Famine Stalks Ethiopia

John Metzlerby John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer

UNITED NATIONS—More than thirty years ago, back in the Summer of 1985, the world came together to help famine stricken Ethiopia. The Live Aid Concerts in London and Philadelphia, raised both public awareness and impressive final assistance for the starving masses in the East African country. The Anthem “We are the World” resounded and people and governments helped with humanitarian aid.

Today Ethiopia, an ancient land, faces a new famine driven by El Nino weather conditions causing severe drought. The climate cycle has dramatically cut into rainfall patterns over the past Spring and the Summer thus putting this arid and increasingly vulnerable land at risk of food shortfalls and insecurity.

UN aid agencies warn of a “slow onset emergency” as food production falls, dying livestock and the dearth of drinkable water are mounting. Despite recent strides in agriculture in the past decades, Ethiopia is no stranger to food shortfall; currently about 8 million people are affected from the country’s total population of 95 million. But according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the looming danger coming from the effects of El Nino is that those vulnerable will dramatically jump in early 2016 to 15 million people. Most affected provinces include Oromia, Amhara and Afar as well as the regions bordering Somalia.

Drought will trigger food shortfalls as well as rural water shortages where up to 2 million people will be without potable water for extended periods.

According to an OCHA briefing to delegates, “given the dearth of funding in 2015, the UN and partners are unable to cover current needs, let alone prepare for further deterioration to come.”

Projected first quarter needs for 2016 stand at $237 million.

Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Humanitarian Chief, asserts that while 8 million people need food aid now, the number will dramatically escalate as the full effects of the El Nino on the harvests take effect over the next few months.

Ironically in recent years, Ethiopia’s farming sector has improved dramatically since the days of the 1984-1985 famine. According to the UN magazine Africa Renewal, “the government has transformed the economy into one of the fastest growing in the world (9.9% in 2014) and made agriculture the centerpiece of an economic policy designed to ensure that the severity of famines will not be measured by the number of people starving to death but by the seriousness of other less life threatening factors like malnutrition.”

The World Bank adds that agriculture accounts for nearly half of the country’s GDP, 84% of exports and 80% of total employment. Ethiopia’s coffee exports, are flourishing and are prized in developed countries.

Moreover, Ethiopia’s expanding economy at 10 % annual growth no longer reflects the moribund conditions of the country’s former socialist regime. Despite economic gains, Ethiopia is still listed as Not Free politically according to the watchdog monitor Freedom House.

Back in the 1980’s, the Marxist Ethiopian regime of Col. Mengistu Marim, used the famine to selectively target regions of the country which were considered disloyal; foreign food assistance was channeled to regime friends. The tactic mirrored Stalin’s morbid manipulation of a natural famine in Ukraine to starve millions. In Ethiopia, up to one million people died both from the famine’s direct effects as well as the malicious consequences of the regime’s hoarding and diverting of food from selected provinces.

The U.S. was and remains a major humanitarian donor. The Agency for International Development (USAID) has played a prominent part in helping Ethiopia since the early 1960’s. As the major assistance donor the USA has given over $700 million annually. Among the Europeans, both the United Kingdom and Irish Aid are prominent donors.

Three decades after the horrors of the 1980’s famine, Ethiopia is better poised to avoid a similar catastrophe. Early warning signs, mobilized aid agencies, and acute awareness of the options fortunately should protect Ethiopia from the worst of the drought. Nonetheless, focused and timely aid from the USA and the international community can preempt a crisis we see on the horizon rather than waiting for the outcome. But are we listening and does anybody care in the midst of the appallingly violent news in the Middle East and Africa?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.