Why Famine Grips Millions in Ethiopia Again: Some Untold Policy Stories

Filed under: Ra'yiga Dadweynaha |

By Habtamu Dugo and Joanne Eisen*

OgadenFamine2015As the government and aid organizations, including the UN and the USAID have claimed, are weather conditions the only culprit on which to blame the present famine?

Fifteen million people in Ethiopia are hungry. Again. Even with all the uninterrupted in-flow of emergency food assistance, major famines recur every decade and an almost constant food insufficiency exists.

For Ethiopia’s government, a 25-year-old narrative shifts seismically almost overnight from a country that has purportedly registered a two-digit economic growth to the older and much more poignant narrative of a nation-state that is unable to feed millions of its people. This is a reality that government officials initially responded to with denial and with castigation of the news media such as the BBC.

Ethiopian government officials find it shocking to get used to a twist in the narrative from a country once held up as beacon of development for the rest of Africa to a country once more reluctantly spreading its palms for alms in front of the global community.

Now every partner of Ethiopia’s government who joined in the chorus of double-digit economic growth equally finds themselves in an awkward situation of having to suddenly alter the narrative in order to speak of an Ethiopia that’s in desperate need for massive help.

The global press and aid organizations don’t tell you that certain parts of the country are disproportionately affected while other communities with the same weather conditions don’t suffer famine at all. In regional states such as Oromia and Ogaden, where famine is pervasive, the areas where human suffering is most visual, are closed off to foreign journalists and human rights researchers.

Human-made Famine

In order for poor weather conditions to result in mass starvation and death, government must fail to institute helpful policies and/or the government must institute damaging policies.

Four decades ago Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze said that “land alienation”—what we presently call land grabbing policy—has led to severe economic problems. Sen and Dreze also emphasized that “all famines in the modern world are preventable.” Although many Ethiopian government officials have been locked in a position of denial, Wolfgang Fengler, a senior economist at the World Bank, stated that the root causes of the present famine are punitive government policies. Drought can be seen to ratchet up the need for a better and faster government response, but it does not itself cause famine.

One of these damaging policies is the removal of food from suffering communities. In a study that focuses on land grabbing activities in Ethiopia’s south, co-authors Jaatee, Dugo and Eisen tell us that 7 million hectares of land of indigenous peoples were stolen and transferred to foreign and ruling-party-affiliated investors. The transfer of land from indigenous peoples did not only create over a million internally displaced persons, but it also created a situation where the food produced locally by giant foreign agribusinesses is removed and transported overseas to places as far as Saudi Arabia and India leaving local populations destitute. Mass starvation would not have happened if the government of Ethiopia had not sold off land to foreign ‘investors’ for dirt cheap in Oromia and South.

In a rush to blame the famine on drought, Ethiopia’s government ignored its land-grab policy as one of the root causes of the present famine. This is mysteriously lost on aid organizations and many international journalists as well. This famine is more than a return to the 1984 famine. By 2016, according to the UN’s projection, the number of people expected to suffer from famine will be more than 15 million. If not averted, that number will be significantly greater than the number of people affected by the 1984 famine.

Though it is now too late for denial, there is much downplaying of the magnitude of the current famine by the Ethiopian government, which is echoed by many gullible foreign journalists who report how well prepared that the regime is to bring the famine under control. It is not in the best interest of the minority ruling party to stamp out famine in Oromia and Ogaden where the government perceives the Oromo and the Ogaden populations fighting for more autonomy as ‘enemies of the state’. Famine is just another man-made way of ‘draining the sea’ in order for the regime to continues authoritarian rule, human rights abuses and resource extractions from these regions.

The trend of land grabbing is common across the African continent. Damien Carrington, the head of environment at the Guardian, references a study and writes “land taken over by foreign investors could feed 550m people.” In Ethiopia, the 7 million hectares of land transferred to investors is more than the size of Belgium. The transfer of this huge amount of land, along with the food crops produced on it, to foreign countries should alone cause the current epic famine. Yet the current famine did not appear on the scene because of one corrupt policy—it’s been created by decades of misguided and punitive policies made by Ethiopia’s ruling parties.

Regional Disparity in the Spread of Famine and Double Standards in Policy

It is important to look at the differences in the location and scale of famine within Ethiopia in the context of more than four decades of conflict between Ethiopia’s regimes and a dozen rebellions in the marginalized southern states such as Oromia and Ogaden where famine is prevalent. The regime has repeatedly blocked or diverted emergency food aid in the eastern part of the country putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of famine.

