“Famine” in Ethiopia: key facts

The usual scapegoat returns, with fears that the land tenure system is the main culprit for low production and thus food shortages in a crisis, when it is not.

by René Lefort | Open Democracy

The first question a person asks you when in Addis Ababa these days is: do you have any information about the famine? Do you think the authorities are hiding the reality from us? Once more, millions of Ethiopians are facing an acute food shortage. Once more, foreign donors are called upon for a dramatic and urgent increase of relief aid. Does it mean that the same age old malediction is repeating itself, again and again, with the same deathly tribute?BBC report famine in Ethiopia

According to the last Humanitarian Requirements Document (HRD) for 2016, issued December 11 jointly by the government and the donors[1], 10.2 million people will be in need of food emergency assistance at the beginning of next year, and more than 2.1 million of special nutritional programmes, including 400,000 severely malnourished children. The requested budget amounts to 1.4 billion US dollars.

This statement puts an end to the divergences between the Ethiopian authorities and the donor community regarding the figures of people in need. Getachew Reda, the new government spokesman, contested the evaluations made by the former: “It is we who know the exact number of people on the ground who need emergency food aid. It is very unfortunate that we never agree with our partners on the figures. They believe they have to call a huge number to mobilize more aid” [2]. The statement also demonstrates the extreme seriousness of the food crisis and its swift escalation. The number of people in need climbed from 2.9 million (March 6) to 4.5 million (August 18) and suddenly to 8.2 million (September 21).

But these figures and their sudden rise must be clarified. For years, around 8 million people have been benefiting from a long-term safety-net programme. It provides them with cash or food for work during the first six months of the year. It will restart in January 2016. The people in need of urgent assistance, therefore, will really have climbed from 2.9 + 8 = 10.9 million in March 2015 to 8 + 10.2 + 2.1 = 20.3 million in January 2016, almost doubling.

Career advancement

In Ethiopia, around 90% of the cereal production is harvested in autumn, after the summer long rains season. The remaining 10% is harvested at the termination of spring after the end of the short rains season. But this last output is decisive in a little bit more than 10% of the districts where it represents more than half of the whole year production. They are the most hit by the drought.

The lack of spring rains in the eastern and southern lowland pastoralist areas and in parts of the highlands could obviously be seen immediately after the end of spring. But despite being very densely and deeply rooted, the local state apparatus was unable to properly report the imminence of the food shortages. As usual, local officials were afraid of being criticized for having failed to reach their assigned development targets, which is the main criteria for their career advancement.

As usual too, the magnitude of the crisis started to be grasped only after assessment teams of mixed Ethiopian and foreign experts came back from the field in July. The new figures about the people in need were released mid-August. Could this delay have been curtailed, as some critics underline it? Probably a little bit. But in any case the delay was shorter than in previous similar crises.

A common argument to explain the shortening of the delay is that a strong media alert forced the authorities to react quicker. But the first reports of the national and international press, and the August figures’ release were almost simultaneous.

In any case, the immediate reaction of the authorities remained confused and contradictory, and above all too optimistic and short sighted. Clearly, part of the leadership minimized the impact of the drought. Critics argued that it didn’t want to tarnish the image of a country even more so when on the eve of the congress of the ruling party. The regime is claiming very proudly a paraded annual “double digit growth” of the economy for more than a decade, and that Ethiopia has become self-sufficient, with regard to its food supplies on a national level or, at least – self sufficiency is within easy reach. One leading Ethiopian weekly newspaper took this attitude forgranted on the part of “rank and file” authorities. It wrote that there is among them “a deep fear that giving focus to the drought will spoil the hard earned “Ethiopia is growing” narrative… Politics seems to have taken the upper hand in this response”[3].

Vacillating positions

The divergences between the Ethiopian Authorities and the donor community first concerned the magnitude of the crisis. Indeed, on the one hand, Redwan Hussein, Minister of Government Communication Office, started by saying that “insufficient rain has shown” no more than “some inconvenience”[4]. Later on, Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen somehow confirmed that stance by stating that “no one [had] died… due to the lack of food in the affected areas”[5]. However, the USAID-funded warning system FEWS-NET disclosed the following day that some areas were in an “Emergency” phase, as defined by the following criteria: out of 10.000[6] people, 1 to 2 adults and 2 to 4 children are dying each day due to nutritional deficit.

But the main vacillating positions concerned foreign aid. The credo was: the country has its own capacity to deal with the crisis; the government has enough food stock[7]. Redwan Hussein was categorical: “We are able to feed ourselves”.[8] The Prime Minister and Chairman of the ruling party, Haile Mariam Dessalegn, repeated such statements word by word[9].

But one month later, Redwan Hussein acknowledged that the recent rise in the number of victims calls for an urgent foreign assistance. “Although the government can tackle the problem by diverting the budget allocated for development, it needs international assistance so that the on-going pace of development would not be hampered”[10]. And even more: the government is now complaining that the donors “have already promised so much, but they have delivered practically nothing. The government is working alone”[11].

