25 years after the Ethiopian famine, what have we learned?

It’s 25 years since the Ethiopian famine and the region is again being flayed by drought. Expect lots of media coverage, at least some of it along the lines of ’why did we bother? Nothing’s changed.’ Not so. Band Aids and Beyond, an Oxfam briefing paper published today, summarizes what’s been learned since then and asks why donors and governments haven’t acted on that knowledge. It argues that ‘For Ethiopians it is more sustainable, dignified and cost effective to identify and tackle the risk of disaster rather than simply waiting for disaster to strike.’

Highlights:

‘In 1984, one million Ethiopians died during a catastrophic famine. The severity of suffering seen 25 years ago has not returned to Ethiopia. But drought still costs Ethiopia roughly $1.1bn a year – almost eclipsing the total annual overseas assistance to the country.

[this prompts two questions, and a single answer]:
1. What can be done to prevent the next drought from becoming a disaster?
2. Seventy per cent of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia comes from the USA. Most of this is ‘in-kind’ food aid, subject to conditions which have nothing to do with development and mean that it costs up to $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid. Are there any more cost-effective ways of dealing with disasters?

The Disaster Risk Management (DRM) approach goes a long way to answering both these questions.  DRM means working in partnership with countries and communities to:

Cash for work project, Amhara region
Cash for work project, Amhara region

• Identify all potential threats to lives and livelihoods (not just one threat, such as drought) and people’s vulnerabilities to these threats;

• Build their resilience – their ability to withstand shocks without jeopardising their ways of working and living.

Women have a crucial role in the response of communities to shocks such as drought, but they are too often marginalised in decision-making. To be effective, DRM must involve women and men equally.

What does DRM look like?

• Providing micro-insurance for farmers to help with rapid recovery from prolonged drought;

• Giving communities cash in exchange for work to reduce the risk of flooding. The cash can be used to buy food locally, which also helps local markets;

• Buying food for emergency reserves from small-scale farmers in the country or region, which provides a boost for agriculture and a meal for those facing hunger;

• Establishing early warning systems and standby stocks to facilitate a timely response to impending food shortages or other disasters.

DRM is not a new concept, but worldwide it remains an under-used idea: just 0.14 per cent of overseas assistance is allocated specifically to tackling disaster risk. [which prompts a third question]

3. Why is DRM not already the guiding approach to disasters in Ethiopia?’

Last word goes to Birhan Woldu, who became the media face of the Ethopian famine in 1984-5, survived and has now graduated with a diploma in agriculture and a degree in nursing:

Birhan Woldu in 1985 and today
Birhan Woldu in 1985 and today

‘25 years ago, my life was saved by Irish nursing sisters who gave me an injection, and food aid from organisations like Band Aid. So it may seem strange for me to say now that to get food aid from overseas is not the best way. As well as being demeaning to our dignity, my education has taught me that constantly shipping food from places like the USA is costly, uneconomic, and can encourage dependency.’

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Comments

7 Responses to “25 years after the Ethiopian famine, what have we learned?”
  1. Claudia

    Dear Duncan,

    Ethiopia shares the same drought cycle with Northeast Brazil, my beloved area of study. Both regions are hit by drought as part of the negative effects of El Niño. Every 25 years these arid or semiarid regions are hit by one very heavy drought.

    In Northeast Brazil the 1979-1984 drought was devastated and killed 3.5 million Brazilian, poor Brazilians, according to SUDENE, the organism responsible for the area.

    What I mean is: droughts are the most predictable natural hazard that exist, in areas like Ethiopia and Northeast Brazil it is part of the nature, inherent to these regions and should not be killing anymore people.

    The problem is that Ethiopian and Northeastern Brazilians are poor, very poor, living on the limit of survival and one less drop of rain increases risk and problems.

    The problem of Ethiopia and Northeast Brazil is poverty. The disastrous conditions which persists to be reproduced because of lack of political will to change and not exactly because of lack of water.

    Drought is part of Ethiopia’s life and will always be, what does not belong to Ethiopia is poverty and it is poverty what should be the enemy in this everyday fight.

    The problem is not drought, is poverty. One can build a good life out in the dry zones of the planet, yes they can.

    We are here to help.

    Cheers,

    C.

  2. ceecee

    @James — in a word, yes.

    And this has the wonderful added advantage for autocratic developing country governments, in that they can lay the blame squarely on rich countries, rather than acknowledging their own failures to their people.

  3. James Eliscar

    First of all, I would like to thank you Duncan for bringing to the front end this issue of famine and Ethiopia. I appreciate the perspective here discussed in this article as it relates to Disaster Reduction Management (DRM) approach, but I will approach the subject from a political viewpoint taken into account disasters and climate change. The problem is essentially, in my opinion, an issue of power relations and regional management of natural resources. Given that the Nile river crosses on its trajectory more than 5 countries of which Ethiopia is one, many of Ethiopia’s climatic problems could have been solved if it has access to the Nile. However, that is not, and more likely, will not be the case. Not taking into account the agreements by Nasser and countries affected by the Nile River, if any country in the Nile region wanting to exploit more of that resource to better the livelihoods of its citizens will be in direct confrontation with Egypt. Even, engaging a process of re-negotiation of the terms of these agreements might raise tensions in the region. Thus, Ethiopia’s problem as it relates to the region is not only climatic but also political. Any change in the problem of Ethiopia has to consider power relations in the region.

  4. teddy kassa

    really thanks very much for your attention to ethiopia and ethiopian.but as me i can agree with Mr. James Eliscar. b/c it is possible as minimum to survive even in a dry condition when ever the people are useing thire natural (like not nile but many rivers if possible Nile as what is in the international rule) and human resoures efficently with thinking for the future generation. But such things had been happning in Ethiopia due to the bulshiet poletics and poletician. At last what i could say is to all Ethiopian please respect and love each other unless you will continue such a like….
    Thanks a lot!

  5. Mark Robertson

    I think James is correct that the politics of the region have to be taken into account. The answers to your questions are not easy ones. I think they really relate to each other and should be answered as one.

    I don’t see any way Ethiopia can be prepared for famine at this point without aid. The way aid is handled needs to be reformed. It can be very sucessful if handled properly.

    There would be much more support for increasing aid if substantial results could be shown and this would be possible with better management and more legitimate oversight.

  6. Alex

    I totally agree Mark. I think the way to handle this is to teach the people of Ethiopia new skills so that when there are more problems with drought they will be able to have an income rather than depend on the crop income. This will be very sucessful if people are willing to go out and help. I’m pretty sure if these charities went round colleges and universities, there would be lots of people willing to help.

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