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 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.
In short, the famine is containable, but it poses difficult questions both to the government in Addis Ababa and to international donors.
The current government of prime minister Meles Zenawi came to power nine years ago with a promise to consign food crises to history. For most of the 1990s it seemed to be succeeding, despite a near doubling of the population since 1985. Ethiopia posted record growth rates and excellent harvests: last year’s harvest, at more than 10m tonnes, was the third highest on record. But at the same time, a substantial sector of the population has suffered continued 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. Year on year, several million Ethiopians are chronically dependent on food aid. When drought strikes, entire regions-this year the lowlands of the northeast and southeast-are reduced to immiseration. What will it take to provide a basic living for Ethiopia’s 60m citizens? This is proving an even greater challenge than we had thought.
Ethiopia’s appeals for relief also raise a basic 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: if it is ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on weapons for its war with Eritrea, can it not find the $400m to feed its people in the face of drought?
The Ethiopian government has actually had a good record in this field. Over 1991-8 it cut defence spending by 60 per cent and demobilised over 80 per cent of soldiers, while increasing resources devoted to development. Now, due to a war imposed on us, spending on arms has risen again to unsustainable levels.
Many Ethiopians believe that international donors are withholding food relief to pressure our government to make peace with Eritrea. This is neither a moral nor an effective course of action. Making food aid conditional on peace is unacceptable both to the government and the people of Ethiopia.
We do not want to be humiliated again, by running begging to the international community, especially as we have made such good progress in tackling the blight of hunger and the scourge of dictatorship. Until the tragic outbreak of war two years ago, our country was held up as a model of development in Africa.
Our government is serious and caring. It must lead the way in responding to the new disaster and must do so in a way which persuades the international community to join our national effort as equal partners.