Famine Returns to Ethiopia


It is 1988 and Ethiopians are starving again. Some 7 million people are at risk from the current famine. Some officials in Washington even believe that conditions are such in Ethiopia that the figure could reach 14 million, or one-third of the country's population.

What should we make of the new famine? Why didn't the assistance we sent in 1984 help? As concerned, compassionate people, how should we respond to the present famine?

The 1984-1985 Famine

We should first review what happened during the 1984-1985 famine. At that time, no one bothered to ask why people were starving. At the very least, good intentions are no basis for viable relief and development programs. At worst, the help could actually hurt by reinforcing the conditions that produce famine.

The worldwide TV broadcasts of the human tragedy of the Ethiopian famine in October 1984 elicited the largest humanitarian outpouring in history. By 1986, some estimates placed the number of famine-related deaths at more than half a million. Western agencies involved in providing relief were quick to claim responsibility for saving the lives of more than 6 million people-even though the death rate had begun to decline before the 1984 TV broadcasts.

The government of Ethiopia, journalists and many humanitarian agencies working in the area told the world that the 1984-1985 famine was primarily due to drought and insect plagues. Some reported that warfare impeded the delivery of famine assistance. Evidence collected from victims, however, suggested that the famine was mostly man-made. Few people attempted to interview the victims systematically about why they were starving - even though most agencies claimed, for fundraising purposes anyway, that their programs were attacking the root causes of the problem.

Famine in 1984-1985 was the product of a decade of military and agricultural policies implemented by the Ethiopian government. Once the famine became a reality, the government was quick to exploit its potential to further the very policies that first produced the famine.

Famine assistance, provided primarily by Western governments and non-governmental organizations, in turn reinforced the policies and programs that produced the 1984-1985 famine by increasing the power of the state and the resources available to it. For example, Western assistance allowed the government to intensify its resettlement program, in which some 800,000 people were captured - most as they tried to receive food donated by the West - separated from their families and moved hundreds of miles away to alien environments where they were organized to farm collectively.

The villagization program was intensified beginning in 1984; farmers were told that they would not receive Western assistance unless they moved to new villages. Some of those who were still reluctant to move were shot or burned in their homes. More than 8 million people were thus "convinced" to tear down their houses and move into 15,000 centralized villages where their movements could be closely monitored and their farming activities could be directed by state officials.

The Current Famine

With the new famine reports increasing, the Ethiopian government and the Western humanitarian agencies once again have begun to cite statistics of 7 million people suffering from famine. About half of these people are concentrated in the northern administrative regions of Eritrea and Tigray. The remainder are in other parts of the country.

The 1987-1988 famine had been predicted in 1985 in various articles and reports. It is no accident that the current famine in Ethiopia correlates closely with the areas in which specific policies and programs have been intensified or implemented since 1984.

* In Eritrea and Tigray, famine prevails most in areas outside the control of the government and, consequently, under military attack.

* In Tigray and Wollo, famine reigns in areas from which large numbers of able-bodied farmers and young men were taken, primarily against their will, for the resettlement program.

* In Sidamo, Arsi, northern Bale, Hararghe and northern Shoa, the government reduced food production through the villagization program and now many residents suffer from famine.

* Famine prevails in Wollega, Illubabor and other administrative regions in which people have been resettled. Settlers still cannot produce adequate food for themselves and their families.

The villagization program has reduced overall cereal and grain surpluses in Ethiopia. Traditionally, the areas now most intensively villagized produce the surpluses required to feed those regions that often were unable to meet their own food needs. Villagization, however, has reduced food production in the country's prime agricultural areas. Many former surplus-producing areas can now only meet their own basic needs.

The Role of the West

In April 1988 the Ethiopian government expelled Western assistance agencies from Eritrea and Tigray provinces in the north, claiming it was protecting agency personnel from danger in a war zone. Most observers agree that this move means the government will increase military activity and intensify the wars in Eritrea and Tigray.

Agencies that have insisted on overseeing the distribution of their food and materials, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have been told to leave. The government has applied considerable pressure to organizations such as the ICRC to give their materials to Ethiopian counterpart organizations. In June the ICRC finally turned over its relief materials and equipment to the Ethiopian Red Cross, a quasi-governmental organization. As a result, ICRC has no way of monitoring how its food and vehicles are being used in the war-torn area.

Why would Ethiopians be any safer operating in Eritrea and Tigray than expatriate relief workers? The government apparently wants total control of the Western food and relief vehicles, which could prove essential to a successful government military campaign in the north.

The Ethiopian government has warned Western assistance agencies that attempts to reach famine victims living outside the control of the government, through cross-border operations, will be considered acts of war. Some 80 to 90 percent of famine victims living in the north live beyond government control.

