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Hungry and frightened: Famine in Ethiopia

By Graham Peeples

Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, May 13, 2016


Millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Ethiopia are once again at risk of starvation. Elderly men and women, weak and desperate, wait for food and water; malnourished children lie dying; livestock, bones protruding, perish.

According to a statement issued by the World Food Programme (WFP) on 6 February, over 10 million of the most vulnerable require urgent humanitarian assistance. This figure was published in the Joint Government and Humanitarian Partners’ Document in December last year, and does not take into account the seven and a half million people who annually receive cash or food from Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme. When this figure is included, it brings the total number of people in need of humanitarian food aid to almost 18 million.

The programme was established in 2005 to enable “the rural poor facing chronic food insecurity to resist shocks, create assets and become food self- sufficient.

The worst affected areas, according to USAID, are the pastoral areas of Afar and Ogaden Region – where people rely totally on their livestock – and the agricultural lowlands of East and West Haraghe, close to the capital, Addis Ababa.

The WFP explains that the level of humanitarian need in Ethiopia has “tripled since early 2015… caused by successive harvest failures and widespread livestock deaths. Acute malnutrition has risen sharply, and one quarter of Ethiopia’s districts is now officially classified as facing a nutrition crisis.” With a shortage of food, families are forced to make children drop out of school to take up menial jobs to survive. Such children, lacking a decent education, would be unlikely to find well paid jobs in adulthood in order to feed their own children properly, and so the spiral of exclusion, poverty and deprivation continues.

Poverty and chronic food insecurity

Ethiopia is a large country (385,925 square miles), with a population of just over 101 million, which is growing at a yearly rate of around 2.5 per cent (over double world’s average). Conflicts resulting in migration from the neighbouring states of Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea have brought an influx of refugees and asylum seekers, totalling more than 733,000.

More than half the population live on less than USD 1 a day; over 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas (where birth rates are highest) and work in agriculture. The majority are smallholder farmers who rely on the crops they grow to feed themselves and their families.

The people of Ethiopia have suffered chronic food insecurity for generations, caused mainly by poverty. Poor people do not have the resources to deal with crises such as drought and, as Action Aid make clear, “are more likely to be pushed into unsustainable ways of coping such as selling equipment… or eating less”.

Other causes are complex. Some are due to climate change while others result from the ruling regime’s policies. Action Aid found that the agricultural system itself is a major cause. Individuals do not own land; it is assigned “according to the size of a family, and redistributed every few years”. This means that every time land is redistributed “it is divided between more people”, so each farmer gets less. “The lack of investment, combined with the need for large yields from a small area, leads to soil degradation, resulting in poor harvests.”

The food farmer’s produce is bought at low fixed prices by the government, and “international organisations encourage Ethiopia to produce cash crops to export, which reduces the land available for growing domestic crops”. The world price for agricultural exports such as coffee is also very low. Yes, Ethiopia – where millions rely on food aid every year – exports food. The country’s top exports are gold (21 per cent) coffee (19 per cent), vegetables and oily seeds, followed closely by live animals and qat– a highly addictive narcotic.

The Oakland Institute (OI), in its report on the country’s land sales, cites drought (15 droughts since 1965), state-fuelled armed conflict, as well as “inappropriate government policies (e.g. land tenure and access to markets), rapid population growth and lack of infrastructure” as contributory causes of food insecurity.

Land grabbing and hunger

Since 2008 the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government has been leasing huge amounts of fertile agricultural land to so-called “foreign investors’’: international corporations, domestic agents, fund managers and nations anxious to secure their own future food security.

Detailed research by the OI in 2011 estimated that “3,619,509 hectares of land have been transferred to investors, although the actual number may be higher”. Incentives to investors include exemption from import taxes, income taxes and custom duties, as well as “easy access to credit” – the Ethiopian Development Bank will contribute up to 70 per cent towards land costs, which are extremely cheap to begin with.

Land is sold with the understanding that it is cleared of everything, including people, by government forces. Indigenous people (who have lived on the land for generations) are displaced and herded into camps – the universally condemned “Villagisation” programme. OI estimate that over a million people have been affected, and that “the loss of farmland, the degradation and destruction of natural resources, and the reduction of water supplies are expected to result in the loss of livelihoods of affected communities”. Despite this, the ruling regime maintains that the land sold – all land is state owned (with formal and informal land rights) – is unused, and is being leased off without affecting farmers.

Industrial-size farms have been built and foodstuffs (not eaten by the native population) grown for export to the investor’s homeland – India, for example. Very little, if any, of the food grown goes into the Ethiopian food market, and there are attractive government incentives in place to “ensure that food production is exported, providing foreign exchange for the country at the expense of local food supplies”. The OI found that these commercial agricultural investments by national and multinational companies “increase rates of food insecurity” in Ethiopia and that, despite “endemic poverty and food insecurity, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that these investments contribute to improved food security”.

