Famine in Ethiopia

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There is, once again, famine in Ethiopia. The world has responded, albeit belatedly, with food and the financial commitment to ensure that supplies reach the intended recipients. The media has billed the response to the famine as the largest humanitarian outpouring to a natural disaster in memory. However, the situation in Ethiopia and the response in the West raise two important questions which, to date, have largely been ignored. Why are so many Ethiopians starving?, and will assistance relieve or exacerbate the conditions that led to the famine?

September 12, 1984 marked the tenth anniversary of the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the takeover of the Dergue, the ruling military junta in Ethiopia. The Dergue was able to come to power, in large part, through promises to end corruption in government and to increase the political participation of the country's numerous nationalities. In 1973, for example, Haile Selassie was accused of spending some $35 million to celebrate his eightieth birthday while millions of people were dying of starvation as a result of the 1971-73 drought. Yet, in 1984, the Dergue is reported to have spent between $100 and $200 million to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution while millions of Ethiopians are dying of starvation.

There are other similarities between the Dergue and Haile Selassie's government. Since the nineteenth century, Ethiopia has been dominated by the Amhara, a minority ethnic group which represents perhaps 15% of the Empires population. Regardless of who is in power in Ethiopia, the Amhara dominate. The Dergue, however, instead of expanding the participation of other ethnic groups in the government as it promised to do at the time of the revolution, has concentrated even more power in the hands of the Amhara.

By excluding other groups from government, the Dergue has provoked secessionist movements by the Oromo, Somali and Tigrian peoples. In addition, the Dergue has inherited the long standing war of liberation with the Eritreans. As a result of these wars and the Dergue's attempts to impose an Amharic identity on all peoples, Ethiopia has produced more refugees since 1974 than any other country in the world. Reports from Ethiopia indicate that even greater numbers of people have been displaced internally.

To consolidate power, the central government has purchased some $3 to $4 billion worth of arms from the Soviet Union. A few years ago, there was considerable dispute over whether humanitarian food assistance from Europe had been given to the Soviets as partial payment for the purchase of weapons. There has been no dispute, however, over the fact that famine assistance was used for the army's rations while civilians starved. Recent reports from Ethiopia indicate that famine assistance has been given first, and sometimes only, to members of the newly formed government workers' party which is dominated both politically and numerically by the military.

There are a number of reasons why so many people have been displaced within the country. Young men, often with their families, are fleeing forced conscription into the army; they do not want to fight for a government that gives them no other representation and they do not want to fight against members of their own ethnic group. Members of every religion - Coptic, Protestant, Catholic, Moslem, Animist and Judaism - have been persecuted under the Dergue. As a result of government programs to reorganize agriculture, ostensibly to improve production, populations loyal to the central government have been moved onto the fertile lands of groups whose loyalty is in question. The former occupants are then moved onto collective farms in less fertile areas. Production throughout the country has declined as a result of such programs which are often unwittingly financed by foreign governments or such organizations as the World Bank. Reports from Ethiopia indicate that workers on collective farms may now pay more to the central government than they did to landowners under the rule of Haile Selassie.

Reports from Ethiopia in November 1984 indicate that people from Eritrea and Tigray are being moved from their homelands to equally dry areas in the south which belong to Oromo. The move clearly has little to do with famine assistance. It is an attempt to move populations from areas that are opposing the Dergue to areas where other ethnic groups are involved in their own secessionist struggles. Such moves, it appears, are intended to weaken the resistance movements in all three regions. Internationally provided humanitarian assistance has been used to finance the moves.

The people that have been displaced in Ethiopia would be suffering whether there was a drought or not. In fact, reports from Ethiopia which the Western media ignored for three years have consistently pointed out the desperate situation of the country's displaced people. Many of the displaced people fled from the government and areas it controls to the liberated areas. This, undoubtedly, put a tremendous strain on the various liberation fronts to provide food and assistance. We do not know how many of the displaced people in the liberated areas are from those regions or if there would have even been need for assistance in those regions if government programs or military attacks had not occurred.

The starving need food, about that there is no doubt. But it is important to understand how these people came to be in their present condition. The agencies who are delivering the food to Ethiopia have a responsibility to find out how those they serve came to be starving. If it is as a direct result of government policies, as a number of reports from Ethiopia indicate, then the type of assistance given by foreign governments or private agencies should be adjusted accordingly so as not to unwittingly reinforce such policies. No government in the world deserves to be rewarded for creating the kind of tragedy that exists in Ethiopia today.

Furthermore, agencies and governments giving food or financial assistance to Ethiopia should monitor the impact of their programs to determine if their humanitarian efforts are being used by the Dergue to continue the policies that led to the present situation. Ethiopia has been accused of using food donations to feed its army and to pay part of its huge arms debt to the Soviet Union. Ethiopia recently stipulated that after two years all trucks brought into the country for famine relief be given to the government. Today, 90% of the trucks in the country are used by the army. Is it unlikely that the trucks used for famine assistance would be put to different use? Ethiopia has insisted that it needs better communications, roads, ports, airports, etc. To handle the food shipments. While this is undoubtedly true, how will these facilities be used when famine assistance comes to a halt?

At this time, all famine assistance in Ethiopia is being funnelled through the country's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, the agency responsible for development and refugees. In this way, the government perhaps hopes to continue its development and displacement programs under the guise of famine assistance.

The record of the various humanitarian organizations providing assistance to Ethiopia is mixed. Some organizations without any existing programs in Ethiopia have accepted donations and then sent staff who know nothing about Ethiopia to consult with the government about the design of an "appropriate" program. This approach, however, ignores the political nature of the famine. Other assistance agencies have acted more responsibly by making their food and funds available for both government programs as well as those programs run by the Oromo, Tigrian and Somali peoples in the liberated areas.

In areas such as Ethiopia where long term conflict over political rights has produced so many dead, displaced, and now starving people, humanitarian assistance organizations must begin to recognize the impact of their activities. If they do not, as many people, in the long run, may die as a result of relief programs as are saved by them.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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