Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation

By Amartya Sen | Go to book overview
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Chapter 7
The Ethiopian Famine


The first recorded famine in Ethiopia goes back to the ninth century. Between 1540 and 1742 there were, apparently, more than ten major farnines.1 The so-called 'great Ethiopian famine' hit the country during 1888-92, killing off possibly a third of the total population,2 and it is still remembered as kifu qan (evil days). In comparison with the great Ethiopian famine, the famine that Ethiopia experienced in 1972-4 might appear to be a moderate affair, with mortality estimates varying between 50,000 and 200,000, in a population of about 27 million.3 But as Aykroyd ( 1974) puts it, 'a death toll of perhaps over 100,000' is 'inexcusable at this stage in the history of famine' (p. 203).

The province that was hit hardest by the famine was Wollo in the north-east of Ethiopia, but it also affected the province of Tigrai, further north, and some of the rest of the country, e.g. Harerghe.4 For Wollo the famine reached its peak in 1973, and recovery was well under way by the end of that year. The same is true of Tigrai, the other northern province affected by the famine (though much less affected). But for Harerghe the famine came into its own only in 1974. In a sense, there were really two Ethiopian famines during this period: the first in 1972-3 with its focus on north-east, especially Wollo, and the second in 1973-4 affecting mainly some provinces further south, particularly

Zewde ( 1976), p. 52. See also Pankhurst ( 1961).
See Pankhurst ( 1966).
The lower of the two limits, viz. 40,000, comes from the estimate of 'total deaths due to famine between 40,000 and 80,000', suggested by Miller and Holt ( 1975), p. 171, but refers primarily to the first phase of the famine. The higher of the two limits, viz. 200,000, represents mortality estimates presented in Shepherd ( 1975), which Gebre-Medhin and Vahlquist ( 1977) suggest 'is hardly an exaggeration' (p. 197). For the total period 1972-5, Rivers, Holt, Seaman, and Bowden ( 1976) estimate 'an excess of at least 100,000 deaths due to starvation and associated diseases' (p. 355).
According to the figures given by the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission ( 1975), the proportion of 'affected' population in late 1973 was 41 per cent for Wollo, 17 per cent for Tigrai, 8 per cent for Harerghe, 2.6 per cent for Shewa, 0.8 per cent for Gemu Gofa, and negligible for the other provinces. See Hussein ( 1976), p. 45.


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