Ethiopia: Famine Threat

A woman is treated for malnutrition in Ethiopia
A woman is treated for malnutrition and tuberculosis in Kabridahar, Ethiopia (Photo: Joel Robine/AFP).

In November 2002, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the BBC news agency that up to 15 million people in his country faced starvation if donors did not come to the country’s aid. Referring to the infamous 1984 famine, in which a million Ethiopians starved to death, he said, “If that was a nightmare, then this will be too ghastly to contemplate.”

His statement, implying that the administration is unable to keep its people alive—let alone supply adequate food—sparked a series of condemnations. The ruling party’s policies have led the nation “from the frying pan straight to the fire,” charged well-known columnist Yoseph B. in Fortune (Dec. 22).

Ethiopia is what development experts call “chronically food insecure.” For a nation that relies on rain-fed agriculture and  Iron Age agricultural techniques, drought means famine. When the rains fail, so does the harvest. The immediate cause of the latest disaster is drought. The ruling party maintains that “the delay of the main rains of between one and one-and-a-half months magnified the effects of the drought,” wrote The Reporter (Dec. 25). But, countered the Addis Tribune (Dec. 20), drought would not have turned into a food crisis if not for the “neurotic bunch of incompetent oligarchs” in the administration, who “failed to make any prudent revision of their failed policies” and “stone age practices.”

Many people are working on small amounts of exhausted land. They plant maize and sorghum, high-yield crops that depend on rain. Lack of roads makes it hard for them to get their crops to market, and they are burdened with taxes on the land they lease from the state. Opposition parties blame the government for faulty policies on land ownership, lack of forest planting, and not encouraging farmers to use better yields of seed and better ways of farming.

Yoseph B. opined in Fortune that a growing sense of fatigue is building up across the country. The voices of disappointment “are not yet strong enough to call on the ruling party to resign,” he wrote. However, “Patience in the face of hardship is eventually wearing thin.”

Ethiopia’s financial debt to the rest of the world is astounding. Per capita income is US$100, the foreign debt is $6 billion, and there has been a loss of over $300 million in the past three years due to the worldwide collapse of coffee prices. In consideration of such problems, the African Social Forum, held in Addis on Jan. 12-15, agreed on “working toward repudiating the debt and the need to investigate national or domestic debt,” the business weekly Capital reported (Jan. 12).

An article by “A Concerned Citizen” in the Addis Tribune (Jan. 10) blamed “government inefficiency, corrupt individuals, unfair merchants, immoral intellectuals, irresponsible professionals, rebel students, warlords...and even outdated farmers.” The writer concluded: “Are we all, as citizens of Ethiopia, doing our best?”