Ethiopia: another 1984 famine?

By Saul Guerrero

Saul Guerrero has a background in Social Anthropology. He is currently completing a Masters in Humanitarian Assistance at University College Dublin, while undertaking an internship with the ENN.

This article is based on a review of recent literature as well as a number of interviews with humanitarian agency staff that have had long-term experience and knowledge of Ethiopia. The basic question that the ENN has tried to address in this piece is 'are we about to see another "1984" in Ethiopia as various appeals have anticipated or have lessons been learnt which make this unlikely?'

For almost a year, the government of Ethiopia and a number of international organisations have been warning of widespread famine in the country, should the international community not bring in sufficient food aid to remedy the food-deficits left by the crop failures of 2002. The result of erratic belg (short) and meher (long) rains was a projected food deficit of over 1.4 million MT for the first quarter of 2003, with the number of people requiring immediate food assistance estimated at 11.3 million, or approximately twenty percent of the total population. Crop-failure estimates vary between regions, however the nationwide average is 15-20%. The impact of such failures is even more significant in a country that is only barely self sufficient in the best of years. Nutritional surveys have demonstrated a serious situation in some areas, with 15% and 11% GAM (Global Acute Malnutrition) reported in eastern Oromiya and eastern Tigray respectively.1

Ethiopia, Damot Weyde, December 2002. Small whirlwinds add to erosion and soil degradation

The scale of the situation has led many international agencies to compare the current situation with the historic famine that affected Ethiopia in 1984-85. At the heart of this comparison lie two main indicators. First, the estimates of people in need of food assistance - a figure that stood at approximately 8 million people in 1984 has risen to 11.3 million in 2003. Secondly, the per capita income in Ethiopia has significantly declined from US$190 in 1981 to US$108 in 2001, thus markedly reducing the purchasing power of the population at large. While such statistics may not be sufficient for an accurate comparison, the media attention that the present situation, is enjoying demonstrates the impact of such comparisons, and the paramount need to prevent a repetition of the traumatic 1980s experience. A legacy of the horrors of 1984 may be that few have questioned the real scale of the present situation while even fewer have attempted independent analysis/estimates that may lead to lower estimates of food-deficits in the country than those in the Ethiopian and UN appeals, and expose the uncertain basis for the continual comparison with the events of 1984.

There are, however, certain comparisons with 1984 that can confidently be made. These relate to the underlying causes of the food crisis. Anne Callanan (who has extensive Ethiopia experience with the WFP and Concern) argued that climate-dependent agriculture, state-controlled land tenure, poor infrastructure and high population density have contributed immensely to both events, and more importantly, to the creation of a marginal and highly vulnerable agricultural system in Ethiopia. Both events - the 1984 famine and the current food crisis - are also mainly the result of cumulative bad-harvests due to drought. "The cycles of drought" say Callanan, "are coming closer and closer together; we can count 1974 when there was obviously two, three drought years before that because famine is never a result of just one drought year. Then there was '84, which was again the end point of a five-year drought cycle [...] the year 2000 was another extremely bad year and people are just not recovering". The effects of such droughts have been similar on all occasions; coping strategies are reduced, as cattle, personal possessions and just about any marketable goods are sold or traded to satisfy short-term needs. "Save the Children" explains Callanan, "have done a lot of Household Food Economy Assessments (HFEA) in one particular area and they are documenting the gradual impoverishment of the population...HFEAs divides people into wealth groups, and they are actually seeing shifts in people down through the wealth groups going from middle-income to poor and to very-poor".

While the succession of crop-failures prior to 2003, with all its effects on coping mechanisms, may be comparable to the 1984 experience, much has changed in the way the government of Ethiopia, and perhaps more importantly, the international community are responding to drought and its impact on the country. These changes - whether preventive or in response to food-crisis - may prove vital in the current situation.