The agencies claim that they now face a dilemma: The government refuses to grant them even a minimal monitoring presence to ensure that their help is not being misused, while it asserts that crossborder operations will be viewed as acts of war. This is only a dilemma, however, if the agencies continue to find it imperative that they deliver most assistance through the government. They should insist on well-monitored cross-border operations as a key component of their program.

Ethiopian Government Policies

Famines like those found in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique and Sudan result from policies aimed at centralizing power in new states that exclude many of the distinct groups found in them. In order to maintain the support of urban populations, civil servants and the military personnel necessary for keeping the government in power, officials have to control enough agricultural production to feed these groups at prices that they can afford. Policies dictating cheap food and government intervention in agriculture are the inevitable results.

The current Ethiopian government does not represent the many different nationalities living under it any better than the previous regimes that have ruled the century-old empire state. In order to ensure cheap supplies of food as well as the agricultural exports needed in order to purchase the weapons necessary to stay in power, the government increasingly has taken control of rural life.

One of the government's first acts upon seizing power was to nationalize all land in the country and rent it to the tillers. While this did generate some income, it proved to be insufficient to maintain the present state and its numerous wars for survival.

The government then began to increase taxes and contributions and gradually to impose government prices for food and cash crops which were so low that it was not worth the effort of the farmers to harvest their crops, even during the 1984-1985 famine. Peasant farmers are required to sell increasing amounts of their production to the government.

Not satisfied with the control it could exert over rural areas, the government now has begun to restructure family and village life and take direct control of agricultural production through intensification of the villagization and resettlement programs. Western assistance, intended to relieve the suffering of Ethiopians since 1984, has become a key ingredient in the government's efforts to restructure society.

As a result, Western assistance efforts have become the "spoils" of famine, the kind of lootable wealth to be plundered by the present state in its ongoing battle to centralize power and control production and wealth in the country.

Beginning with the 1984-1985 famine, the government was able to utilize the well-organized peasant association structure - state-organized and controlled village-level organizations - and the chaos associated with the famine to intensify resettlement and villagization. At that time, it became evident that the nationalization of lands and even the cooptation of all local organizations represented merely the tip of the wedge of government programs that were intended to alienate peasants from their land, produce, communities and national identities once and for all.

In the case of resettlement, for example, the government accomplished "recruitment" by denying internationally provided food assistance to starving populations until a quota had been filled either from the village or a family. Western agencies could only distribute food once these "volunteers" were resettled. Most of the food that was used in this "carrot-and-stick" operation was provided by the United States government through US-based organizations. Some of the food was provided by the World Food Program. Once populations were resettled, the European Economic Commission and local residents of the "uninhabited" resettlement areas provided the food that was used to feed them.

The government used a similar carrot-and-stick approach to convince peasants to move into new villages. If peasant association officials did not meet their quotas they would be removed from their positions, or, in some cases, shot. Only villagized communities qualified for any of the limited government assistance or internationally provided agricultural inputs, famine assistance or social services.

A key aspect of Ethiopia's famine policy is patronage. The political system, dominated by military administrators and urban technocrats, is evolving into an even more elaborate system of patronage than that which existed under former emperor Haile Selassie. The Communist Party and government bureaucracy constitute the life force of the patronage system, with, from 1984 onward, Western assistance constituting its most important currency of exchange.

International funds for development and famine assistance became the means to establish a tighter control over resistant peasant producers and agricultural resources in the country.

Western assistance also cushioned the regime from the demands and needs of peasant producers, freeing it from direct reliance on peasant production to feed the cities, army and bureaucracy.

Future Prospects

The centralization of power in Ethiopia is correlated to the state's ability to separate farmers first from their lands and then from their produce. The results have been famine and chaos, outcomes one might expect in a Third World country in which the state lacks the resources to support the dependents it has created. The West, to date, has been willing to step in and feed those who are no longer allowed to feed themselves. Thus, former farmers become food-for-work laborers.

The state-controlled system of production will always rely on massive inputs, inputs that the Ethiopian government cannot afford. If the farmers in these new systems are to be kept from starving the West will have to do it.

In this way, Western agencies are blackmailed. They are often told that if they leave, the onus of resulting starvation will rest with them. Yet, if they stay, state power and agricultural production will be further centralized, worsening the situation of peasant farmers and producing starvation for decades to come.

Whether agencies stay or go, prospects for rural producers are dismal. This time around, the Western agencies should make every effort not to become part of the problem. Their help, in large part, reinforced the conditions which created the present famine.

If they are to avoid reinforcing another tragedy, they must understand better the basis of famine in Ethiopia. That is the first and most important step in determining how to assist the victims.

The Oromo, the largest group in Ethiopia, have a saying: "You can't wake a person who is pretending to sleep." It remains to be seen whether the West will wake up to the famine-producing conditions in Ethiopia and help the victims.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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