Once again, hunger crisis stalks Ethiopia

More needed than emergency aid to break cycle, say experts

Hawa Hassan is weak. Her mouth is parched. Her children are sick. Her livestock have all died of hunger. Nineteen years ago, Ms. Hassan's mother survived a famine to raise her, the youngest daughter of six. But Hassan is not sure there was much point.

"Hunger is happening again," she says. "It happens all the time." Proud, angry, and pleading all at once, she adds: "Help us."

This year, 11 million to 14 million Ethiopians face severe food shortages, according to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said recently that if the 1984 famine here, in which close to 1 million people died, was a "nightmare," then the hunger this year, if not addressed, "will be too ghastly to contemplate."

With one food crisis after another hitting this country within the past few decades, some ask whether famine in Ethiopia is not only inevitable but perhaps unresolvable.

Experts argue not. But if there is a way to break the cycle, it is through development, not emergency aid, they say. Investing in such things as education, health, agricul- ture, and trade will, over time, make the real difference by giving people the ability and means to help themselves during droughts in years to come, they say. The question, however, is where the development money will come from.

"If we had similar resources in development as in emergency, we could turn around this picture," argues Al Kehler, development coordinator for the WFP in Ethiopia. "We are screaming this message, but it is not being heard."

Mr. Kehler's sentiments are shared by many working in the aid community. Robert Luneburg, an aid worker with 20 years of experience in the field who is today a consultant to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Ethiopia, has personally overseen the distribution of 2 million tons of food aid worldwide during his career. "[Emergency aid] does not work," he says. "We know that. People need development."

Andrew Natsios, the chief administrator of USAID, was in Ethiopia this week, stressing development projects. At rural schools throughout the drought-hit Oromiya region, for example, where 40 children fill single classrooms without chairs or pens, USAID is supporting a variety of initiatives to help girls stay in school and improve the quality of teaching.

"These children can grow up and be better able to keep their children alive," says Mr. Natsios. "It is crucial to get girls to the classroom, where, alongside the ABCs, they learn about hygiene, family planning, HIV ... and voting - and in the future will run their households, livestock, and even country, better."

But despite the general recognition of the importance of development, funding for it falls far below funding for emergencies. Ethiopia is the largest recipient of emergency aid per capita in the world. But at the same time, it receives the least per capita in development aid.

This imbalance in emergency funding rather than development funding evident all over the world as budgets continue to be slashed. In 1993, for example, the WFP collected $661.5 million earmarked for development work worldwide. Last year it got $203 million, most of which went to projects already under way, leaving scant room for new ones. Emergency aid, meanwhile, continues to be relatively responsive to the ever growing needs.

The reasons for this are varied, say experts, with perhaps the prime one having to do with the desire to see immediate results. Donors want to see their money going to give a starving child porridge or an elderly farmer cooking oil and beans. Putting money into a health clinic or an after-school project, which might eventually save more lives, is not as immediately gratifying or as easy to sell to the taxpayer.

The worst affected by this attitude are long-term projects, like those in agriculture. Investing in the development of disease-resistant seeds or working on multiyear forestation and water schemes is often low on the priority list for donors.

Another reason donors prefer emergency to development aid sometimes has to do with the policies of their African partner governments. While today donors have no problem working with Ethiopia, in the past - during the Marxist Derg regime and later during the years of costly war with neighboring Eritrea - donors disengaged or cut back development assistance.

Finally, even the strongest proponents of increasing funding for development stress that this should not be done at the expense of emergency work. "We need time to invest in development, but during that time there will undoubtedly also be emergencies," says Connie Newman, USAID's assistant administrator for Africa. "You can't say we will let one generation die so as to concentrate on development and the future."

To that end, the US this week pledged 262,000 tons of food aid, increasing its total contribution to 500,000 tons since last July. Ethiopia, together with the WFP, launched a $500 million appeal for 1.4 million tons of emergency food last month.

"The problem," says James Morris, WFP's executive director, visiting Ethiopia this week, "is that we ask for money, and donors say - again?"

Every year in Ethiopia, a country of more than 65 million people, 4 million to 5 million face starvation. Chronic hunger means that, even in the best of harvest years, there are children whose stomachs bloat, mothers whose breast milk dries up, and grown men who lie motionless at the front of their huts, too weak to crawl inside. More and more emergency food aid is needed to keep them alive.

In Africa this year, the lack of development, compounded by climatic changes, conflicts, the increase of HIV, government mismanagement, and other factors have come together to create a situation in which, according to WFP estimates, some 38 million people in over 20 countries need emergency food aid.

"I could be putting out hunger alerts every day," says Brenda Barton, WFP spokeswoman in Nairobi. "But it would be too overwhelming and would get us nowhere."

In the mid-1980s, with pictures of stick-thin people in Ethiopia flashing on TV screens around the world, Bob Geldof enlisted the pop world to sing on his song "Feed the World" to raise money and awareness.

U2's Bono had a solo, Annie Lennox belted out a line, and Paul Young joined in with the chorus. The song became a pop hit and millions of dollars were raised to help the starving.

Today, in the West, there are many who can still hum along to the tune. Here in Afar, however, no one is familiar with the superstar singers or the attention they brought.

"We have no information about that hunger or that time," says Hassan. "We are too busy with this one. That's the way it always goes."

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