Western journalists won't find mass starvation in Ethiopiaby Abdul Mohamed / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Across the world, Ethiopia is again synonymous with starvation. In the country itself, there is growing dismay that the ghosts of 1984-5, when nearly 1m died in the famine, are returning; and for Ethiopians, such as ourselves, it is painful to see our country once more depicted as the helpless recipient of western charity. We welcome and encourage international media attention-but journalists should also report in a balanced way.
This is not 1984-5. Although the UN and Ethiopian government agree that about 8m people are currently affected, there are only small pockets where death rates have begun to rise. The majority of the affected people are many months away from starvation. They are receiving food aid, bought by the government in the surplus-producing areas of the country, and distributed in the drought-affected regions. (This year the government has already spent an extra $40m on relief.) If the rains fail again, as they have done each year since 1998, 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 and 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 were worked out, distribution programmes were started. The strategic food reserve is almost empty but one reason for this is that international donors used about 290,000 tonnes of cereal last year, for various relief and development programmes in Ethiopia, and have not replenished the stocks.
Since the middle of last year the response of international donors has been sluggish, as Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, pointed out at the Cairo summit of African and European governments last month. And the reason for this is clear, as Clare Short, Britain’s international development secretary, said at the same meeting: countries at war do not deserve aid, and since May 1998 Ethiopia has again been at war with Eritrea.
It is a hugely expensive and damaging war. But it is very different from the civil war which devastated Ethiopia in the 1980s. It is confined to the border, whereas the previous conflict affected half the country, with the Mengistu government deliberately starving entire provinces as part of its war strategy. In the 1980s, relief deliveries faced huge problems reaching the hungry; today, there are no such problems. True, the Eritrean port of…