This provoked strong reactions. “Enough is enough… It is embarrassing and humiliating indeed to observe our smartly dressed leaders scuttling from one donor meeting into another with their begging bowls… It surely should not be beyond Ethiopia’s capacity to handle minor droughts without the necessity for the degrading foreign aid… By running to the UN for help, the EPRDF – the ruling party – has gravely injured the positive image of the country”[12].

The designated culprit is the drought, attributed to the climatic El Nino phenomena. Meteorological experts have confirmed it is the worst in the last two or three decades. However, this kind of crisis is recurrent. The sequence of bad rain seasons leading to bad harvests leading to a food crisis is unstoppable in a country where 98% of the agriculture remains rain fed.

It is highly probable that sooner or later TV screens will show us crying children with emaciated faces and  balloon stomachs. The viewers will be convinced that once more famine and Ethiopia form a diabolical duo[13].  But there is always and at any time at least one place in Ethiopia where a camera could catch such a worrying scene. Does it mean that Ethiopia’s old evils have once again risen to the surface?

First, the apocalyptical famines of 1972-73 and 1984-85 left hundreds thousands of deaths, probably around 200,000 and 400,000 respectively. Now, whether real famine pockets have developed here and there remains to be seen – usually the stage of famine is considered reached when a significant number of adults start to die from hunger. In any case the possible death toll would have nothing to do with these previous figures.

Second, the official growth of the cereals production, and therefore the agricultural development action of the government are rightly the subject of enquiry. Last year, the official figure for the cereals’ harvest has been 27 million of tons for a population close to 100 million, that is to say 270 kg/person/year. Even with a high range estimate of post-harvest losses and reserve of future seeds, this left a per person consumption availability of basic food well above the required 180 kilo per year. Given these figures, Ethiopia should be overflowing with locally available surpluses.

The food market prices have remained relatively stable, and within the range of the global inflation. For example, the wholesale price of sorghum and maize in Addis Ababa are stable compared to one year ago, wheat has increased by 7% and decreased by 3% since its summer peak, teff, the most locally prized cereal, has increased by 13%[14]. But one should be aware that during former similar crises, the crops inflation started at the beginning of the following year.

But in any case, to attribute food shortages to a shortfall in the whole agricultural production cycle is misleading.

At least half of the Ethiopian farmers are net buyers of their own household food consumption thanks to extra-farm incomes. In bad years, their production drops, and they would need more money to respond to their needs. But bad years also mean less agricultural daily labour, well less paid, while this represents usually the main source of cash for the poorest. Thus, they face a food shortage not because the market is lacking, but because they cannot afford to buy it. Amartya Sen has perfectly demonstrated this mechanism for the 1943 Bengal famine in India.

Third, the early warning systems have operated relatively properly, even if they need to be improved, after having been launched more than a decade ago.

Fourth, the so-called biblical famines of 1972-73 and 1984-85 were deliberately hidden so as to preserve the image of the imperial regime or of the Derg military junta. Even more recently, in 2008-2009, both the authorities and the donor community publicly denied the acuteness of the food crisis for three to four months, thus leading to a corresponding delay in the aid delivery.[15] Again, the reaction of the authorities is under strong criticism here and there. “The mood within the power circle is one of relaxation…One can hardly find the sense of urgency expected…The response system remains fragmented. There is no functioning integration between risk assessment units, response institutions, local administrations and federal level units… The whole response system seems to host great inefficiency”[16].

Interviewed under conditions of anonymity

International experts who deal with food crisis year on year don’t share this point of view, even when they go off the record and far from being apologists of the regime. Their general opinion is that the government has efficiently performed vis-à-vis the crisis, both in terms of volume and organisation. Aid officials and NGO’s leaders, interviewed under conditions of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue for the authorities, reached the same conclusion[17].

For them, the authorities have reacted faster and more vigorously than during any of the previous crisis. Above all, their level of assistance is beyond comparison with those of the past. For the first time, they have drawn on the national and regional budgets to put on the table first a tiny 33 million US dollars, second around 200 millions of the 600 million needed at that time, and just now an additional 97 million[18].

This represents around 3% of the whole budget, and 9% of the investment budget. Haile Mariam Dessalegn travelled to the affected areas in the Somali region at the end of October, and almost all regional high officials also did this. The concerned state departments are fully mobilized, including and even more in the regions. When the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ethiopia said that “the leadership and commitment of the government in driving its response to the impact of the El-Nino phenomenon on food security in affected areas has been exceptional“[19], this statement is not only diplomatically motivated. When Addis Standard writes: “The trend of not admitting on time to a looming drought hasn’t improved over the last four decades since 1974”[20] – the weekly is wrong.

