Ethiopian famine revisited

JOURNALISTS who have recently returned from Ethiopia describe an eerie sense of d'ej`a vu. The rains have failed again in Ethiopia, and locusts and army worms have devastated thousands of acres of farmland. In the country's war-torn north, the United Nations predicts a total crop failure in Eritrea and a 75 percent loss in Tigre. Between 3 and 5 million people throughout the country are said to be at risk. The Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission has already launched an appeal for 950,000 tons of relief food. Indeed, just three years since the Ethiopian famine made headlines in October 1984, history seems to be repeating itself. It is not surprising that many of the millions who contributed to the '84 relief effort are now asking ``Why?''

Yet for most of us who work in Ethiopia, the crisis of '87 comes as no surprise. The reasons are appropriate to consider in light of tomorrow's observance of World Food Day.

Cycles of drought and famine in Ethiopia have occurred every 10 to 20 years during the last several centuries. Recent population pressure and environmental degradation have depleted scarce resources and severely limited farmers' ability to recover rapidly.

Agricultural policies that set fixed producer prices and restrict the marketing of food have also been blamed for food shortages; so have the resettlement programs, which donors consider disruptive to traditional food production.

In addition, war continues to afflict farmers in the country's most drought-prone regions. Even in years of good rains, the protracted conflicts in Eritrea and Tigre destroy the potential for food self-sufficiency and perpetuate cycles of famine.

In 1984, the news media and aid agencies communicated the urgency of Ethiopia's food needs and in so doing saved millions of lives. In the process, however, we failed to convey adequately the complexities of famine and the long-term process of recovery. Much of the public viewed the famine of '84 as a freak disaster that could be eliminated with a one-time infusion of emergency supplies. It is that kind of incomplete portrayal that inevitably leads to what some donors complain of as ``compassion fatigue.''

There are no easy, short-term solutions in Ethiopia. Recovery from famine is a long and complicated process; it requires sustained attention to issues such as soil degradation, population pressure, agricultural policy, and war.

But the money and energy invested in 1984 have not been wasted. On the contrary, the '84 effort, in addition to saving thousands of lives, put in place an infrastructure - both human and physical - that can now be activated to prevent another large-scale disaster.

In 1987, there are more trucks on the road, more trained mechanics, more experienced staff members in the field, improved port and storage facilities, and more coordination among government donor agencies. The national famine early-warning system has been strengthened and is providing the early assessments necessary for proper relief planning.

Today, as in 1984, the humanitarian needs in Ethiopia are dramatic and immediate. Pledges of food and transport assistance must be made now.

In addition, free passage of food and relief supplies to those living in war zones must be guaranteed, using all channels to reach people in need. Through immediate action and the close collaboration of all parties, mass starvation and the migration of people to refugee camps and feeding centers can be prevented.

Ethiopian farmers have struggled courageously against drought and famine for centuries. Within a few weeks, food will again begin to run out for millions of poor farmers and nomads. What happens then depends in part on what the international donor community does today.

Laura Kullenberg is program director for the Horn of Africa at Oxfam America.

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