Accessibility links

Hunger Stalks Ethiopia Once Again

  • James Butty

Map of Ethiopia

Map of Ethiopia

It’s been decades since Ethiopia experienced a major famine. But food shortages remain a familiar reality to millions.

The last major famine in Ethiopia took place in 1985-86. At first it affected the northern part of the country, but it eventually spread to parts of the southern highlands.

The famine claimed the lives of nearly one million Ethiopians. Almost six million were dependent on food aid – and many remain so today.

Twenty-five years later, Ethiopia is in the midst of yet another round of food shortages. The government has appealed for nearly 160,000 tons of food aid to feed more than six million needy people.

Lack of rain

Ethiopia's Communications Minister Bereket Simon said insufficient rain is the main cause of the latest food crisis.

“The cause for the recent shortage in food in some places is first the normal rain that we get around end of May and June has come late. And then in some places it has withdrawn early. So these are the main reasons,” Simon said.

Critics accuse the government of underestimating and under-reporting the extent of the food shortages. Bereket said such finger-pointing lacks merit.

“We don’t understand why we should hide anything. That’s simply an allegation. This is a country which has big capability to avoid famine. We’ve had droughts several times, but we have never had famine in 18 years. So this is the capacity that the government has. It has been telling the exact numbers of people facing food shortages. So there is no reason why we hide,” Simon said.

Lack of political will

Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Thurow co-authored a recent book titled: "Enough – Why the World’s Poor Starve in Age of Plenty." The author devotes much of his book to Ethiopia.

Thurow said more than anything else, the recurrence of food shortages points to a lack of political will on the part of Ethiopia’s leaders and Western donors.

“Not only the Ethiopian government, but the Western governments and development agencies, the World Bank, the development agencies of many of the countries in the developed world for their agricultural development assistance for the small farmers of Africa. And in the famine of 2003 one saw this whole manifestation of this neglect, this lack of political will come to bear,” Thurow said.

Land tenure

Under the government’s land tenure policy, the state owns all land. The Wall Street Journal reporter said the policy discourages initiative and hurts agricultural productivity.

“The lack of a private ownership of land hinders the accumulation of wealth by smaller farmers. Using land as collateral to secure loans or to secure credit is really important, and credit is the life blood of small farmers the world over. Outright ownership would also give farmers the confidence to make improvements to their properties,” Thurow said.

Not so, said communications minister Bereket Simon. He said the government’s land policy has already benefitted millions of rural Ethiopians.

“Drought has nothing to do with government policies. On the contrary our policies enable the farmer to re resilient and they are improving a lot of things because they are the main beneficiaries of the land policy. You know this criticism comes whenever there is a shortage of rain or water,” he said.

International donors

Bereket expressed gratitude to international donors and aid agencies that provide emergency relief. But he said the amount of food aid delivered has been much less than reported in the media.

The British aid agency Oxfam has called for an end to what it calls "knee-jerk" reactions to food crises. It said sending food aid is only a temporary fix and should be coupled with longer-term solutions – a view endorsed by Roger Thurow.

“One does need to have kind of an emergency response capability out there. But at the same time, and I think this is what Oxfam is talking about, we need to have the emergency aid goes out, we need to have this longer term view of agricultural development aid and practices that will put, particularly in Africa or Ethiopia, the farmers in better position to keep on producing and hopefully prevent these recurrent hunger crises,” Thurow said.

Ethiopia’s communications minister Bereket Simon said his government has actually been taking steps in that regard.

He said a review of the past several years demonstrates the effectiveness of its land policy – and said the government will continue to work on areas that need improvement.

“In the last 18 years, about 20-25 million people have been added to Ethiopia, and most of these years government and the country itself have been able to feed most of these additional numbers of people. We have a very good agricultural product where we help our 13 million small-scale farmers…and in some places we are showing quite very encouraging results. But in some drought-prone areas we know that we need to do more, and we are committed to that type of agricultural development,” Simon said.

Lessons learned

Agricultural experts say feeding a population of over 80 million will remain a major challenge for Ethiopia.

Author Thurow said both the government and donors should take stock of lessons learned from past food crises as it plans agricultural policies for the future.

“One of the lessons to be drawn from past hunger crises in Ethiopia is the crucial importance of the agriculture development aid and creating the conditions for the Ethiopian farmers to have the incentive to produce as much food as possible... so they wouldn’t be in need of food aid to begin with. Those numbers need to be reversed,” Thurow said.

The World Food Program said because of lower funding, it will run out of food for more than a million mothers and their children.

The U.N. agency said it’s also working to help poor Ethiopians reach a point where they no longer need food assistance.