The OI makes clear that in addition to the land sales, state-fuelled armed conflict is an underlying cause of food insecurity. One of the worst affected areas in the current famine is the Ogaden (or Somali) region in the south-eastern corner of the country. The majority of the ethnic Somali population have been under military control since 1992. People fleeing the area report large-scale arrests of civilians, torture, rape and murder, as well as the destruction of land, cattle and property, and confiscation of humanitarian aid by the army and paramilitary forces. With international media and most humanitarian aid groups denied access to the region since 2007, independent information on the conflict and the impact and extent of the current famine is in short supply.

Official duplicity

Concerned more with its international image than the suffering of those in dire need, the ruling regime has presented an ambiguous, contradictory picture of the famine.

In a recent interview Arkebe Oqubay, the special adviser to the prime minister, told Bloomberg that Ethiopia’s greatest achievement since 1984 was that “we are being able to feed ourselves. In 1984 we were struggling to feed our 40 million-population, but now… we have food security.”

This is pure fantasy. Ethiopia, according to most recent, 2012 figures, remains the largest recipient of food aid in the world, and millions are today at risk of starvation.

Shortly after this claim from his special adviser, the prime minister himself, Hailemariam Desalegn, appealed for help in supplying humanitarian aid to the millions in need, saying, according to ESAT News, “it is the responsibility of the international community to intervene before things get out of hand”.

The EPRDF government owns most of the media inside Ethiopia, exerts tight controls on any marginally independent publications and seeks to restrict and condition reporting by international media.

Interviewed by foreign news agencies, officials smugly reject claims of widespread human rights violations and paint themselves as members of a democratic government bringing economic prosperity, opportunity and stability to the country.

With the government more or less controlling the flow of news about the situation in the drought-hit areas, detailed, open and honest information is hard to come by. The sole independent Ethiopian broadcaster, ESAT News, which has reliable contacts in the country, carried the account of an aid worker who recently spent time in the worst affected regions. He reports that “the famine was already taking its toll on humans and livestoc… [and] that the situation in places near Jijiga and Shinile in the Somali [or Ogaden] region was very serious”. He said he saw children whose skins were fused with their bones at feeding centres in the regions”, and at a health centre in Afdem [in central east part of the Ogaden] met “hunger-stricken, bony children”.

The government proudly boasts that the Ethiopian economy has been growing by between 7 and 8 per cent for almost a decade, that malnutrition and famine are no longer possible and that within a decade Ethiopia will be a middle ranking power.

Nevertheless Ethiopia still finds itself ranked 174th out of 188 countries in the UN Human Development Index (inequality adjusted). This suggests that whatever growth the country has achieved, it has not changed the lives of the majority of Ethiopians and, as is evidenced by the millions suffering from hunger and malnutrition, has clearly not eradicated food insecurity, which should be the first priority of the government.

Donor response

The scale of the current crisis has led the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) call for USD 1.4 billion of funding to supply emergency food and water, to “in excess of 15 million” people. So far donors have been slow to come forward, prompting Save the Children’s Ethiopia director to describe the reaction as “the worst international response to a drought that he has seen”.

Around 45 per cent of the total has been donated, including USD 200 million from the ruling regime. However the WFP says it has less than a third of the money it needs to keep the aid coming.

America has offered some small-scale additional support, sending, CNN reports, “20 disaster experts to provide technical assistance, conduct humanitarian assessments and coordinate relief efforts with partners on the ground”, as well as “USD 4 million in maize and wheat seed for more than 226,000 households”.

This level of assistance, while welcome, is nowhere near enough, and it seems the motive is far from pure. “Climate-related threats pose an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows and potential conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” said USAID spokesman Ben Edwards.

It seems the US is concerned about “stability” in Ethiopia – where there is only the illusion of stability in any case – and the wider region, not human welfare. Washington fears that a lack of food and work may drive young people into the hands of extremist groups, and encourage migration, adding to the huge refugee flows.

The UNOCHA estimates the total current cost of worldwide humanitarian demand to be USD 21 billion. With Syria on fire, a huge refugee crisis in Europe, urgent demand in Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to ongoing international development commitments, including in Ethiopia, donor nation resources and attention is turned elsewhere.

The need for sharing

It is the poor who die of hunger-related causes throughout the world; it is the poorest people in rural Ethiopia – who constitute some of the poorest people on Earth – who are currently at risk.

Every day 35,000 children in the world die of starvation and its attendant causes, but we live in a world of plenty. There is no need for a single man, woman or child, in Ethiopia or anywhere else, to die because they do not have enough food or water to survive. Oxfam reports that the world now “produces 17 per cent more food per person today than 30 years ago. But close to a billion people go to sleep hungry every night”. And they all live, more or less, in seven countries: India, China, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Food, like water, shelter, access to education and health care, is a human right, and is enshrined as such in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As with all natural resources, it should be shared equitably among the people of the world, so that nobody, anywhere – specifically the famine-affected regions of Ethiopia, where so many are once again in dire need – experiences food-insecurity and dies of hunger.


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