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Ethiopia's Meles Accuses Donors of Exaggerating Food Crisis

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi walks at the AU Summit on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania, Thursday, May 22, 2008 has lashed out at humanitarian aid donors, accusing them of exaggerating the magnitude of his country's malnutrition crisis and failing to deliver on pledges of assistance.

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In a question and answer session broadcast live Saturday on state-run radio and television, the Ethiopian leader had harsh words for what he called the 'food aid industry'. Mr. Meles accused 'industry actors' of deliberately inflating the number of Ethiopians in need of aid, and suggested their motive is more about profit than about saving lives.

"It is a huge industry, and this industry are actors who have their own views on this condition. They sell food aid because they can sell it above the market price. They get some rent for it," he said. "It is to their benefit and their advantage. They are selling their food where food is scarce. The same with those who are transporting food in their ships. And those truckers who get it from the ports to the consumer areas. People take quite a chunk of the benefits from this."

A third year of poor rains has played havoc with Ethiopia's ability to feed itself. The government estimates 6.2-million people will need emergency food aid within the next few months. Another 7.5-million chronically food-insecure Ethiopians receive assistance through a largely U.S.-funded program known as the Productive Safety Net.

Some observers have lumped the figures together to say 13.7-million people, or nearly one in six Ethiopians is in need of food aid. But Ethiopia has objected, saying safety net beneficiaries are not emergency cases.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says aid agencies and donor governments often exaggerate the scope of the shortages for their own purposes, while consistently delivering less than they promise.

Again, his remarks were translated from Amharic.

"Those people have their own ideology, their own goals, their own agenda," said Mr. Zenawi. "Therefore, with the famine and drought conditions there are actors who mushroom within this condition and we should see how they work. The number of beneficiaries at the ground level are evaluated according to the needs of these actors of the food aid industry."

The prime minister said during his 18 years in office, the aid community had provided less than two-thirds of what was necessary to meet Ethiopia's nutritional needs. But he pledged that despite the sustained droughts that have become more common in recent years, there would never again be a famine like the one in the mid 1980s, when an estimated one-million people died of starvation.

Representatives of aid agencies had no immediate comment on the Ethiopian leader's remarks.

Ethiopia, Africa's second-most populous nation, remains one of the poorest countries in the world. One in four Ethiopians lives on less than one dollar a day.

The United States, by far the largest single donor, gave Ethiopia aid valued at more than one-billion dollars last year, more than half of it food assistance.

But critics say much of the price tag on American food aid is eaten up by transportation and other administrative costs.