Famine looms over Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa

For the third time in about as many decades, the specter of massive famine looms over the Horn of Africa region and Ethiopia in particular. Some 13.7 million people are now estimated to be in need of urgent food aid, when at the same time the rations doled out to the poor peasants of Ethopia by aid NGOs and the UN World Food Programme have been slashed as the crisis has severely cut donations.(1) These programmes support some 12 million people in the area and the rations are already small as is, causing a further crisis. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2002 already warned that the impending famine could be even worse than the great famine of 1984, which killed about one million people.(2) At that time, the actual famine was narrowly avoided.

Now, however, food prices have greatly increased under pressure from the current economic crisis, which hits urban poor particularly hard, while the pro-ruralization policies of the Zenawi government have created some stability in the countryside but also kept many peasants into such small land holdings that they cannot sustain themselves. There is little by way of systematic irrigation to support Ethiopian agriculture, and as a result the global warming phenomenon caused by the ecologically disturbing effects of super-industrialization have reduced or delayed the twice annual rainfalls in that country, known as the belg and the kiremt respectively.(3) This causes extended droughts in the entire region, which is extremely destructive for the marginal agriculture and nomadic herding undertaken in this part of the world, since the poor peasants have virtually no reserves to fall back on. The combination of population boom in Ethiopia, which saw its population increase from 54 million in the 1980s to 80 million today, with a policy to keep the poor peasantry where they are has the unintended but inevitable effect of making that peasantry eke out such a marginal living that periodic famines are almost impossible to avoid. For this reason, the persistent food aid is often considered a pseudo-solution, since it only immediately arrests the symptoms but does nothing to address the causes. The same applies to the small attempts at creating a food reserve on the part of the Zenawi government. In fact, it has often been pointed out that the introduction of food aid on a systematic scale into poor rural areas in the world is equivalent to dumping and can have a destructive effect on local markets.

What is needed is for Ethiopia to move some of its rural population to the more fertile areas, as Zenawi’s government is now considering, to greatly expand the infrastructure and irrigation systems in the countryside with the attendant increases in scale of agriculture, and to end its ruralization policies and instead promote an urbanization based on development of sustainable industrial production in the cities. These policies have eradicated famine and extreme rural poverty in all nations where they have historically taken place, from England to Russia and from Spain to Japan. The future of the world’s population lies in the cities, not in the countryside. The repeated famines in Ethiopia have already had significant political consequences. The famine of 1973 caused the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and his anachronistic feudalism; the famine of 1985 caused a crisis which led to a civil war that ended in 1991 with the defeat of the Derg military government of Mengistu. In fact, the history of Ethiopia, with its endless feudal aristocracy reigning over subsistence peasants and its great vulnerability to El Niño weather shifts, reads as a veritable history of famine and subsequent political crisis, even up to the 20th Century. If a famine occurs again, this ought to be the sign that the liberal approach of the Zenawi government does not satisfy the needs of Ethiopians any more than the previous governments have. It is time the overwhelmingly rural people of Ethiopia take their own affairs and their survival into their own hands.

Only three individual men have governed, on their own, Ethiopia since 1928, and many millions of people have died as a result of their incompetence, while lavish sums have been spent on palaces and celebrating the governments. These autocrats have also used food as a weapon against their enemies, such as the nationalists of Ogaden and even the electoral opponents of Zenawi during the elections, while at the same time selling fertile land in the country to investors from Saudi Arabia.(4) It is time for a people’s movement in Ethiopia that does away with patriarchal autocrats in Addis Abeba and puts the development of sustainable industry and collective improvement of rural infrastructure first.

(1), (3) “Millions facing famine in Ethiopia as rains fail”. The Independent (30 Aug. 2009).
(2) “Massive famine stalks Ethiopia”. BBC News (11 Nov. 2002).
(4) “Saudis to buy vast tracts of land in Ethiopia, Sudan to produce food”. ClickAfrique (4 May 2009). http://www.clickafrique.com/Magazine/ST010/CP0000003412.aspx.


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