Ethiopians starve as West promises aid

The pledges are generous, but delivery could take months longer.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Murayo Husan Ahmed rushes out from a grass hut in Ethiopia's drought-stricken region and thrusts her six starving children before a photographer.

"The last time we got some wheat was two months ago," says Mrs. Ahmed, opening a colorful shawl to reveal the gaunt baby cradled in her arms. The camera clicks.

Dozens of other villagers come forward, lining up to display their starving toddlers. It is a disturbing scene of desperation, but these peasants recognize that gut-wrenching pictures are what it takes to draw attention to Ethiopia's plight, where 8 million people are faced with famine.

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The community of world superdonors, from the United Nations to the European Union and USAID officials, was warned months ago that disaster was set to unfold in Ethiopia - but until last week, failed to respond. Aid officials, however, say that Ethiopia's appeal for 830,000 metric tons of food aid is almost fulfilled by pledges from the West, but it will be months before they are delivered.

"I'm afraid," says Ethiopia's Foreign Minister, Sayoum Mesfim. "Africa gets response from Europe, from the international community, only when people see the skeletons on their screens and in their newspapers."

When the last infamous famine killed 1 million Ethiopians15 years ago, international media coverage prompted an outpouring of food donations. Bob Geldof and his celebrity rock friends staged the Live Aid concert. Then there were fervent promises that such a disaster would never be allowed to happen again.

Ethiopia and the long line of aid groups here had worked tirelessly to hold true to that promise. Foreign development organizations started dozens of long-term programs to help peasant farmers better feed their families - irrigation projects, seed distribution, forestation, loaning programs. The Ethiopian government had stashed away 310,000 metric tons of grains in an emergency reserve and developed a disaster-management program to predict food shortages. Then came three years of successive drought and crop failure. Warnings of wide-spread hunger were sounded as far back as August. In January, officials announced just how many people faced starvation in the months ahead: 8,028,172, to be exact.

World donors acknowledged the numbers were legitimate. Yet many still failed to deliver on shipments they had promised to send last year. The tons of grain that Ethiopia had long ago stored in warehouses across the country acted as a food bank of sorts - a reserve specifically designed to avoid disaster by cutting down on the lag time between pledges and delivery. When an overseas donor makes a food pledge, bags are immediately distributed from the warehouses so hungry people are not forced to wait months for a foreign ship to come in. Donors are then supposed to "pay back" the food reserve.

In January, as the warning bells were ringing and Ethiopia issued a plea for food donations, the United States still had not delivered on 90,000 metric tons of previously promised grains. The European Union owed 78,000 tons, and the United Nations' World Food Program was 52,000 tons behind. Two weeks ago, a total of 305,000 metric tons was still owed to the reserve.

Now there is not enough food for distribution. This tardiness by the West may be the result of bureaucratic bungling and logistical difficulties rather than deliberate neglect, but John Graham of Save the Children says there is no excuse.

"If the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 showed nothing else," says Mr. Graham, "it demonstrated that ordinary people would not tolerate starvation on any part of the globe."

The foreign press corps is no better. It ignored news releases warning of famine early on, only to arrive en masse in Ethiopia now that children are dying every day in places like Chereti.

On the outskirts of this sprawling grass-hut village, mounds of freshly dug graves rise and fall across the desert landscape like gentle moguls on a ski slope. Twenty-seven victims of hunger were laid to rest last month alone.

"He was eight years old," says Mohammed Gedi Gele, crouching before a sandy grave marked only by the branch of a thorn tree.

This region of the country, the southern Somali region, is home to thousands of nomadic herders who exist on the margins at the best of times. They live as their forefathers did thousands of years ago: residing in the desert bush, surviving off cows and camels, eating primarily milk and meat, and moving every few months to follow the rain.

But it has not rained for years. Even the camels are dying now. "After I lost all my camels, I thought I would lose all my children too," says Adam Mohammed Ali, who has 11 kids. "Without animals, there is no milk, no assets. There is no way to live."

Despite impossible hardship, the pastoralists of Ethiopia have showed amazing resolve to cope. Women boil rock-hard berries to eat, scrape their teeth on palm-seed shells to rub off the nutrients, make soup from tree roots, dig for hours in dry river beds until they find a bit of water.

Some women collect firewood in the bush and lug it for hours on their backs to sell at market places. Even in towns like Chereti, people with a little money can buy a meal of bread and meat at the local mud-hut hotel. It is not that there is no food in Ethiopia. Some parts of Ethiopia have produced a food surplus in recent years. Not long ago, the country even exported grains to Kenya. But for those who have no money and no animals, food aid is the only source of salvation.

The Somali region has the most impoverished regional government in the the country, and its rulers do not have the organizational ability or the money to deal with this crisis.

The administrative zone to which Chereti belongs, the Afder zone, is particularly remote. There are no phones, no electricity, no airports, no roads. Just two water trucks serve the district. The World Food Program has delivered only one load of wheat, and that was two months ago. "We walked three days to get here," says Haibo Mahamed Salat, a nomadic herder woman who lived in the bush until all her animals perished of hunger two months ago. "We heard there was a food ration here. But, when we arrived, there was nothing left."

The Ethiopian government itself must assume a share of responsibility. The country is wasting an estimated $1 million each day on a border war with its tiny neighbor to the north, Eritrea. Ethiopia did not start the two-year-old fight with its former friend, but it has sent some 500,000 soldiers to the trenches and is buying weapons to defend a scrap of scrub land that is, by all estimates, worthless.

"It has diverted our attention," Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, conceded on CNN recently. He had previously demobilized 80 percent of the Army and cut defense spending to fund development efforts."We were focussed on fighting poverty. Now our resources are divided."

But rather than spending less on food aid, he points out, the Ethiopian government has committed to buy $100,000 tons for distribution to the needy - the largest donation it has ever made.

Ethiopia is now in a race against time to stave off a full-fledged famine. The country's northern highlands - the heart of the last great famine - has not reported deaths, but 7.8 million subsistence farmers who live in the area are at severe risk.

In all, donors have promised to send more than 490,000 tons of grain for this year's emergency relief effort.

Sam Van der Ende, of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, notes that if Ethiopia is to endure in the long run it will take much more than a temporary out pouring of emotions and emergency food.

"People have to be willing to deal with the root causes, not just the crisis," he says. "We have the responsibility to stick around and make sure that this won't happen ever again."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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