Drought Response a Study in Contrast on Horn of Africa

By Pineau, Carol | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 4, 2000 | Go to article overview

Drought Response a Study in Contrast on Horn of Africa


Pineau, Carol, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


ASMARA, Eritrea - The world is rushing once again to rescue Ethiopia from a famine, but neighboring Eritrea - with half the rainfall and the same drought conditions - is managing on its own to feed its people.

The contrast has aid workers and diplomats in Eritrea frustrated that the international community seems not to have understood the lesson.

"Why is there no famine in Eritrea? Because the government simply wouldn't tolerate it," said Emmanuel Ablo, World Bank representative for Eritrea.

"There is a commitment to looking after one's own, to a point where even when there are drought conditions, people will be fed," he said.

Diplomats and aid workers in Asmara harshly criticized U.N. special envoy Catherine Bertini for ignoring the political aspects of the crisis during a visit to the drought-stricken Horn of Africa last month.

They argued that the envoy, who also serves as the executive director of the World Food Program, should have praised Eritrea for its aggressive policy to feed its people, even during wartime.

Instead, they said, she rewarded Ethiopia for squandering its resources on weapons while relying on the international community to feed its people.

Ethiopia says the famine was caused by the drought and by the failure of the international community to respond more quickly to its appeals. It denies that its war with Eritrea is a factor, even though both sides are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the war effort.

"Drought alone is not enough to make people starve," argued an Asmara-based diplomat, who noted that war and civil unrest have accompanied almost every famine in recent history, including the last two famines in Ethiopia.

During a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, Mrs. Bertini said peace was the only long-term solution to the crisis, but that feeding a starving child should not depend on whether aid agencies favor a government's policies.

Some experts in Asmara countered that her efforts to save starving children could aid the war effort, resulting in more deaths.

The WFP estimates that 16 million people are at risk in the drought-affected areas of the Horn of Africa, half of which are in Ethiopia, a nation of 60 million. An average of five children per day are said to be dying in Ethiopia from starvation or hunger-related diseases.

In Eritrea, with a population of 3.5 million, an estimated 370,000 people suffer from the drought, primarily in the lowlands along the coast and the border area with Sudan. Yet the situation is not as dire.

The country has appealed for 25,000 metric tons of food aid, but there have been no hunger-related deaths, no severe malnutrition, nor mass migrations of desperate people searching for food.

"Yes, there is need here. Yes, people are suffering. This is a country that is fighting a war, same as Ethiopia. They are spending money on weapons, but the people are still not dying," said Jeff Shannon, an American aid worker in Asmara who spent three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Eritrea. …

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