How Ethiopia prevented another devastating famine

During its visit to hard-hit Gode last week, the UN saw hope for recovery.

A grin comes easily to Ahmed Maalin Abdi's face. Yet only seven weeks ago, he had nothing to smile about. The five-year-old weighed just 33 pounds, some 25 percent below normal weight, according to World Health Organization guidelines, when he arrived at the feeding center in this southeastern Ethiopia town.

"I carried him here like this," says his mother, Bilad Ali Guhaed, holding her arms upturned in front of her. "He was very weak, and he couldn't move."

But Ahmed did not become a victim of the hunger crisis that gripped the country earlier this year. With the help of intensive feeding by Save the Children, he has gained nearly 10 pounds and will soon be discharged.

He could be the poster child for what aid agencies are calling a victory: They managed to prevent a repeat of Ethiopia's "Live Aid" famine of 1984-85, in which a million people died.

The success of the Ethiopian effort demonstrates that famine can be prevented. If aid agencies are allowed to do their work without fear of attack, and if there is cooperation from both rich nations and the local government, even desperately drought-stricken countries can avert starvation.

Although the UN World Food Program began appealing to donors last November for at least $470 million worth of food aid for Ethiopia this year, barely half had been pledged by April. And people started dying. The resulting massive media coverage helped boost donations.

"A famine was averted in this region," says Catherine Bertini, UN special envoy for the Horn of Africa drought-relief effort. She credited "the strength of nongovernmental organizations, the generosity of governments and individuals throughout the world, and the hard work of local people."

Ethiopia's Ogaden desert - a semiarid region populated by nomadic herders of the Somali ethnic group - had little or no rain for three consecutive years, part of a pattern of drought affecting some 16 million people in nine countries in East Africa.

By April of this year, Gode was the epicenter of the resulting food crisis. Dead cattle littered the terrain. Emaciated children cried incessantly. The earth was baked brown, greenery nonexistent.

The environment in the region is still harsh, and some children are still malnourished, but the crisis is nowhere near as intense as it was earlier this year.

While Save the Children's center in Gode had 600 patients in its simple huts back in April, that number has now dwindled to 85. Although 15 percent of children admitted in April died that month, the death rate has since slowed to under 1 percent.

In the nearby town of Denan, Mdecins sans Frontires (MSF) closed its feeding program on Sept. 14. "It means no one is starving anymore," says field coordinator Stephan Goetghebuer. Back in April, Denan' s grave diggers were burying half a dozen victims a day. Now the death rate in the village, which tripled in size from people migrating in search of food, is down to the normal two a week.

The change came as a result of both good work and good fortune. Some rain fell in May, which helped somewhat with food production and pasture for livestock. Aid workers also say the Ethiopian government did a relatively good job ensuring that food aid was not diverted from those who needed it.

"We've been very pleased at the low level of corruption," says Judith Lewis, the World Food Program's representative in Ethiopia. "We had a few hiccups around the [May] elections, one or two cases of local people using food as an incentive to recruit people into the military, but every time it was reported, action was taken immediately."

Still, the response came too late for many. No one has exact figures, but aid-agency officials say the number of people who died of malnutrition-related illnesses in southeastern Ethiopia this year was in the thousands.

Nor can the aid agencies rest on their laurels. An estimated 10.2 million people - 1 out of 6 Ethiopians - still need food aid and will continue to for the coming months. Many of them are in the country's northern highlands, where people live off subsistence farming.

"It's important not to erase the limited gains that have been made over the last four to five months," says Bob McCarthy, emergency coordinator for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

"The food crisis in the Ogaden is not over," said an MSF statement, adding that 30 percent of the people in Denan are malnourished. But the shorter of the two annual rainy seasons is due to begin early next month.

"The rains in October are fundamental," says Manual DaSilva, UN humanitarian coordinator for the Horn of Africa. "If the rains are good or even close to normal, the situation will tend to improve."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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