Africa's Famine: No Shortage of Blame

Ethiopia Urged to Act Quickly

To prevent a looming famine that could cost thousands of lives, Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest nations, needs to adopt food-for-school programs, create efficient road networks, and develop a working food market, says a Washington-based think tank. In a new report, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) warned that as many as 15 million Ethiopians could face famine in the coming months with the current crisis being “as large as, or potentially even larger than, the 1984-85 famine.”

Ethiopia is one of the world’s most impoverished states, with annual per-capita income of barely US$100 and a population of 65 million people, of whom nearly two-thirds are illiterate. Although the country exports small amounts of coffee, sugar cane, oilseeds, hides, and beeswax, it remains highly indebted to foreign banks, and poverty and diseases are rampant. Although many agree on the gravity of the situation in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, not all agree on the solution. The dispute focuses on the true reasons for the famine on the continent.

In December, another U.S.-based group, the Food First Institute for Food and Development Policy, blamed the famine in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa on the policies of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It argued that those bodies, backed by the financial and political muscle of the United States, have exacerbated the famine through their structural adjustment programs, which are designed to open up economies to international, mostly Western, trade and finance. These plans, they argued, coerce poor nations to pay down their debts by cutting services to citizens, exporting their crops, dismantling their crop reserves, and devaluing their currencies.

But IFPRI said Wednesday that local causes were behind Ethiopia’s persistent food crises, including poor governance (mostly in the past), the helplessness of its farmers, problems with food production, and markets that do not function. “I don’t see an external force here in the case of Ethiopia,” said Joachim Von Braun, director general of IFPRI. “Nobody was pushing Ethiopia to sell extensively. Food surplus was short-term,” he added, “so, let’s not look for external culprits.” Von Braun, whose group’s donors include the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, referred to a legacy of poverty, which will take many years to overcome, and Ethiopia’s “structural situation” as reasons behind the famine. The country emerged in the early 1990s from three decades of civil war and a communist, centrally planned economy. According to the IFPRI report, Ethiopia’s millions of small-scale farmers remain rooted in subsistence agriculture. They are almost entirely dependent on the weather, and the country is prone to drought three to four years out of every 10. Five million to 6 million people simply do not have the money to buy food, even in periods of surplus, which increases the vulnerability of poor farmers. To reduce such susceptibility, argues the report, the government, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, needs to introduce crop insurance and invest, with the help of international donors, in systems to better measure and forecast production and weather patterns.

IFPRI says that grain yields in Ethiopia average little more than one ton per hectare compared with nearly six tons per hectare in the United States. Farmers in remote areas also find it difficult and costly to buy fertilizer and other materials and transport them over long distances on bad roads. In northern Ethiopia, for example, the average distance to the nearest market town is nearly 40 kilometers.

In 1984, there were reports of surplus in the south while a million people died of hunger in the northeastern region of the country, and today only one-quarter of food produced reaches the market. “That locks poor farmers into subsistence agriculture, which condemns them to poverty,” said the report. The government and international aid donors must invest in infrastructure—roads, telecommunications networks, and modern storage, it advised. Because 85 percent of its population is agriculture-based, Ethiopia must remain committed to developing this most critical sector, added IFPRI. “Averting food crises in the future requires increasing the incomes of the vast majority of the population, in part through investing in assist farmers in producing a diversity of crops and livestock, including high-value products,” concluded the report.