It is obvious that the ruling power does not want the age-old dramatic images of starvation and the dead aired again all over the world. Reports have proven that, at least locally, a lot is done to hide the drama and even to silence the victims[21]. But trying to minimize the publicity about the food shortages, which the authorities do with a patent clumsiness, must not be mixed up with trying to withhold information of a crisis.

Fifth, the worst is highly probably to come. There is no doubt that the summer rains season in many parts of the highlands were insufficient and erratic, including in some of the most productive areas, and that the main harvest has been affected as a result. The crisis can only deepen until at best the small spring harvest and, more possibly the main production next autumn.

Controlling the crisis

Now the key question is: facing unprecedented growing needs, could the authorities – and the donors – continue to upgrade their response capacities, and thus maintain the crisis under control?

Some argue that the latter seem now to have reached their limits. The State Minister for Agriculture and Secretary of the National Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Committee Mitiku Kassa stated: “You can build resilience, but when conditions are bad enough, so severe – and we’re seeing the perfect storm – these resilience systems are overawed”. He added: “The international community is not in a position to respond to our crisis”[22].

200,000 tons of food are on their way to Ethiopia. 600,000 tons have just been ordered. A bid for one million tons will soon be called for. The aim is not only to feed the starving people, but also to prevent a sky-rocketing in food prizes.

Where could the money come from to buy on the international market? First, Ethiopia’s lack of foreign currencies is chronic. It seems the World Bank and the African Development Bank are willing to give a hand. But other donors are more reluctant, and some of them even condition their further financial effort on the same move by the Ethiopian government.

The minimum delay between a bid and the effective distribution of the food at a village level is five months. The only solution to feel the gap in between is to dip into the available local reserves. But again: who will pay? At this stage, some donor organizations will be short of food to distribute in January in some areas.

Finally, the logistic bottlenecks. Most of the importation of Ethiopia transits through Djibouti port. It manages usually around 500,000 tons per month. Can it deal with an additional 2 million tons, and with what kinds of delay?

Sixth, Ethiopia is expected to become a middle level income country in 2025. Could the continuous foreseen growth of the Ethiopian economy, including the agricultural sector, progressively absorb these perennial food crises? The answer looks rather grim.

First, the cereal production has officially tripled during the last fifteen years. Even if this figures is highly questionable, the per capita production has substantially increased for sure. But the percentage of people suffering from the droughts has remained stable: around 20% in 2001-2002, around 15% in 2007-2008, around 20% now. “The poorest 15 percent of the population experienced a decline in well-being in 2005-11 mainly as a result of high food prices ».[23]  “Graduation from the Safety Net Program has been short of expectation”[24].

The number of people who succeeded in increasing their assets enough to live without perennial aid has not exceeded a small percentage. So the hard core of the poorest farmers, the food insecure people, chronically vulnerable to any climate shock, has not been significantly alleviated.


The present agricultural development policy does not seem to be appropriate to reverse this trend. At the grass roots level, when asked why this hard core of poverty remains, and even extends, the local authorities and development agents respond: “because these farmers do not follow our development advice”. When asked why they cannot escape from poverty, these poor farmers reply: “because the development programme does not fit our needs and means”. Actually, it looks like they are left to their fate.

They even start to complain that a kind of implicit alliance has been formed between the local authorities and the most enterprising farmers – the so called “model farmers” – to endorse this neglect. The former focus their efforts on the latter because they can boast of having better results to their superiors. The latter are the only ones who can rent a land from a poor farmer who is obliged to do so because he is engulfed in a debt spiral when any shock occurs.

The government seems to have validated this status quo. The draft of the Growth and Transformation Plan for 2015/16-2019/20 devotes few words to this destitute hard core. It mentions “strengthening the Productive Safety Net Program” and “providing effective credit facilities and other supplementary and complementary programs… to accelerate the graduation of Programme beneficiaries”[25].

But it looks like it doubts itself whether any of these actions would succeed: the food reserve for Food Security, Disaster Prevention and Preparedness, would have to be raised from 400,000 tons now to 3 million tons, which could be reduced to a little bit to more than one million tons in the finalised Plan[26].

Finally, the same scapegoat is selected as always. “The right to ownership of rural and urban land… is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia”, states the Constitution. Thus, the land tenure system, because it forbids sales, leases and mortgages, because it allows eviction for public interests, would be the main culprit for low production and thus for the food shortages in case of crisis. The only solution would be privatisation. But the land tenure security is now largely assured through the new 30 years land certificates. De facto, a mechanism of leasing has been put in place which allows land to be rented for cash or through a share cropping agreement. Privatisation would worsen the situation of the poorest farmers.

In the case of drought, they inevitably fall in debt. If a land market existed, their only choice would be to sell their last asset, their land, with very few possibilities of being employed either locally or in the urban areas, because the available workforce outnumbers the needs. They would simply join the growing rural lumpen proletariat – who is precisely the main food aid seeker.

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