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As famine looms in Ethiopia, only the neediest get food aid

Aid workers must now choose who's the most malnourished, and experts say the crisis could become as bad as the infamous 1984 famine.

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"It is quite important to inject food rapidly into the community," says François Colas, country director in Ethiopia for the Belgian chapter of Doctors without Borders. "As long as food isn't distributed, we will see people falling into severe malnutrition."

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The Ethiopian government said earlier this month that 75,000 children are already in peril from the drought.

Most are now in the country's southern lowlands, though the crisis is spreading to the northern highlands.

Drought-stricken zones have been divided into six priority levels, depending on the prevalence of malnourishment.

The largest aid efforts are now under way in areas in the top two categories.

How villages bear the hunger

Still, the crisis does not conform to administrative boundaries, and on the edges of aid operations, some villages are quietly bearing their hunger.

In the Ethiopian village of Kamecho, in one area on the cusp of a priority zone, a young boy jogs along the muddy path, dutifully pointing out the households with malnourished children.

Word spreads that a foreigner has arrived at this remote spot, accessible only by a footbridge.

Parents emerge from huts and fields carrying listless children appear from their huts and fields carrying listless children. One woman marches to the center of the gathering crowd with a bundle in her arms.

She throws the threadbare blanket to the ground and holds up her frightened daughter, the child's lip quivering as her eyes dart from face to face, her bony legs swinging limply below her swollen belly.

She had brought her daughter to a nearby clinic for help, but when the staff discovered that the child was not only malnourished but afflicted with tuberculosis, they referred the child to a hospital 34 miles away in Hosaina.

One staff member, speaking anonymously, says that every week the clinic refers as many as six cases of malnourished children with complications, knowing that most will never make it.

"We refer the kids to the hospital in the hope that they will of course go and be healed, but that is usually not the case, and it is horrible," he says.

Neighbors tell a similar story in Kamecho.

Unable to afford transportation to the hospital, they returned to plow their fields in hope that their children will survive another two months until the next harvest.

The Irish organization Concern says that help may come sooner if it secures the resources to set up operations in the area.

All together, aid operations in Ethiopia will need at least another $300 million this year to fill the shortfall.

The US, Britain, and other countries are likely to step up, but even if these donors provide more funds tomorrow, it will take as long as eight weeks to procure food internationally.

And once reaches the country, truckers are in short supply to distribute the aid, sometimes canceling delivery contracts at the last minute as more lucrative opportunities arise.

Until more aid arrives, government agencies and international organizations are likely to continue to concentrate their resources in the neediest areas – weighing the indicators by the much more convenient statistical scale.

How to help

United Nations Children's Fund


3 United Nations

New York, NY 10017

tel: 800-4UNICEF

Save the Children

54 Wilton Road

Westport, CT 06880

tel: 800-728-3843

Mercy Corps

Department W

P.O. Box 2669

Portland, OR 97208

tel: 888-256-1900


151 Ellis Street, NE

Atlanta, GA 30303

tel: 800-521-2273

Samaritan's Purse

P.O. Box 3000

Boone, NC 28607

tel: 800-665-2843