The 2015-16 Ethiopian Famine: Yet Another Avoidable Tragedy is Underway

Just as the world’s leading development agencies are vowing to finally make poverty history in the four corners of the globe and they are heaping praises on the Ethiopian Government for its “double- digit” economic growth rates and self-serving rhetoric about “transformation,” Ethiopia is once again under the grips of what appears to be yet another famine of “biblical proportion.” The World Food Program of the United Nations and the Government itself have announced that over 8 million Ethiopians are at the risk of death by starvation. Chronically food-deficit areas have been hit by El Nino-related failures of both the small and the big rainy seasons this year.

We must underscore two things at the outset. First, predictable weather-related or pest-related shocks to the food system should not result in mass starvation or high mortality in the presence of an accountable government with a capacity to feed its people. Drought may be an act of God but famine is surely a political act of man. Second, The Citizens Charter for a Democratic Ethiopia embraces the greatest of all human rights—the right to life. Basic food security for all is, therefore, the most fundamental right to which all Ethiopians are entitled. This is why eliminating famine is the litmus test for all who profess commitment to human rights and democratic accountability.

The world has made a remarkable progress over the past 25 years. Millions of Ethiopians are among the one billion people lifted out of debilitating poverty. National and regional famines that claimed the lives of millions in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are thankfully a thing of the past, save the most an unpredictable natural catastrophe. To understand why Ethiopia remains so vulnerable to chronic hunger even in normal years, one needs to keep the following facts in mind:

 One out ten rural Ethiopian (or 8 million out of 80 million) suffer chronic hunger (under- nutrition and malnutrition), especially during the hunger season between May and September. This is because the lack of adequate land, water, and income diversification has hopelessly eroded the livelihoods of so many. Entire districts have thereby been rendered highly vulnerable to even moderate shocks let alone a total failure of the rains or significant food-price inflation (which also hits the urban poor hard). In this respect, it is quite telling that about half of the $1 billion U.S. annual aid to Ethiopia is food aid— mostly going to the food-for-work program that alleviates food insecurity rather than eradicating it for good. 

  • Many more millions live just above this precarious subsistence line even in years of normal rainfall. Drought, pest invasion or civil strife swell the ranks of the starving in short order, with the negative effects persisting for at least a decade. It is no surprise then that Ethiopia faced regional famines in 1965/66, 2000/01, and 2011/12; and regime-destabilizing national famines in 1972-73 and 1974-85.

  •   The 2015-16 famine underway bears the telltale signs a national tragedy and must be averted with decisive action. The current is already being compared in its potential devastation, by the survivors, to the infamous 1984 famine of Live Aid (which claimed over 1 million lives). A good indicator of this impending disaster is its national scope: the chronically food-deficit areas of southeastern Tigray, northeastern Wollo, all of Afar and parts of Somali, the southern lowlands of Sidamo and Bale, and the Enset-dependent areas southwestern Ethiopia.

  •   In the fine tradition of unaccountable governments torn between publicly revealing the extent of the famine (terrified by the political fallouts) and their strong incentive to tap into international assistance (the donor practice of feeding the greedy to reach the needy), the Ethiopian Government is currently denying the patently obvious mounting loss of livestock and the rising mortality of the most enfeebled (as attested by BBC TV) while claiming to have allocated half of the relief supplies required from its own resources. While we are encouraged by the improved early warning system and the allocation of domestic funds, we are unimpressed by their inadequacy relative to the needs and to what is being spent on white elephant projects. We are also offended by the shameful insinuation of high government officials that it is ultimately the responsibility of the international community to save the most vulnerable in Ethiopia.

    Ethiopiawinnet is compelled to implore:

  1. The Ethiopian Government to own up to its sole responsibility to spare all its citizens from starvation and death by devoting all the resources necessary to tide them over to the next harvest. In the medium run, it should reform its land policy by granting ownership rights to farmers and pastoralists, invest in food production for domestic use instead of only exports, fostering off-farm employment opportunities, scrapping the current ethnic homeland system of regional administration that has hamstrung the traditional coping mechanism of seasonal inter-regional migration to work, and accelerating industrial development.
  2. Theinternationalcommunitytoonceagainprovidegenerousandtimelyreliefaidtoavert large losses of lives instead of waiting for large-scale deaths as “proof of need.” We also implore donors to insist on sensible food security policies that would make such recurrent dependency on food aid unnecessary for a country that has a great potential to feed itself.
  3. AllEthiopiansandfriendsofEthiopiaintheDiasporatoputpoliticsasidefornowandextend a generous helping hand through famine relief organizations with a proven record. Thank you.

Ethiopiawinnet, a rights-based CSO, believes that:

  •  Famine is a political act of transgression on the mother of all human rights-the right to live.
  •  Drought may be unavoidable, but famine certainly is. In the twenty-first century, this abomination belongs nowhere else but in the dustbin of history! 
Tesfamichael Makonnen