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Ethiopia Faces Famine Despite ‘Unprecedented’ Economic Growth

A drought affected farm in Ethiopia. A Public Domain image by Photographer: Kimberly Flowers/USAID.

A drought affected farm in Ethiopia. A Public Domain image by Photographer: Kimberly Flowers/USAID. Released under Creative Commons.

Despite recording double-digit economic growth in recent years, Ethiopia is in serious need of food aid. Observers consider the current food crisis to be the worst in thirty years, similar to the famine of 1984-85, which led to thousands of deaths.

According to a report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs the number of relief food beneficiaries in Ethiopia has increased to 4.5 million people this month.

Government officials estimate that 10.1 million people will face critical food shortages in 2016. The figure includes 5.75 million Ethiopian children.

The food crisis in the country is being played down by the Ethiopian government, which has decided to rename famine and starvation as “food insecurity”:

According to some inside Ethiopia, NGOs are being warned not to use the words “famine, starvation or death” in their food appeals. Neither are they to say that “children are dying on a daily basis,” or refer to “widespread famine” or say that “the policies of the government in Ethiopia are partially to blame.” Neither are they allowed to “compare the current crisis to the famine of the eighties.” Instead, the latest drought in Ethiopia is to be described as “food insecurity caused by a drought related to El Nino.”

While the Ethiopian government says that the cause of “food insecurity” in the country is drought related to El Nino, Dawit Ayele Haylemari, a graduate student of political science at University of Passau, thinks otherwise:

Many experts relate Ethiopia's cyclical famine with the country's dependence on Rainfed smallholder agriculture, drought, rapid population growth or agricultural market dysfunctions. Although these factors do have significant role in the matter, they tend to hide the critical cause of hunger in the country – lack of rights and accountable government […]

A historical investigation of famine also identified 30 major famines during the 20th century. All happened in countries led by autocratic rule or that were under armed conflict, four being in Ethiopia […]

Why does autocracy lead to famine? The most fundamental reason is that autocrats often don't care enough about the population to prevent famine. Autocrats maintain power through force, not popular approval. This argument has been proven true in the case of Ethiopia.

The food crisis, in the fifth largest economy in Sub Saharan Africa, has become one of the hot topics discussed by Ethiopian netizens online.

Adisu Habte took a jab at Ethiopians in the Diaspora talking about the issue on social media while their fellow citizens are dying:

Well the hunger continues in Ethiopian while Ethiopians living in Philadelphia continue to do nothing but post on their social media page and have conversation about politics at Dunkin Donuts and at the Hookah lounge […] Let's not watch as Ethiopians are starving to death.

Endalkachew Chala writes:

Yep! The ‘fast growing’ economy in Ethiopia is busted …

While Betelhem Ephrem advises Ethiopians not to politicise the issue:

For once lets make this issues about the people who are desperately in need of survival than our political discourse. lets not make a mockery of the people at this time of crisis.

Answering to a Facebook user, Anania Sorri, who wanted to know the source of the information that 4.5 million are facing hunger, Addis Standard writes:

Dear Anania Sorri – It is widely known that figures in this country are often the results of negotiations between the government and aid agencies (in this case) or the government and financial institutions (in the case of growth). But in the face of eminent crop failure in many parts of the country in the coming harvest season, this one doesn't seem to be overly exaggerated.

Responding to calls from some Ethiopians that citizens need to pray, Biyya Oromiyaa says:

How is praying a solution to hunger in Ethiopia? Hungry people need emergency food, and a good agricultural policy with political will and democracy. Hunger has nothing to do with God in Ethiopia, maybe elsewhere. Hunger is created by the combination of regime policy failure, political oppression and climate change. So good advice would be to remove the regime than instruct us to pray.

Fikrejesus Amahazion, a Horn of Africa scholar focusing on African development, human rights and political economy, points to another irony of the current food crisis:

Ironically, while Ethiopia is facing a hunger crisis and making urgent appeals for aid, tonnes of food are actually leaving the country. This illogical development is due to the fact that the regime in Addis has sold large tracts of arable land to a range of foreign investors and corporations in transactions described as “land grabs.” The process also involves “villagization,” a government-led program which entails the forcible relocation of indigenous communities from locations reserved for large, foreign-owned plantations. Reports by rights groups list a plethora of human rights violations, including murders, beatings, rapes, imprisonment, intimidation, and political coercion by the government and authorities.

Ethiopia’s hunger crisis is an important humanitarian issue meriting immediate attention and concern. In order to fully understand the crisis it is imperative to recognize that while the environment has been an important contributing factor, a range of other structural socio-political and governance dynamics, including corruption, the lack of rule of law or democracy, poor governance, failures in long-term planning, and misplaced national and development priorities have also been highly influential.

Finally, Paul Dorosh, director at International Food Policy Research Institute's Development Strategy and Governance Division, and Shahidur Rashid, senior research fellow at the institute’s Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division, are hopeful that the drought will not lead to famine:

The 2015-16 drought and production shortfall need not cause a famine in Ethiopia. By heeding the lessons of past famines, the government and the international donor community can help ensure that there is sufficient availability of cereals to supply Ethiopia’s food needs and sufficient transfers in cash and in kind to provide needy households with adequate access to food. Other food security issues will still need to be resolved, including ensuring adequate nutrition for all individuals. However, there is ample reason for hope that this drought will be remembered, not for a deadly famine, but wise policies and timely interventions built on Ethiopia’s progress of the past 25 years.

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