The Horn of Africa is suffering its worst drought in decades, with devastating humanitarian consequences. Two districts in South Sudan are officially in famine. Areas of Somalia and Yemen are on the brink. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of death, while millions face severe disruption to their lives and livelihoods.
The drought has affected Ethiopia too. In 2015, it experienced its most severe dry spell in 50 years, and there are fears that 2017’s rains will fail too. But in this East African country, once the poster child for poverty in Africa, no one is talking about famine. Unlike Somalia and South Sudan, Ethiopia is doing something right.
“Only last year in Ethiopia, the drought in many places was worse than the terrible drought that we remember in 1985. But because of real economic progress, better preparation and a strong, timely response by the Ethiopian government and international community, suffering was so much lower that it barely hit our screens,” said Mark Goldring, the chief executive of development charity Oxfam.
In 1984-1985, the rains in Ethiopia failed for a third year in succession, and that year so did most of the country’s crops. When BBC journalist Michael Buerk went to investigate the crisis, he found a famine of “biblical” proportions. Buerk’s iconic TV report showed thousands of gaunt, skeletal people in a town in northern Ethiopia, all desperately scrabbling for food aid. “This place, say workers here, is the closest thing to hell on earth,” Buerk intones.
Buerk’s report would inspire Irish rocker Bob Geldof to launch a massive public fund-raising exercise, culminating in the hit single Do they Know it’s Christmas? and the 1985 Live Aid concert. But it was already too late. Ultimately, between 600,000 and a million Ethiopians would die as a result of the famine.
Thirty-two years later, Ethiopia is facing an even worse natural disaster. But although food is scarce, and the situation remains precarious for many, Ethiopia has avoided repeating the mistakes of its past. So how, exactly, has it managed to prevent another disastrous famine, and what lessons should the governments of Somalia and South Sudan – as well as other food-insecure nations such as Nigeria and Yemen – be learning from Ethiopia’s example?
“As we saw in Ethiopia last year, which suffered its worst drought in decades, it did not suffer the worst crisis. We did not see that situation [like the 1980s] in Ethiopia because there was a very robust response to the drought,” said Challis McDonough, a spokesperson for the World Food Program in East Africa.
The most significant factor in that response is also perhaps the most obvious: Ethiopia actually planned ahead. In 2005, the government established the productive safety net programme, a distribution network designed to help Ethiopia’s rural poor to withstand exactly these kinds of shocks. It works by identifying households that are chronically food insecure and then providing transfers of either cash or food to help them out. Even in good years, when the rains do come and the crops thrive, many Ethiopians need help from the government – between 7 and 8 million annually – so the programme has already been stress-tested. When needed, the programme was ready to mitigate the worst consequences of the current drought by allowing additional food aid to quickly reach those who needed it, and by providing international humanitarian organisations with an efficient means to distribute international aid.
Other government initiatives included a district-by-district early warning system and the establishment of a national food reserve. The country also put plenty of its own money into combating the drought: $1 billion (Dh3.67m) from international donors was complemented by $735 million from the Ethiopian government, which represents more than 10 per cent of its $61.54 billion GDP.
The international community is united in its praise for the Ethiopian response.
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said: “This crisis has not caught the government and the people of Ethiopia unprepared, even if the magnitude of the crisis clearly is above the capacity of the country to resolve. Ethiopia has persistently applied a policy of building resilience in relation to the natural disasters that unfortunately with climate change have come to be more and more frequent and intense. And not only a consistent policy of strengthening resilience but of creating the reserve necessary for Ethiopia itself to respond to the crisis.”
Another major factor in Ethiopia’s favour this time around is its political stability. Droughts are natural disasters; famines are not. As the World Food Program’s McDonough explained: “A lot of factors are different from crisis to crisis, but the things we have in common between South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria is the level of conflict and insecurity that is an underlying cause of the malnutrition and that tremendously complicate the efforts of humanitarians organisations to get assistance to people.”
In the 1980s, conflict and chronic political instability in Ethiopia made it extremely difficult for humanitarian organisations to access affected areas, exacerbating the scale and severity of the problem. But Ethiopia today is a very different place. The government, led by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, has maintained a tight grip on power since 1991. Too tight, say critics: the government is notoriously hostile to criticism, and has a poor track record when it comes to protecting civil and political rights. Most recently, Ethiopian security forces have been accused of killing more than 400 peaceful protesters during a series of demonstrations by members of the marginalised Oromo community.
In private, Ethiopian diplomats argue that the end justifies the means; that the government’s authoritarian tendencies are necessary to keep a lid on political tensions. Ethiopia’s effective drought response suggests they have a point. But whatever one’s opinion of the government, credit where credit is due: Ethiopia’s relative stability – especially compared to its troubled neighbours in Somalia and South Sudan – has allowed the country to plan ahead and implement the policies necessary to prevent a repeat of the 1984 famine.
But now Ethiopia risks becoming a victim of its own success. Although a famine has been averted, at least 5.6 million people still require continuing emergency food assistance. And the fact that Ethiopia is not on the brink of famine might make it harder to raise the foreign funding necessary to maintain that emergency aid.
That funding is getting increasingly scarce: so far, the United Nations has raised just 6 per cent of the $2.1 billion it needs to reach 12 million people with life-saving aid. Ethiopia must now compete for these scarce resources with the likes of South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen – all countries facing far more severe food security issues.
The citizens of these countries will be wishing that their governments had taken a few lessons from Ethiopia’s drought-resisting playbook.
Simon Allison is the Africa correspondent for the Daily Maverick in South Africa and a research consultant for the Institute for Security Studies
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