Responding to Famine

An estimated 16 million people on the horn of Africa—in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti—face possible starvation largely because of the failure of annual rains. About half of those at risk are in Ethiopia, scene of the last disastrous famine in the mid-1980s that killed 1 million people. While some observers say the current problem is not on the same scale, the world again seems slow to respond.

Indeed, in November [see WPR Regional Reports, January], concerns about looming famine in neighboring Somalia were aired, and in December initial reports of serious crop failure in Ethiopia were issued. But only in late March, after television reports prompted action, did the level of international attention begin to match the apparent crisis.

As aid from the West began to arrive in early April, the biggest problem became food delivery and distribution. The ongoing border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea has closed the port of Massawa in Eritrea. Eritrea offered the use of its port in Assab, but was spurned by Ethiopia. The only port in the region open to handle food shipments is Djibouti, which is thought to be too small.

Is the aid too little, too late? In Ethiopia, the weekly Addis Tribune of Addis Ababa (April 7) said yes: “The food has not arrived. Food promised last year is only beginning to come now. New food pledges have been slow to come (with the notable exception of the U.S.)....Some donors have pointed to the war or lack of port facilities or lack of transport as reasons for the food not coming....This is nonsense.”

An editorial in Addis Ababa’s Reporter (April 13) commented on the reasons for “poor donor response,” citing the country’s “tarnished” image on the global scene because of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict.

However, the Tribune also noted that the Ethiopian government has failed in its vow to make agricultural development a priority. “What was done was not enough,” the paper says. “It is a good time to urgently think over what we should do for the short term to avert famine—and ...for the long term to be self-sufficient in food.”

Yohannes Ruphael’s report for the Dakar-based Pan- african News Agency (April 6) offered a pessimistic analysis. “According to soil scientist Yazew Teferi, population expansion...has forced some of the poorest people to move onto marginal lands with poor soils, steep slopes, and high drought risk...[causing]...erosion and fertility reduction.” Even in a good year, Ruphael wrote, “when rains come at the right time..., most of Ethiopia’s rural communities remain vulnerable to famine.”