Is the Era of Great Famines Over?

By Waal, Alex De | International New York Times, May 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

Is the Era of Great Famines Over?


Waal, Alex De, International New York Times


Despite a record drought in Ethiopia, people aren't dying of starvation - proof that famine inherently is a political issue.

The worst drought in three decades has left almost 20 million Ethiopians -- one-fifth of the population -- desperately short of food. And yet the country's mortality rate isn't expected to increase: In other words, Ethiopians aren't starving to death.

I've studied famine and humanitarian relief for more than 30 years, and I wasn't prepared for what I saw during a visit to Ethiopia last month. As I traveled through northern and central provinces, I saw imported wheat being brought to the smallest and most remote villages, thanks to a new Chinese-built railroad and a fleet of newly imported trucks. Water was delivered to places where wells had run dry. Malnourished children were being treated in properly staffed clinics.

Compare that to the aftermath of the 1984 drought, which killed at least 600,000 people, caused the economy to shrink by nearly 14 percent and turned the name "Ethiopia" into a synonym for shriveled, glazed-eyed children on saline drips.

How did Ethiopia go from being the world's symbol of mass famines to fending off starvation? Thanks partly to some good fortune, but mostly to peace, greater transparency and prudent planning. Ethiopia's success in averting another disaster is confirmation that famine is elective because, at its core, it is an artifact and a tool of political repression.

In 1984, the rains failed in the midst of a civil war, pitting the military regime headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam against rebels in the northern province of Tigray and neighboring Eritrea. When food ran short, Mengistu's government blocked trade, bombed markets and withheld emergency supplies in rebel-controlled areas.

The suffering that ensued elicited a vast outpouring of generosity from the West, brought about in part by the Live Aid concerts. But all that charity was no more than a Band-Aid, as even its instigator, the musician Bob Geldof, observed at the time. That was because war was destroying Ethiopia's rural economy, and food aid was being redirected from civilians to soldiers and government militias.

In 1987, as the famine was receding, a group of researchers and I went to Tigray on a mission for Oxfam to study local food markets. We reached a simple conclusion: When farmers could bring foodstuffs to points of sale -- when the roads were clear of army checkpoints, when markets were held at night to reduce the risk of being bombed - - the local economy worked efficiently enough. With markets in operation, the production of local crops increased, and food prices fell to levels people could afford.

Ending famine required ending fighting.

The Mengistu regime collapsed in 1991. Under the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a former guerrilla turned advocate of rapid economic growth, Ethiopia enjoyed internal peace for the first time in a generation. There were localized droughts but no famines - - with one notable exception.

In 1999, food shortages in the southeastern part of the country killed 29,000 people. What could have just been a crisis devolved into disaster because the government was at war with Eritrea along its northern border, and foreign donors, appalled that the government would spend its meager resources on fighting, were slow to provide food aid.

A major drought in 2002 caused hunger nationwide. But the following year, when I traveled with a team from the United Nations Children's Fund to stricken areas in Wollo (north), Hararghe (east) and Sidama and Wollaita (south), we didn't see the telltale canvas tents of emergency distribution centers. …

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