A country you can never stop worrying about

Are we underestimating Ethiopia's fragility, Brian Stewart asks?

Ethiopia is one country that I can never stop worrying about. Nor can the world.

Each time that I have gone back over the past 25 years I am encouraged to see so much has changed since the great famine of 1984-85 that shocked the world and so moved us Canadians. Yet there is also much here that is alarmingly similar.

This time old friends — survivors of that earlier tragedy — are proud to show me the signs of progress in the northern province of Tigray, the very epicentre of a famine that killed over a million people.

In the countryside, small catchment dams have been built to trap rainwater and reforestation projects are underway; in the small provincial capital of Mekele, they can now show off a modern university, busy markets and a vibrant youth culture.

A boy eats raw chickpeas from the family plot in Ethiopia's drought-stricken Oromiya region in January 2009. (Ho New/Reuters)

Still, for all these encouraging signs I know there remain two constants here.

First, Ethiopia cannot yet feed itself without help from the rest of the world; and second, the unpredictability of this help means the threat of severe food crisis, even famine, is never far away.

Droughts more common

Most of the population survives, barely, on rain-fed agriculture that is increasingly battered by changing global weather patterns.

Droughts used to occur once a decade, but now there are up to three in the same time span.

However much you hope that places like Tigray province can escape the dark shadow of '84-85, you know that every few years the rains fail, or come too late, or fall too heavily all at once.

Ethiopia is a place where the word "crisis" is not exaggerated. This year the threat is very severe; in some areas harvests have fallen by 70 per cent.

Already you can see long lines of truck bearing food relief for millions rumble down the main highway, the same weary lifeline I watched roll past in all my prior visits over more than two decades.

Without these supplies literally millions would starve before our eyes.

Population doubled

The figures involved are stunning. Consider that in the next few months Ethiopia will endure the worst effects of the most punishing drought it has undergone in perhaps 15 years.

That means the worst of the food crisis is still to come even as seven million are already surviving on food aid that they receive for working on dams and other public projects.   That is almost as many as the world and the Ethiopian government had to feed at the height of the '84 famine!

A quarter of a century ago, Ethiopia had only 36 million people. Now the population has more than doubled to around 78 million. More people means more families in dire need.

If that's not enough reason for concern, consider also that international aid agencies are already cutting back the rations they give out because they believe much worse is to come and they are terrified of letting food stocks fall too low.

One other overarching fear is the unpredictable El Nino effect in the Pacific, which unhinges weather worldwide and, throughout East Africa, has a tendency to bring on torrential rains that can wipe out what's left of weak harvests and livestock.

No shock absorbers

In northern Ethiopia, there are no "shock absorbers" for such calamities.

The majority of the population subsists on small farms and would lose what very little they possess. If the situation continues to worsen this could well force another six or seven million onto food relief.

There are, of course, worst-case scenarios that would see up to 13 million people needing food relief in the coming months — a shocking almost 17 per cent of Ethiopia's population.

This is where my head begins to hurt. For this may be the largest call on food aid Ethiopia has ever had to make and yet no one in authority can figure out, so far as I've been able to learn, when or how enough help will arrive in time.

So far, the response of donor nations to UN calls for help are running at barely half normal requirements.

In the capital Addis Ababa, officials of the UN's World Food Program are profoundly worried.

They do not, I want to note, predict we are facing something as severe as the '84 famine, when a whole litany of disasters — war, government abuse, inadequate relief infrastructure, poor communication — overwhelmed everyone involved.

Relief today is far better organized and logistic have improved. But the reality is grim enough to shatter the lives and health of millions of people and to severely set back Ethiopia's attempts to get itself on a stronger footing.


At this point, too many factors are working against the aid effort to give much comfort.

The outside world is still distracted by economic uncertainty and the attitude of rich nations seems to be "Let's wait and see how really bad it gets before we decide on our contributions."

Waiting, however, carries enormous risks because rising commodity prices in recent years makes it difficult to acquire enough affordable emergency grains and the like.

It is a sad fact, but the graver the food crisis, the higher prices will soar. Mass hunger always increases market speculation.

Then there's Ethiopia's traditional problem of supply.

Though logistics are not as bad as in 1984, East African ports (Ethiopia itself has no direct sea access) still quickly become congested. In addition, many roads are extremely poor and the supply of trucks is rarely enough to carry all the millions of bags of food needed.

In private, aid officials also speak of another concern — that Ethiopia's own government may itself try to play down the emergency because, well, next year there's a national election to be held and governments here are traditionally very reluctant to admit to harvest disasters in the countryside.

Almost blasé

The Ethiopian government has said it doesn't expect this year to be much worse than last, and it is "confident it has done everything it can to feed its hungry people."

This almost blasé attitude in Addis, gives no comfort at all to aid officials who tend to agree with an Economist magazine's characterization of Ethiopia's government as well-meaning but "one of the most economically illiterate in the modern world."

President Meles Zenawi is unlikely to be reckless enough to downplay a real emergency, but there is always concern that regional officials might dismiss rising malnutrition figures to protect their own political hides.

From what I have seen, Ethiopians hate their nation's image as a perpetual victim of disasters. And donor nations have clearly grown weary of annual calls for aid.

One can sympathize with both views. But such sentiments cannot be allowed to obscure facts.

Yes, development efforts on the ground are indeed starting to yield progress (and I intend to write about these another time).

But Ethiopia, the 12th poorest nation on Earth, will simply not be able to fully feed itself for many years, likely a generation at least.

The abject poverty of land and population are simply too stark, too intractable to offer a quick end to this recurring nightmare, no matter what economic or market reforms are tried.

Back when I was covering the famine in 1984, I never imagined — or perhaps let myself fear — that Ethiopia would be such a difficult problem for the world to fix.

I underestimated what a grinding, unrelenting effort would be needed to confront its timeless poverty. This time back, I fear we underestimate it still.