When the BBC’s Michael Buerk brought Ethiopian famine to the world’s attention in 1984, the footage panned over thousands of people on the brink of starvation in the region of North Wollo. A BBC report this week, filmed in the same drought-stricken area, focused on one mother’s loss of her son to hunger. But it was an indication that although Ethiopia still suffers preventable tragedies, it may well have gained the capability to prevent catastrophe.
A statement from the Ethiopian embassy in London was quick to challenge yesterday’s report: “The sensational news broadcast by BBC TV, regarding children dying on a daily basis, does not reflect the current broad reality on the ground and the full preparation that has gone into overcoming the problem.”
On the ground the government is responding to the latest crisis, but, as with past disasters, it has been slow to admit its severity. The country is, after all, pushing a narrative of breakneck development – it says annual economic growth averaged 10% over the past decade, driven partly by ever increasing agricultural productivity. Millions of Ethiopians share the official anger that their ancient, diverse nation is associated so frequently with misery in western minds.
There is little question that Ethiopia has progressed since its last revolution ended in 1991, but the fact that millions have been shown to still be so vulnerable runs counter to that prevailing narrative. While few doubt that a relatively small economy has grown quickly, an even smaller number believe crop-production data is credible.
Some statistics show the weaknesses. The UN reported that spending on basic public services dramatically reduced Ethiopia’s poverty rate between 2005 and 2012. However, that left the absolute number of very poor the same at 25 million, due to population increases. Aid and government funds have poured into a raft of agricultural modernisation initiatives, but around 90% of crops still rely solely on rain.
The harshness of this drought stems from events beyond Ethiopia’s control. Increasingly erratic rainfall patterns have been exacerbated by the ocean-warming trend El Niño. Currently 8.2 million people out of an estimated population of 99 million need aid. That could rise to 15 million in 2016 as food stocks run out and rains fail again, according to the UN.
There’s no tally of lives lost so far, but there are also no horror scenes comparable to those that Buerk witnessed; and aid workers insist famine-like conditions won’t develop if the government is adequately supported. Still, the indicators are worrying. The UN reports that acute malnutrition rates in September were 20% higher than the previous year. On 13 October an appeal was launched for £225m to help those affected for the remainder of this year alone, and perhaps another £500m will be needed as the crisis deepens over the next 10 months.
Since September rich nations have given £80m and Ethiopia’s agriculture ministry is buying 400,000 tons of wheat. The response of the government, which says it’s allocating £130m for relief efforts, has been praised by the international community.
These efforts are in stark contrast to 30 years ago. When the famine that led to the Live Aid appeal hit, Ethiopia was a nation ill prepared to cope. A cabal of junior military officers had ruthlessly consolidated power in the decade since the overthrow of Haile Selassie. The junta’s hijacking of a revolution – twisting a feudal society into a socialist command economy – triggered rebellions in the north. The famine was as much a product of civil unrest as it was of drought.
Those political and economic conditions no longer exist. The government faces no significant armed opposition and a state-heavy market economy operates. Donor-supported social welfare systems for the most vulnerable have been institutionalised for a decade. Funding is in place for that safety-net programme to support around 7 million people for six months next year.
But Ethiopia, which still relies significantly on foreign assistance, cannot manage this crisis alone. But donors may not see this as the most pressing emergency. The Syrian refugee crisis, for one, is an obvious priority for European officials. Even in the Horn of Africa, there are crises in Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Somalia. The twin dynamics of Ethiopia’s relative – if overstated – development and a world riddled by humanitarian problems cloud the response.
Before the number of needy almost doubled to more than 8 million, Ethiopian ministers argued that food surpluses and disaster planning meant they didn’t need help. But as the situation worsened, the tone shifted. Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister, visited affected regions, and the government made an unambiguous appeal for aid. Given the urgency of the situation, and the competition for funds, this delay was harmful. The BBC’s report may now have a catalytic effect on a sluggish fund-raising effort.
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