Meles Zenawi is familiar with hunger. Long ago, before he became Ethiopia's prime minister, he saw a young lady gnawing on an old cow's bone. The animal had been dead for weeks, but she was desperate.
Mr. Zenawi was a guerrilla in those days, fighting during the mid-1980s with the Tigray People's Liberation Front. The government he was battling - the Marxist Derg regime - used hunger as a political tool, pretending the crisis did not exist. By the time photos of starving Ethiopians made their way to Western TV screens, a million people were already dying - too late for the tremendous international response that finally came to make much difference.
"I promised myself that this would not happen again," says Zenawi today, his measured voice echoing slightly around his Addis Ababa office. "As soon as we took over we made a number of commitments," he says, furrowing his thick brows. "One of them was we would never hide risk of famine."
Zenawi has kept this commitment. This year, according to the UN's World Food Program (WFP), some 11 to 14 million Ethiopians face severe food shortages - and the prime minister has been shouting about it for months. "I spend most of my day thinking, planning, trying to find a way out of this," says Zenawi, who pleaded last November for donors to be generous.
"As soon as we became aware of the threat, we began allocating resources in the hope that the rest of the world would soon chip in as well," says Zenawi. "We realized we needed to take foremost responsibility - but there is only so much our resources allow.... So we are forced to beg."
Taking note of early-warning signals and sounding a call for help before a crisis becomes extreme are key elements in saving lives, says Brenda Barton, WFP's spokeswoman in Africa. Such measures, coupled with a strong donor response will, it is hoped, avert starvation in Ethiopia - just as it has done in southern Africa.
On Monday, President Bush, responding to this and other appeals, called for a 25 percent increase in US funding - to a total of $1.5 billion - to provide famine relief worldwide and prevent hunger. Bush asked Congress to approve $1.2 billion in emergency aid in the 2004 budget.
The WFP had estimated last year that more than 15 million people in six southern African countries were in danger of starvation because of poor harvests. But, a well-honed early-warning system and quick and generous aid averted the crisis, according to WFP director James Morris.
"Food has been put in place over the last several months in such a way that starvation and death have not occurred. That's something to celebrate," he told journalists in South Africa last week. "There is still an enormous amount to do ... but we are in a position to prevent the current crisis from becoming a tragedy in the longer-term."
Barton notes that in Ethiopia, as in Southern Africa, the WFP mobilized early, asking for 1.4 million tons of emergency aid in December to stave off the Ethiopian crisis this year. The media, she says, is also playing an important role.
"The media used to wait for the dramatic shots. But ... they came in early in Southern Africa and took on a responsible role in helping to warn the rest of the world," she says. "We believe the same thing can happen in Ethiopia." The bottom line, says Barton, is that donors respond to a life-threatening situation. "But ... how early does everyone realize an emergency is an emergency?"
Zenawi, despite his skill in articulating his country's need this year, says addressing one emergency after another is not the solution to ending hunger in Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa. "We need to address the root causes of this crisis, and as such reduce the sense of impotence," he says. "The way forward is through development, and we need resources for that."
But Zenawi sidesteps his land-reform policies - an issue, critics charge, that is at the heart of the food shortage problem. In a statement last November, three opposition parties stated that "The wrong land tenure and unfair land distribution policies of the government are responsible for all ills facing the country's farmers."
Land reform is highly controversial in Ethiopia, where about 85 percent of the population of 65 million are farmers, yet all land is owned by the government and given out in two-acre plots. Many experts believe an overhaul of the system is needed - but Zenawi has said that would spur farmers to sell and move to the cities.
One of Zenawi's greatest concerns is donor fatigue. "My fear is ... hunger [here] will be like the weather. It will seem normal to have [Ethiopians] starving," he says.
But he has faith the international community will "come march with Ethiopia." It is "their moral responsibility to respond to people in [need]," he says. In addition, "in a globalized world, no country is immune to goings-on elsewhere - and hunger is bound to be a source of instability, turning a place into a base for organized crimes and terrorist groups."
Ethiopia, which was never colonized in the 19th and 20th centuries, is a country with a deep sense of independence and dignity. Zenawi worried this might be eroding. "Our pride has been undermined by a sense of shame at going around begging," he says. " I wish I could reduce the sense of impotence... Here I am, 10 years in office - still begging for food. I am ashamed. But I believe it can and will change. Otherwise all I have done has no meaning."