Ethiopia has been engaged in counter-insurgency campaigns in the Ogaden and Oromia regions to contain national resistance movements from the rebel groups such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front and the Oromo Liberation Front, which are fighting for the autonomy of these regions. As the byproduct of the uprisings, peoples in these regions have always been seen by government as ‘enemies of the state.’ As a result, these regions have been cut off from life-saving foreign aid, and the aid that was meant for them by donor countries and NGOs was transferred to northern regions of Tigray and Amhara—most favored by Ethiopia’s autocratic rulers.

If we accept claim that drought is causing famine, why does it not also cause famine in Tigray and Amhara regions, which are far more arid than some parts of the Oromia and the Ogaden/Somali regions? Yet, ironically the northern regions are not as severely affected.

The reason why the north is spared is provided by Chiron Borofa, a knowledgeable elder we interviewed for this article. Borofa, 72, told us, “Tigire and Amhara farmers are prepared in many ways to cope with the current drought and famine. The government transfers food aid that comes in the name of all Ethiopia and piles it all up in warehouses in Tigray. Northern regions can’t starve because the Ethiopian government gives first priority to aid distribution in these regions. The government provides irrigation services and technical assistance for digging wells to famers in northern states while the same services are denied to famers in Oromia and Ogaden.”

We see that another policy issue that determines who eats or who starves is a double standard in access to infrastructure based on ethnicity. A recent story in the Guardian by William Davison alludes to how the Oromo people in western Hararge, Oromia, are suffering from preventable famine and livestock are dying off because the state failed to invest in wells-digging and irrigation projects. Dams could easily be erected to contain water and to channel water for irrigated-farming if the government cared. But the government did not invest in development infrastructure in Oromia and the Ogaden. In contrast, the government built costly infrastructure in the north. For instance, the construction of the Tekeze Dam in Tigray alone cost $360 million.

Can Aid Get to the Needy on Time?

Yet another factor in the local variations in the intensity of suffering is the fact that aid is not distributed fairly to those in need.

Human Rights Watch documents that to qualify to receive food aid, people in Oromia, Ogaden and South are coerced into joining the ruling party. If they refused to join the party, they would be denied aid or aid would be delayed putting them at risk of starvation.

Many children and the elderly are dying daily and the crisis is only expected to worsen because of the action of the government to neglect some areas for ethno-political reasons. A source, who spoke to the Voice of America who wanted remain anonymous for his safety, said that at least three children are dying from famine every day just in his vicinity. Famine witnesses, including this source, are afraid of speaking to journalists and the media even when they know that hunger is killing them. When journalists make phone calls to Ethiopia’s government offices in order to ask for a response to these claims of deaths, the journalists frequently find that officials hang up without speaking. The widespread secrecy shows that the government has got something to hide—something it helped create. Government officials are unwilling to be held accountable at international, national and regional levels.

Most unbiased scholars believe that famine is man-made, and thus human action can prevent or exacerbate it. BBC’s Amelia Butterly questioned that we have been talking about famine for three decades, but nothing has changed. She acknowledges that there is a politically-motivated policy that created these famines coupled with an intense denial of the existence of hunger.

Ex rebels who have become current rulers of Ethiopia have a long history of siphoning off food aid meant for local peasants in order to buy weapons to strengthen their own unwelcome grip on power as famine gripped the populace. Back in the 1980s, Tigirean People Liberation Front officials misappropriated famine aid and spent $95 million from Western Charities on weapons purchases, according to a BBC report. Since TPLF ascended to state power after militarily defeating Mengistu Hailemariam’s Communist Derg regime in the early 1990s, they carried the culture of siphoning aid money into Menelik’s Palace. People familiar with Ethiopia know that aid has been flowing into Ethiopia by the billions, but the effect of it has not been seen as famine keeps recurring, regardless.

Now countries and charities are pledging millions of dollars to help the needy, but all of them have been forced to go through official Ethiopian government channels to deliver aid. Using Ethiopian government agencies as channels of international aid distribution is certain to be unsuccessful and will result in the deaths of millions because the government perceives Oromia and Ogaden regions as ‘enemies of the state’ and will not distribute the aid.

Decades of entrenched ethnic-based repressions in Oromia, Ogaden and the South can also be a strong indicator that donor countries and humanitarian organizations helping Ethiopia now will still need to figure out ways of directly reaching those suffering famine. If they fail, preventable famine will consume the lives of millions as the Ethiopian government continues to downplay and to blame the famine on drought. The regime will, as it had previously, divert the foreign funding to shore up its private and public coffers to pay for the lifestyles of its party members and leaders.

Following major past famines in Ethiopia, regimes collapsed. We predict that the current Ethiopian government is likely to collapse when the famine reaches its height in the next two to three years.