With no let-up in the drought that’s parched Ethiopia’s central, eastern and northern parts, the government is now asking for urgent food aid from the international community. It’s been a slow move – the row continues between the government and organisations like Oxfam over the extent of the problem. Oxfam claims nearly 14 million are starving, the government says less than half that number are effected. Memories of 1984 return to me, but not to most of the population here, more than half of whom weren’t yet born.
We’ve just returned to Addis from the drought-stricken north, where the crops stand half-height in the fields, their precious protein-rich grains shrunken and undeveloped on the stalk. The price of tef (the local crop) has more than trebled, out of the reach of many in this very poor country.
Arguably, aid agency efforts are partly to blame for the crisis. While climate change and normal weather variations have hit the country – with prolonged drought interrupted by erratic, brief rains – Ethiopia is also engaged in a push towards agriculture in unsustainable regions, helped in a large part by international aid agencies. For example, across large parts of the arid east, NGOs are busy helping people whose families have herded goats for generations to become agricultural farmers. These are the people who are now starving, partly because they are utterly inexperienced farmers working on poor quality plots, partly because their livestock are reliant on ever-decreasing scraps of non-farmed land and so have sickened and died, partly because deforestation (from 30% forested in the 1970s to 2% cover now) has left the soils sparse, easily eroded away and unable to sustain healthy crops. Funding people to attempt to irrigate these desert lands is surely helping them secure their downfall. Rains, always sparse here, are becoming less reliable. While pastoralists can better weather changeable rainfall patterns, farmers on a strict irrigation cycle for crop planting and harvesting are much more vulnerable.
What is the solution, to not encourage agriculture? This is a fast-growing nation. Too fast. The population is expanding by 2.6% per year, it’s now above 80 million and is set to double by 2050. All these people need to east something. Agriculture here is very inefficient and much needs to be done to improve the way it is done. But it is foolish to plant crops and encourage people to depend on farming in increasingly unsustainable places. Further south, in the deltic Omo region that feeds Lake Turkana, there is a problem with flooding. This is a region of incredibly rich, alluvial soils going down metres. Well managed, this could be a bread basket for this starving nation.
The Global Hunger Index report, released last week by the International Food Policy Research Institute, puts Ethiopia as sixth worst in the world in terms of hunger levels – those five that are worse off are all embroiled in conflict, like the DRC and Eritrea. Part of the problem is that very poor countries are worst hit by food price hikes, because people there spend a much larger proportion of their income (as much as 90%) on food, compared to those in rich countries, and so cannot accommodate even tiny increases in the cost of staples, like rice or wheat. And during a global recession, international aid, which props up most of these very poor countries, declines.
Interestingly, the Hunger report’s authors find that hunger is strongly linked to inequality levels in the countries, particularly gender inequalities, but also things like literacy. Which brings us inevitably back to good governance – something depressingly absent in Ethiopia.
Why are African countries so bad at governance? The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has decided that there is no worthy recipient this year for its substantial annual award for a former African leader that has democratically transferred power to a successor. Sad times. Ethiopia suffers from the problem that plagues almost every country on the continent: a leadership that in 1994 during the creation of the federal republic swore to uphold democracy and remain in power only for as long as the electorate supported it. And then stayed.
The next ‘elections’ are in May 2010. Nobody expects change. The government has embraced whole-hearted repression in a totalitarian regime that has effectively seen off any dissent, controls the media (particularly the radio), appoints the electoral oversight commission, restricts funding, meetings, publications by opposition parties, and scares the electorate into submission. Two years ago, there were peaceful demonstrations led by students and academics and supported by large swathes of ordinary people. Tens of thousands were killed, either directly by the army and police, or slowly, by being imprisoned in hostile areas of the Rift Valley, where they died of disease, malaria, starvation or heatstroke. Many thousands continue to languish in jail here, including a popular singer, whose song offended the government, and who, having been tortured, confessed and apologised, and is still imprisoned.
During my interviews here, many are too scared to talk about the government or political matters – others speak only after I assure them that they will not be identified. I have been told of their friends who ended up in jail after talking to journalists. One gruesome story, confirmed by three people, involves a man from Debark, who spoke to a BBC reporter (allegedly on condition of anonymity) after the 2007 unrest, and whose name was then published. The man was taken away by the police and died in custody.
Ethiopia’s politically oppressive regime, and the corruption that accompanies it, mean that tackling inequality is a long way off. The national hunger crisis is just one symptom of this.
Famines do not occur in democracies.