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The Cause of Ethiopia's Recurrent Famine Is Not Drought, It Is
Prof. Beyene Petros Lodamo
Twenty years ago one Ethiopian Diaspora in Washington asked the late
Prime minister Meles Zenawi what his vision for the country was. A
rather polite and amiable Meles outlined his vision in a very human
centered way. He said he hopes that in ten years every Ethiopian
will have enough to eat three times a day and after 20 years
Ethiopians will not only have enough food but they will also have
the luxury of choosing what they eat.
Here we are now. Three years have passed since Meles died in office
after 21 years in power. Once again Ethiopia's food crisis is
topping the headline. As seasonal rain fails in Eastern and Southern
parts of the country, famine is threatening millions of Ethiopians.
The UN estimates over 10 million are in need of emergency food aid.
Why is famine and hunger so common in Ethiopia?
Many experts relate Ethiopia's cyclical famine with the country's
dependence on Rainfed smallholder agriculture, drought, rapid
population growth or agricultural market dysfunctions. Although
these factors do have significant role in the matter, they tend to
hide the critical cause of hunger in the country - lack of rights
and accountable government. Nobel Prize winner and economist Amartya
Sen has extensively analyzed the relationship between democracy and
famine in his book Development as Freedom. Sen argues democracies
don't have famines, only authoritarian systems do. Famine tend to
happen in places where the victims are oppressed by dictators.
A historical investigation of famine also identified 30 major
famines during the 20th century. All happened in countries led by
autocratic rule or that were under armed conflict, four being in
Why does autocracy lead to famine? The most fundamental reason is
that autocrats often don't care enough about the population to
prevent famine. Autocrats maintain power through force, not popular
approval. This argument has been proven true in the case of
During 1983-1985 the worst famine in the country's history had led
to more than 400,000 deaths. Extensive investigation by Alexander De
Waal in his book Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in
Ethiopia has found "more than half this mortality can be attributed
to human rights abuses that caused the famine to come earlier,
strike harder, and extend further than would otherwise have been the
case." The military government is not only spent between $100 and
$200 million to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution
while millions are starving, Mengistu's regime also attempted to
impose customs duties on aid shipments.
Similarly during the 1973-1974 Wollo famine, attempts to hide the
reality of the situation by the Imperial Feudal System caused
300,000 deaths. This particular famine was not a problem of food
shortage in the country but lack of ability to access food. The
Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture Report of 1972 stated that output
for 1972-1973 was only 7% lower than the previous year. Also, food
price in Wollo were no higher-often substantially lower -than
elsewhere in the country. The problem was the poor just couldn't
afford to buy. Meanwhile, Emperor Haile Selassie spend some $35
million to celebrate his eightieth birthday in 1973.
Unfortunately the trend of autocratic-led hunger has not changed
under the current government either, if anything Meles's regime took
it to the next level.
In 2004 Humanitarian Exchange Magazine exposed that disregarding
experts advise that the situation in the country was very severe and
does qualifies as a famine, the government of Ethiopia and USAID
conspired to downplay the 2002-2004 food crisis as "localized
famine" in fear of global media attention and political dangers for
the EPRDF. The report states "the lack of classic famine
images....facilitates further disengagement by the media and Western
publics, even as large numbers of vulnerable people face
destitution, malnutrition, morbidity and mortality." Again 2010 in a
report titled Development without Freedom: How Aid Underwrites
Repression in Ethiopia , Human Right Watch extensively documented
how the EPRDF is using development aid to suppress political dissent
by conditioning access to essential safety net programs on support
for the ruling party.
Today, once again the danger of another catastrophic famine is
looming large on the horizon. Ongoing drought worsened by the El
Niño global weather phenomenon has already caused deaths of many
cattle and have put as many as 14 million people at risk.
After denying the problem for weeks; the government finally admitted
to it but only to claim that it has enough food stock to tackle the
problem . However, journalists on the ground has reported the
government's grain reserve has run out long ago. According to Barrie
Came, WFP representative, the food supply by the UN is also not
enough to curb the problem.
The government also argues the country has already realized food
security at a national level, that is to say we have enough food in
the country to feed everyone. The inherent flaw in this argument is
that the presence of food in the country doesn't necessarily mean
those affected by drought will have access to it. As it was the case
during the 1973 Wollo famine, when a crop fails it not only affects
the food supply, it also destroys the employment and livelihood of
farmers, denying them the ability to buy food from the market.
Reports have also shown that the government was informed of the risk
of seasonal rain failure forecast as early as two months ago but it
chose to keep it to itself. Had the government shared the
information with the media and local governments to inform
pastoralists to move their cattle near rivers or highlands, much of
the animal loss would have been avoided and relief supports would
have been delivered on time.
Democracy can effectively prevent famine Why is the Ethiopia
government acting so irresponsibly? The answer is simple - because
there is no incentive for the government to work hard to avert
famine. Amartya Sen argument related to absence of political
incentives generated by election, multiparty politics and
investigative journalism is also true in the case of Ethiopia.
The EPRDF led government has successfully wiped out all groups that
might pose any form of threat to its power. Fresh from its 100%
"election" victory , with very fragmented opposition parties, no
civil society and no scope for uncensored public criticism,
Hailemariam's regime don't have to suffer the political consequences
of its failure to prevent famine.
If there were a democratic system to keep the government
accountable, the state's response would have been much different.
For instance, Botswana, like Ethiopia, is prone to drought but a
democracy since its independence in 1966, Botswana never had a
famine. Botswana's democratic government immediately deploys relief
efforts during every drought, and even improves them from one
drought to the next. Had the government in Botswana failed to
undertake timely action, there would have been severe criticism and
pressure from the opposition and maybe even bigger political cost in
future elections. In contrast, the Ethiopian governments did not
have to worry with those prospects.
Another Sen's key argument is information flow and free press -
democracy contributes greatly to bring out information that can have
an enormous impact on policies for famine prevention. If it weren't
for the foreign media reporting and social media activists outcry,
the government might have kept the current problem a secret for long
and caused much greater damage than it already has. In Sen's words
"free press and an active political opposition constitute the best
early warning system a country threatened by famine can have"
If aid organizations comprehensively and immediately deploy
humanitarian assistance, the current crisis could be impelled with
minimal damage. However, the argument that famine in Ethiopia is
caused by drought doesn't hold water anymore. Unless the problem is
addressed from its roots, another famine is just a matter of time.
For Ethiopia to truly achieve food security and avoid any dangers of
famine in the future, nothing but building a democratic, transparent
and accountable system is the solution.