The spectre of famine

ANDREW BILSKI December 7 1987

The spectre of famine

ANDREW BILSKI December 7 1987

The spectre of famine


Three years ago television screens around the world were filled with haunting images of famine in Ethiopia. Emaciated men scoured the parched countryside in search of food. Skeletal women lined up at dusty, fly-infested distribution centres for a meagre handout of grain. And children, their stomachs distended from hunger, died in their mothers’ arms. Such scenes stirred the conscience— and inspired the generosity—of millions in the affluent West. From Ottawa to Oslo, governments, private relief agencies, rock musicians and ordinary citizens responded massively, sending more than 1.5 million tons of food and $1.3 billion worth of non-food relief. But now, with crops again failing, the devastating famine of 1984-1985—in which an estimated 250,000 to one million Ethiopians died—seems about to repeat itself. Last week David MacDonald, Canada’s ambassador to Ethiopia, declared, “Anywhere between five million and seven million people will be at risk during the next year.”

International relief organizations have been warning of impending crop

failures for the past several months. Still, the severity of the crisis has once again caught many unprepared. Relief workers in the hardest hit areas—Eritrea, in the north, where guerrilla warfare has been raging for 26 years, and the central provinces of Tigre and Wollo—report that a plague of locusts, followed by the failure of the July-August rains, has forced thousands of starving farmers off their barren land

in search of emergency rations. According to relief agencies, there are sufficient reserves in Ethiopia to feed the starving until January. And donor countries, including Canada, have already pledged 263,000 tons of food relief—about 25 per cent of the amount requested by Ethiopia for the coming year. But the massive relief effort that has been gearing up is on the brink of collapse, threatened by rebel activity in the north, the daunting logistical problem of moving large amounts of food to inaccessible villages and the policies of the Moscow-backed government in Addis Ababa.

Bob Geldof, the Irish rock musician whose Band Aid-Live Aid organization raised $182 million in relief aid since 1985, last week expressed frustration that little had been learned from the last famine. After announcing his impending return to Ethiopia to assess the situation, he said, “After all the money that was given last time, after all the personnel and equipment that were put into Ethiopia, after the establishment of an effective early warning system— after all this, why are things no better?”

Many donor countries tend to lay the

blame on a transportation bottleneck caused by the secessionist Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, which has been waging guerrilla warfare since 1961. On Oct. 23, in an unprecedented attack on humanitarian organizations, the guerrillas ambushed a convoy of 23 United Nations and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) trucks heading south from Asmara, Eritrea’s provincial capital. In a communiqué afterward, the rebels claimed that the convoy was carrying “bullets, bombs and fuel oil” for the Ethiopian army. But relief officials said that the ambush destroyed more than 500 tons of grain destined for hungry peasants in neighboring Tigre province.

In the wake of the rebel attack, relief organizations suspended the transportation of food to the area for two weeks. At the same time, UN officials called for an open-roads policy by the government and appealed urgently for 300 new trucks to double the size of the road transport fleet. As well, in an effort to bypass the dangerous and primitive land routes through rebel-held territory to the famine-affected areas, the European Community (EC) in Brussels announced that it would begin a $15.6-million airlift of emergency supplies. EC officials said that up to 10 Hercules transport planes would begin flying food and medical supplies to Ethiopia this week. Over a two-month period, they said, the planes would shuttle relief cargo from the Red Sea ports of Assab and Massawa to the town of Makale in drought-stricken Tigre. The money earmarked for the European airlift will bring EC contributions to Ethiopia to more than $90 million this year.

Still, in announcing their airlift, EC officials have made it clear that they hold the Ethiopian government at least partly to blame for the recurring famine. Lorenzo Natali, the EC Commissioner for Co-operation and Development, accused the government of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam of being ill-prepared for crop failure. And, in a clear reference to the government’s overwhelming commitment of resources to fighting the Eritrean insurgency at the expense of the starving, Lorenzo added, “The straightforward survival of its citizens should be the top priority of any country.”

Insurgents in Tigre and Eritrea, and some donor governments, also charge

that the Soviet-style collective farm system is a major contributing factor in the country’s food shortages. State farms receive between 60 and 80 per cent of all farm machinery and fertilizers but produce only 10 per cent of total food yield—most of which goes to the military and the towns, although Ethiopia is a mainly rural country. Indeed, in October EC ministers announced their refusal to start a promised five-year $260-million development program until the government revised its farm policy.

But despite criticism of the Ethiopian government, EC officials last week reaffirmed that they would help the country’s starving masses. And despite fears that some private charity organizations

might face what one official called “donor fatigue,” the officials said that governments were unlikely to turn their backs on Ethiopia. Said Gerard Molinier, an EC emergency aid officer in Brussels: “The EC is not bored with people who are dying.”

Nor is Canada, according to Ambassador MacDonald in Addis Ababa. MacDonald said that Ottawa has allocated $40 million in government and nongovernment emergency assistance for Ethiopia this year. And he

said that Canadian food aid—mostly wheat—“will certainly be at least

100.000 tons” during the next 12 months.

But MacDonald, who was Canada’s emergency relief co-ordinator in Africa before assuming his new post in September, 1986, said that short-term food aid would not solve Ethiopia’s fundamental problems. The international community shared some of the blame for the current crisis, he said. “On an average basis for many years, the other countries of Africa were getting $20 per capita in development assistance when Ethiopia was getting $8,” said MacDonald. “When we have that kind of discrepancy, it is not surprising that a country with the secondlargest population in sub-Saharan Africa is suffering such grinding poverty and is exposed every time there is a drought to the searing spectre of famine.”

Signs of the new food crisis are already prevalent in the country of 46 million. Relief agencies in Ethiopia have cut back rations at distribution centres to conserve rapidly dwindling stocks. The CRS, with 43 distribution points in Tigre and Eritrea, has only a few weeks’ supply of food left. According to Patrick Johns, the agency’s director in Ethiopia, the number of people in Tigre needing assistance will double to 500,000 by January. And in Eritrea, where relief services feed

300.000 people, twice as many go hungry. “We are not expecting any crop, so we are waiting for food assistance,” said 65-year-old Eritrean farmer Astifanos Gebreyesus. He added, “I think this year is worse than 1984.”

Relief workers in the northern provinces say that thousands of peasants are trekking for up to three days to collect emergency rations. Lou Bartels, a doctor with the Belgian branch of Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), a humanitarian group, has watched 50 children die from malnutrition in the past three months. At a rural hospital in Tigre, he initially treated three or four undernourished children a week. Now, Bartels says, he is handling 90 cases a week.

Despite the heroic efforts of volunteers such as Bartels, the outlook for thousands of Ethiopians is grim. But until the Ethiopian government and the rebels settle their disputes, and until the international community commits its vast resources to longterm development, Ethiopians will continue to die from hunger. And their images will haunt the TV screens—and the consciences—of the world.