The Ethiopian Famine

Famine is again stalking Ethiopia — this time casting a wider shadow. While a million people died in the famine of 1984 and 1985, today more than 12 million are at risk, half of those children under 15. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of today’s crisis is that the famine persists despite generous outside food aid. Donations of wheat, soybeans and oil can stave off much of the starvation in the short term, but they cannot keep hunger from returning year after year.

Drought is the primary reason Ethiopians go hungry, but it intertwines with other factors that keep Ethiopians too poor and too sick to recover from drought years. The world, which thankfully has fully met Ethiopia’s appeal for emergency food, needs to address these underlying problems. While Ethiopia is an extreme case, it is an ominous leading indicator of what may soon happen in other African nations.

Rural Ethiopians have never fully recovered from the famine of 1984, nor the severe droughts that have come after, especially in 1999 and 2000. The impact of drought in Ethiopia is magnified by the country’s deforestation and the depletion of soil by farmers who cannot afford to let land lie fallow. The effects of dry periods linger long after the rains return. Drought reduces harvests and deprives livestock of water and pasture, forcing farmers and animal herders into a spiral of debt. Washington’s extravagant subsidies for America’s cotton farmers have added to the problem by undercutting the export market for Ethiopian cotton, one of the country’s major products.

Even if the rains are good, each year Ethiopians get hungrier. Next year they will have poorer health, fewer cows and sheep, a smaller stock of seeds, less money and more debt than this year. The long-term issue is poverty — famine hits those too destitute to buy food or produce their own.

Fighting famine inside Ethiopia means providing not only emergency food but also programs to help people emerge from the trap of destitution. Rural Ethiopians need more markets for their crops and better roads to be able to move their products to other parts of the country. They could use projects to make water accessible to poor peasants, seed banks and programs to increase livestock supplies. And they need better health care — the government spends only $1.50 per person for health care each year, although Ethiopia now has more than two million people with the AIDS virus, and the infection is exploding.

Some countries in southern Africa are also beginning to suffer from hunger that does not go away, and their tribulations may turn into persistent famine as droughts intensify and AIDS incapacitates more and more workers. International donors are much readier to ship grain than to attack difficult, long-term development goals. But without such help, food aid will become a permanent necessity. Famine is not a sudden event but an evolving process, one that involves much more than food.


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