Ethiopia's famine: deny and delay

René Lefort
24 March 2009

In 2008 famine struck Ethiopia. Now, at the start of 2009 it is looming again. According to the “Humanitarian Requirements” released on 30 January 2009 by the government in Addis Ababa and their “Humanitarian Partners”, 13 million Ethiopians - one-sixth of the population - are in need of aid. For over 10 million of them the need is urgent. But food allocations have already been “tentatively cancelled” or reduced. Relief is inadequate, as it has continued to be since the food crisis began in early 2008. The effects of its initial denial and then its consistent underestimation, which turned local production shortages into humanitarian catastrophes, are still being felt.

René Lefort has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur.

He is the author of "Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?" (1982, Zed books).

His email is [email protected]

But, exactly a year ago, there was an atmosphere of euphoria. Almost all international experts and the Ethiopian authorities were announcing that the autumn harvest (95% of the annual harvest) was 7% to 10% above the previous year’s. In 2008, it would therefore be possible, simultaneously, “to cover all the cereal requirements at the aggregate level,” increase Ethiopians’ average food ration by 20%, double food reserves, including the Emergency Food Security Reserve, and even export 800,000 tonnes. Simon Mechale, head of the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency (DPPA), confirmed that the regime’s main promise was still on track. “Ethiopia will soon fully ensure its food security,” he said.

To meet their promise, on top of the agricultural ‘boom’, the government and international donor organizations were convinced they also had a key weapon: the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) - “the biggest social protection instrument in Africa”, which would break the “cycle of dependence on food aid”. Food aid offered temporary, one-off relief: providing its beneficiaries with the minimum to survive a shock, such as a poor harvest, but not enough to protect them from the next shock. Instead, the Safety Net targets the medium term development of eight million Ethiopians, the most chronically food insecure. By guaranteeing them a given amount of money or food for five years, in exchange for public works, they were supposed to build up enough productive assets in order to be able to overcome the shocks themselves.

But this arrangement was to collapse like a house of cards. On 9 April 2008, the Ethiopian government finally launched an appeal for emergency food assistance for 3.2 million Ethiopians. In less than three months, the number of those in need rose to over 12 million, swelled by the poor ‘lesser’ harvest, following the failure of the ‘little’ Spring rains of 2008. Officially.

The government endlessly repeated that it was facing a “minor problem” that would “be soon brought under control.” In reality it was completely overwhelmed, and its donors too. The Emergency Food Security Reserve, which was supposed to contain 400,000 tonnes, was almost empty. Three quarters of the beneficiaries of the Safety Net required emergency relief because they could not survive with their regular welfare assistance. There was a rush to raise funds and import food, but it would take at least three months to arrive. Reserves in the warehouses fell to a quarter of what was needed. In July 2008, the food ration was reduced by a third, then by half, for October and November. Despite a quadrupling in the value of humanitarian aid in 2008 compared to 2007, the emergency importation of 1.3 million tonnes of food in the first ten months of 2008, and the multiplication by seven of the number of Therapeutic Feeding Centers between the start of the crisis and September 2008, to service the world’s largest ever medical operation to save children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, the relief came too late and was too little to offset the largest human catastrophe since the famine of 1984/5, with its hundreds of thousands of deaths.

This failure was a result, first of all, of weaknesses in the early warning systems. For example, given Ethiopia’s rain-fed agriculture, failed rains forecast a poor harvest. But disruptions to the “main” summer rains of 2007 in the Highlands were not detected, notably along the Rift Valley, south-west of Addis Ababa, which would become the epicentre of the crisis. The same was true for the total absence of “lesser” rains at the end of 2007, specific to this area, with even more dramatic consequences. But, worse than neglecting these warning signs, which were visible since the end of the Summer of 2007, was the subsequent denial of increasingly serious signs of hunger.  

“Famines do not occur in functioning democracies”, argues the Indian Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen. The Ethiopian regime is diabolically good at cultivating appearances, while draining away any substance they may have had. The single party, which controls the State, is in the hands of the Tigrean minority, who make up 6% of the population. This ‘ethnicism’ undermines the regime’s legitimacy and obstructs any opening towards democracy, which might end this monopoly, as shown by the repression of the opposition after its breakthrough in the 2005 elections. This is one of the factors that rendered it incapable of playing its role as an opposing force, by sounding the alarm on a crisis that it saw coming, but was never able to quantify exactly. Since the international, and especially the national press, and even the ‘free press’, operate under strict surveillance, it cannot risk covering ‘sensitive’ subjects. The first reports of the drought in the Highlands only appeared in April 2008. No investigation has ever been published on the government’s reaction to the situation.