Dan Maxwell (CARE International) had this to say on the subject; "the dimensions of the shock that triggered the current crisis may well be comparable, but that is no reason why the humanitarian crisis needs to be comparable. The shock, and the decline in domestic production - with all the knock-on effects this has for food access at the producer household level as well as in terms of the market - may well be proportionately as big as what happened in 1984. But the entire emergency response has been geared to preventing the shock from translating into a humanitarian disaster". Maxwell identified a number of mechanisms which have been introduced post- 1984 and have been designed to identify and respond to recurrent 'shocks'. Among some of the most successful are the Early Warning Systems (EWS) found working throughout Ethiopia, e.g. the USAID funded Famine Early Warning System (FEWS), which monitors a range of indicators of food security including satellite imagery on crop and vegetation production. Similarly, the World Food Programme 'Vulnerability Assessment Mapping Unit' and the Ethiopian Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) monitor the food-security status of regions throughout the country.

The EWS have proven effective in identifying problems and in highlighting them sufficiently in advance. Yet their signals do not guarantee a response. "The Early Warning Systems" says Callanan, "were definitely sending out the alert in 1999 and nobody was reacting at the time and continued to send out alerts in 2000 by which time there was widespread suffering notably in Somali region. This time they are sending out the alert again..."

Another significant difference introduced in post- 1984 Ethiopia has been the creation of the Emergency Food Security Reserve (EFSR) which is capable of storing over 400,000 MT of food. For many, including Maxwell, the EFSR has proved to be working "better this time around [than in 1999- 2000]" and thus could prove vital in addressing the identified food-deficits for 2003. Yet, critics such as John Seaman (Save the Children, UK) have argued that the reserve has been repeatedly utilised and manipulated for political purposes. Certainly the reserve has experienced a rapid decline in its physical stocks from over 350,000 MT in early 2002 to an estimated 134,801 MT for March 2003. This decline has jeopardised the stock which, if it does not receive standing payments may cross the operational threshold of 100,000 MT when the delivery of further loans becomes impossible.

Significant changes have taken place over the past two decades on a wider political level which augur a different outcome to 1984. The present Ethiopian government appears more ready to acknowledge and act upon the crop-failures. This attitude is very different from that of the Mengitsu government during the 1980s. For Maxwell, this is noteworthy; "[Unlike the 1980s] the government in Ethiopia is not trying to sweep it all under the rug [...] and there isn't a war complicating relations with the donor community or absorbing a lot of internal attention". Callanan has also noted the impact of domestic policies on donor's commitment. "The early 1980s", says Callanan, "was the time of the Cold War and Mengitsu was heavily supported by the Soviet Union and of course the Soviet Union does not donate food...and actually to get food at the time from Western donors was a big political battle". This political reluctance to support Ethiopia no longer holds with a contextual change that, according to Seaman, makes the famine of 1984 and the current situation almost incomparable.

All the positive developments since the 1984 famine do not seem to have appeased the international community's fear of history repeating itself. The comparison between the current food crisis and the traumatic events of the 1984-85 famine continues to be utilised by the UN, Ethiopian Government and a wide variety of NGOs' appeals. Yet, if the humanitarian sector responds to all the warning signals in time there appears to be little risk of another 1984. The fact that the comparison has been extensively used as an advocacy tool is perhaps understandable. After all, the 1984 experience was a benchmark in international humanitarianism, both in terms of its traumatic effects on the attentive world as well as the resulting commitment to prevent such tragedies occurring again. For many, including Callanan, the comparison has neither been used inappropriately nor prematurely, considering the results of harvest assessments and the lag time between donor pledges and the actual physical distribution of food to Ethiopia. Yet, the use of such comparisons inevitably raises the question should the situation never reach the end point it did in 1984, what will happen if, and when, in the future if and when we do witness another serious food shortage in Ethiopia? Will the donors be compelled to act? Or will what may be seen in hindsight as a form of 'crying wolf' this time round, cost the Ethiopians precious time and assistance in the future?

I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to Anne Callanan, Dan Maxwell (CARE) and John Seaman (Save the Children UK) for their time, assistance and wisdom shared during our interviews.

Show footnotes

1Figures taken from the "Emergency Assistance Requirements & Implementation Options for 2003; A Joint Government-UN Appeal", December 7th, 2002.

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Reference this page

Saul Guerrero (2003). Ethiopia: another 1984 famine?. Field Exchange 18, March 2003. p17. www.ennonline.net/fex/18/ethiopia