Never again?

If the numbers are true, there might a famine emerging in Ethiopia.

The warning signs have been in the air since May. The rainy season didn’t arrive as expected this year. It came late, and it came erratically. For anyone of us who can buy food from the (super)market, this has not posed a problem. But there are many people who depend on the rains. If the rains don’t come, there is a problem. The issue this year has not been just the poor quality of the long rainy season, the Kiremt (from June to September), but the short one also. The short rainy season (Belg) falls between February and April. These rains basically didn’t arrive this year. Also El Nino is expected to have its impact on Ethiopia.

The pattern is well known. When the rains don’t come, production decreases, and cereal prices go up. With a dry season come livestock deaths. Then the price of livestock goes down. With decreases in income, families in the affected areas are unable to buy sufficient quantities of food. This is a very alarming situation, knowing that a long dry season will begin in September.

The UN now estimates that 4.5 million Ethiopians will need food assistance because of the failed rains. This is nearly 2 million more people than UN’s original estimate of the amount of people in need of assistance. This calls for 230 million USD more in humanitarian aid. (However, these numbers are debated – read more here). To put those numbers in proportion: for the Finns out there, this would mean that the whole population of the city of Tampere would be dependent on food aid for the rest of the year.

How can this problem occur once again?

I see many problems and points of discussion here:

  1. Once again we are reminded that no country can merely grow their way to food security. Yes, there needs to be a sufficient amount of food available in the country. But how is that food distributed? Who is entitled to it? How is it stored? Is there a national system in place for storing food in grain silos? Is there a social security system in case of emergencies? We know by now that famines are not the result of droughts only. They are also the result of poor distribution systems, poor policies and poverty.
  2. What is the role of the governments and what is the role of aid organizations in a quest for food security? If aid keeps pouring into Ethiopia, decades after the infamous famine of 1984 , and yet we are facing another one, does this mean development aid is demotivating Ethiopia’s own struggles towards sovereign food security? This is not to say that in humanitarian catastrophes outside help isn’t needed. But it does provoke some critical thinking on whether recurring famines could (and should) be avoided in a double-digit economic growth environment.
  3. To really gauge development, we need to look at the rural areas – cities are not an accurate indicator of a country’s status.

Photo by David Palacios. 

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