The regime’s authoritarianism also stems from a dual inheritance. The heritage of the ancestral Abyssinian identity, which is founded on a sense of respect for hierarchical authority. And also ‘democratic centralism’, which has remained the Party-State’s mode of organisation, a continuation of the Marxist-Maoist ideology that was the current leadership's religion until it took power in 1991.

Any hope of popular political support for the regime is therefore dead in the water. And the regime knows it. Its survival strategy can be summed up as attempting to compensate for its rejection by dazzling economic success, the famous “double digit growth” that it parades at every opportunity. This growth is supposed to validate the “Renaissance” of Ethiopia, which the regime celebrated with great pomp and ceremony as it entered the first year of the third millennium of its calendar, from September 2007 to September 2008. Destined to “become a middle income country in about 20 years”, Ethiopia would “never stretch our hands to beg for what we need, ever again.” To recognise the drought would therefore mean asking for aid, and to admit, with donors, that the Safety Net was failing, would be to admit that the economy was not performing quite as well as the regime was telling everyone. This was out of the question. Addissu Legesse, Deputy Prime Minister and in charge of rural development, said as much himself. When the international media and humanitarian organisations began to sound the alarm at the deepening crisis, he reproached them less for trying “to get huge assistance” than for being “intent on belittling the economic growth of the country.”

By culture as much as because of the system, in order to avoid being sanctioned for incompetence, every civil servant must therefore demonstrate that he is translating this dogma of growth into deeds, at his level, even if this means dressing up, or even denying reality.

This subservience of the civil service has effectively barred it from being among the first to sound the alarm at local level, even though it has outposts in every tiny hamlet in each of the 17,000 communes. When they realised that their harvest was bad, delegations of farmers called on the authorities for aid, as is customary. With one voice, local officials replied, “we don’t want to know. Sort it out yourselves!”

This same local government provides figures on food production, which are then “processed” and compiled by those higher up the hierarchy, forming the basis for most estimates of the size of the harvest and therefore of the humanitarian needs. The better-known estimates are put together at the end of every year by several Ethiopian departments and, among others, the FAO, WFP, European Union, and USAID. But, as underlined by a FAO/WFP report, “the agricultural officers are rewarded for (reported) increases in production.” This initial bias is then further exacerbated by two others - the political imperatives of those at the top of the Ethiopian political ladder and those of the donor organisations. Dressed up in a technical format that is supposed to make them look ‘scientific’, these assessments are more a translation of these forms of distortion, bitterly negotiated between the various imperatives, than they are a reflection of reality.

Proof of this was the announcement, in December 2007, of this “bumper harvest”, just as the country stood on the brink of famine. This led to an estimate of ‘only’ 2.4 million Ethiopians who would need emergency food relief, and became the figure that donor agencies agreed on, even though they knew it was an underestimate. But, for the first time, their final negotiations with the DPPA foundered: it refused to accept this figure. According to the negotiators, it put forward a single argument, a pure imposition of authority: “there cannot be so many people in need,” implying that it was not politically acceptable. As a result, the “Humanitarian Appeal”, traditionally launched a few weeks later by the government and donor organisations to set the humanitarian machine in motion, stayed on the desk. It continued to be blocked for the next four months. The main alarm signal had been stifled.

The DPPA stuck to its position. At the end of February 2008, slyly and alone, it published a document stating that 1.7 million people were in need of emergency aid, a figure barely above that of early 2007, and so politically acceptable. Above all, the DDPA was implying that Ethiopia could deal with the situation on its own, without international help.

Finally, in mid-March 2008, the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, consecrated this denial, when he reported to Parliament on the economic situation. He only mentioned the drought in passing, saying that “rumours” about it were “false” and that it was “not a serious threat”. It only affected the Lowland pastures in the South, without causing any humans or cattle to die, even though local officials had just declared the opposite. There was nothing on the Highlands and, in particular, the Rift Valley. But officials knew full well that the rate of  ‘severe acute malnutrition’ of children, a stage where the risk of mortality is very high without immediate medical intervention, was five times higher than the rate that triggers an emergency food relief operation, according to international standards. “When figures like this are reached,” say nutrition experts, “the harm has already been done, and children have long been dying of hunger.”

What exactly did Meles know then? Because of the regime’s lack of transparency, observers disagree. For some, he knew all about the crisis. Others are more circumspect: Meles was late in learning about the real scale of the famine because officials had been more or less hiding the facts. But, these observers emphasise, Meles was ultimately to blame, because he had been solely in charge for the past 17 years. However, his reading of one of the main effects of the drought - the highest rate of inflation in Africa after Zimbabwe - can only be deliberately false.

