8 July 2017

Ethiopia: Thirty Years On - From Live Aid Ethiopia Ending Famine


Ethiopia has been the poster child for droughts and famine - the famous 1984 drought that cost the lives of an estimated one million people was top news around the world. Bad news in Africa gains a lot of headlines. Good news does not.

'Famine Avoided' just does not have the same ring to it. But that is precisely what happened 30 years after the infamous 'Live Aid' famine, in a drought which was worse than that of 1984. Bottom line - drought no longer necessarily means famine in Ethiopia, something that surely should be celebrated.

That this successful drought response took place against the background of so many huge crises worldwide, such as Syria and the European migration, makes it even more remarkable.

The degree of international attention was very low, especially since officials in the Ethiopian government did not want publicity. They are proud and tired of being depicted as poor and famine-ridden and do not want to contradict the story of high economic growth, which is attracting foreign investors.

Travelling with Bob Geldof through the drought-stricken areas in early 2016, the difference from his first visit in 1985 could not have been more striking.

We 'officially' opened an already active hospital at Korem, near graveyards containing the bodies of tens of thousands of children dead from the great famine, a hospital where the malnourished could receive modern treatment to prevent them from sliding into death.

Appropriately the hospital was funded with some of the last money left in Band Aid; the charity set up to manage the funds from Live Aid - the massive global concert organised by Geldof, and follow up events over the years for Ethiopia.

The wards in the hospital were busy but not full. Even compared to my previous visit with Bob to the area during the drought of 2003 the situation was under control.

We met with poor farmers in the hardest-hit areas, who were skinny and poor and complained that they wanted more seeds for the coming planting season. But there were no fields of starving people or over-run health clinics filled with malnourished children.

There was also no need to mobilise the media to put pressure on for more resources, as there had been in 2003 let alone 1985, as the situation was manageable. We could ensure that the farmers got their seeds. But we were troubled by the continued vulnerability of the people though.

How can we change that in the long run?

Major credit for the good response to the drought goes to the government. It stepped up in an unprecedented manner - contributing over 730 million dollars of its scarce resources in assistance to the response, and taking the lead in filling the gaps which had previously been covered by international donations.

This was a remarkable shift from previous droughts - from the time of Emperor Haile Selassie and the previous military government, the Dergue - in which the government was the primary cause of delay in the drought response in two major famines - denying because of pride that there was any such problem in their country.

It was the international community that became the conscience, through media revealing the stark pictures of the starving masses in both 1973 and 1984, triggering the response which came too late to save hundreds of thousands. Both of those previous governments fell.

Even response to previous droughts under the current government, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), had suffered from delays.

Some of this was due to technical deficiencies, such as the lack of a good early warning system in remote pastoralist areas of the country, which before they were fixed after 2001 contributed to thousands of fatalities in the Somali region of the country in particular.

But there was also hesitation in many of the droughts from 1999-2013 in different parts of the country because again the government felt that its rural policies were succeeding and meeting people's needs.

Repeatedly, the international community needed to act as a conscience, pointing out that despite progress in much of the country, the early warning data and field assessments showed that a response was needed in this or that area, and frequently providing immediate resources to respond.

There was a difference in 2015, probably coming from some sources. There was the bluntness from some of the donors about the response - honestly telling the government at the highest levels that given all the other crises in the world they would simply not be able to support Ethiopia at scale in this drought.

There was no doubt that political stability was a concern as well, with the government needing to show it was responding aggressively to its people's needs.

But the defining factor was no doubt the greater economic development of the country, which provided Ethiopia with more funds from its own sources (including a 700 million dollars windfall saving from the decrease in oil prices), as well as a sense of pride and responsibility that its leaders could take care of their problems.

In the words of a ruling party oriented website, www.tigrayonline.com:"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."

Although this was not a minor drought - the highly respected Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) agency called it the worst in the affected areas for 50 years - the rest of the quote is pertinent - Ethiopia must stand on its own feet in the face of natural disasters in a way it had not in the past.

This sentiment was repeated to me personally in discussions with cabinet ministers and party officials - and reflected the prevailing attitude of the government.

The attitude went so far that some in government stated they managed the response themselves with virtually no outside help, which was unfair.

In the end, the international community did not stand on the sidelines but rewarded the leadership of the Ethiopian government with 945 million dollars in contributions, making this according to a senior United Nations (UN) official "the biggest emergency response in one country in history."

Many in the international community of donors, UN agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) were self-critical about the response - felt it was late, at best mediocre or more or less adequate response, and that it miraculously succeeded. Without the government filling the gaps - at the local and regional as well as federal level, it would have been another disaster.

John Grahama Is a Veteran of the Aid Community in Ethiopia, Before He Left for His Homeland Canada, After Two Decades of Dedicated Service in Saving Lives.


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