals.

Continual and multi-year assessments are also beginning to replace the annual government food appeal, providing a longer term, more stable approach.

Donors have welcomed the “openness and transparency” which have played a vital role in tackling the current emergency.

Under the Derg command, which was overthrown in 1991, officials covered up the scale of the crisis and restricted the travel of aid organisations. In 1984 the country was also in the midst of a 17-year civil war and food aid for the hungry was used as a political weapon with deadly effects. Mengistu's government lacked both the incentive and willingness to tackle the crisis, with catastrophic results.

This improved relationship between the international community and the ruling Ethiopian People’s
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has meant improved aid flows.


Paul Turnbull, head of the UN World Food Programme’s emergency unit who was in Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, says that more investment is still needed for Ethiopia.

He says that traditionally the size of aid has never matched the scale of the crisis and until it does. Ethiopia will continue to struggle.

“The resources made available both by the government and the international agencies were not commensurate with the scale of the problem,” Turnbull said. “Ethiopia is always going to be vulnerable to drought but the question is how to get people to be less dependent on things affected by drought.”

“Aid has kept things from being a total disaster," he added. "If food aid had not been stepped up from last year you really could have had millions of people dying."

“This is a huge problem and you do get people who think the Live Aid money that was pumped in should have solved all those problems,” he said.

And the lingering cost of that disaster has plagued Ethiopia ever since – a problem that even the head of the DPPC acknowledges they have never been able to shake off.

Consequently since the famines of the 1970s and 1980s, the numbers needing emergency assistance have been increasing at alarming rates.

But despite the enormous strides made, until this and other major hurdles are tackled, Ethiopia will continue to suffer enormous consequences from drought.


Significantly, the population back in 1984 was 45 million – population growth rates currently outstrip economic or agricultural growth. There are now 67 million people.

Berahanu Nega, from the Ethiopian Economic Association, argues that unparalleled population growth means the size of land holdings has dropped by half in 20 years.

“How long can you maintain 85 percent of your population in agriculture that requires a tremendous amount of land?" he asks.

As Clive Robinson of the UK charity, Christian Aid, points out: “Ethiopia’s problem is a long term one of chronic poverty, asset depletion and entitlement decline."

“Poor people have nothing to fall back on,” he says. “For poor people if loss of assets and purchasing power is the problem, livelihood support is the solution and cash may be the best fertiliser.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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