This, he said, only affected “low income urban dwellers”. Those living in rural areas, “85% of the population... [are] not affected by the price rise”. Yet everyone knows that half of the farmers have to buy food, because their own production does not cover all their needs, and a fifth of these have to purchase more than half of their food. From March 2007 to March 2008, the price of basic foodstuffs increased by about 50%, only to double in the following four months. In particular, at least four million beneficiaries of the Safety Net are paid in cash, but their daily payment was, in the end, only enough to provide a third of their family’s daily needs. Meles, with his administration behind him, left tens of millions of Ethiopians to fend for themselves, no longer able to afford the most common foods.

“Three or four months have been lost,” humanitarians and diplomats now say, in good faith and always off the record. But why was nothing said about it? “The situation was becoming serious,” some of them were to say later, “even if we didn’t size it up exactly. But there reigned a conspiracy of silence, whether tacit or deliberate”. Sometimes, even connivance. Visiting Addis Ababa a few days before the release of the first Humanitarian Requirements of 9 April 2008, Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the WFP, whose local office knows the attitude of the Ethiopian authorities only too well, declared that “the government move in addressing the current food shortage… serves as a model.” It was necessary to wait for needs to be assessed, to decide “if it is appropriate or inappropriate to issue an (humanitarian) appeal,” even though these needs had been known for four months and had not stopped growing.

The Ethiopian government wielded an iron hand over humanitarian organisations and donor agencies, ensuring that they only acted within the official or tacit limits imposed upon them, following the whims of the current political agenda, even if this meant restricting, even distorting their activities, to the point of breaking with their own ethical principles; if not they could risk expulsion. Hence, among other things, an extreme form of self-censorship in order to remain always publicly in step with the official Ethiopian line, no matter how far from reality it may be, and, even more so, to refrain from any form of advocacy. Hence, also, the absolute refusal to go on the record. The International Red Cross was thrown out of one part of the Somali region in July 2007, accused, without evidence, of having waged a “smear campaign against the regional government” by feeding, off the record, English-language media with information on the government’s demands.

With one exception, all the aid organisations, governmental or not, decided to stay on, whatever the price to be paid. Following an institutional logic, they felt they had to be present in one of the principal fields of humanitarian action on the planet. Out of responsibility for the people they were helping, and only too aware that the Ethiopian government would know how to make them appear responsible for “abandoning them”, if they were to leave. And for some major UK and American NGOs and most of the United Nations agencies, to align themselves with the diplomats. “If they are going hand in hand with the regime,” said members of these agencies, “it is above all to fit in with a political agenda.” The major powers, led by the USA, refrained from any substantial criticism and, above all, any tangible sanctions against a regime that they credit with ensuring the country’s stability - an exception in a highly tormented Horn of Africa. Mainly, in a mainly Islamic region, traversed by currents of extremism, Ethiopia, where nearly half of the population are Christians, is their “strategic ally” in the “war on terror”. Finally, in early 2008, these leading countries felt themselves all the more indebted to this regime, given that they were not providing the support it had counted on for its intervention in Somalia, even when that turned into a disaster. So, the expected relationship between donors and recipients is inverted, and the former become obliged to the latter.

Only Douglas Alexander, the British Minister for International Development, dared publicly to condemn the attitude of the Ethiopian regime vis-à-vis the food crisis, by calling it one of “deny and delay”. But it drew absolutely no response outside or inside the country. For example, five months later, Gordon Brown has invited Meles Zenawi to participate in the G20 London meeting next month, albeit in his capacity as Chairman of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development). Inside the country, if an Ethiopian elite knew about this condemnation, it lacked any precise supporting information. If investigations into the mortality rate were carried out, they were never published. We have no idea of the number of victims claimed by this famine. Tens of thousands?

Rightly or wrongly, Emperor Haile Selassie personifies the disdain of his regime for the famine of 1973/4, which claimed 200,000 deaths. He was overthrown a few months later. By deliberately ignoring the famine of 1984/5, in case it took away the sheen of the tenth anniversary of the socialist Derg junta’s accession to power and the concomitant creation of the Worker’s Party of Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam signed the beginning of its end. But there is no sign that the famine of 2008 will trigger a similar movement.

Whatever the arguments, the number of victims is out of all proportion to the previous two famines. Those responsible are harder to identify because its origins are more systemic and more diffuse. The silence of international organisations and diplomats, if not their connivance, are also contributing factors. But, by exposing the flaws of economic development, and by plunging millions of Ethiopians into famine, this crisis is further discrediting the regime in the eyes of the people. And above all, the international community, which finally recognises that, day by day, the facts refute the regime’s claim that Ethiopia is an “emerging democracy”, is also beginning to doubt what it considered the country’s major achievement: the economic success the regime is endlessly boasting of.

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