25 years after Live Aid, Ethiopia tries to cover up a new famine

By Francis Elliott in Addis Ababa, Times

It wasn’t famine that killed Jamal Ali’s mother. She died in a cholera outbreak that swept through their Ethiopian village when at last the rains came. Twenty-five years later Jamal, now a parent himself, is lining up for handouts in a food distribution centre in Harbu, Amhara, His prematurely aged face, hollow with hunger, creases further when asked about this unwelcome return. “It is a very bitter feeling. No one likes this begging. I am ashamed,” he said.

Up a steep, dusty track from Harbu to Chorisa village the tiny, duncoloured terraced fields bear witness to the third poor harvest in a row. This village is supposed to be an aid showpiece but even here fields of failed cereal crops are being turned over to lean-looking cattle.

A villager strips an ear of the cereal crop tef and cups the inedible seed in her hand for a moment before casting into a relentlessly sky. It’s not that the rains didn’t come, she said — they came just at the wrong time. The field was supposed to yield 500 kilograms of cash crop; now it might just save a few cows from starvation.

The UN warns that 6.2 million Ethiopians will need some sort of food aid in the coming months. The Government also seems highly sensitive to the idea that it needs help. Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister, would rather the world took notice of his position representing Africa in the climate change negotiations next month than his country’s never-ending dependency on food aid.

In Addis Ababa Ethiopian and Western officials voice disapproval of doom-laden reports that fail to acknowledge the progress being made, or the differences in scale between the famine of 1984, which killed a million people, and the situation today.

In private they acknowledge that Mr Meles and his Government are deliberately frustrating and delaying official assessments of the scale of the country’s humanitarian needs and blocking access to some areas where the situation is worst.

The latest UN estimate, to be released this Friday, is due to revise its figure upwards to nine million for those who will need help. Arguing that the definition of those in need is too broad — it includes those who are in a position to sell assets to buy food — the Government wants to change the way the figures are calculated to reduce that figure to 5 million.

Donor countries and the UN fear that counting only the truly desperate is a ploy that risks understating the true scale of the crisis. There are also allegations that food aid is being withheld from the regime’s opponents.

Criticism of Ethiopia has been muted by its success in improving local healthcare and expanding education, alongside its strategic importance in the fight against Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa. Britain, which gives the country £200 million a year, and is Ethiopia’s second-largest bilateral donor, is stepping up the pressure on what was once regarded as its showpiece partner in Africa, amid growing concerns about what could happen in the coming months.

“The Government has just got to embrace the crisis and not be frightened of the statistics,” Gareth Thomas, a minister with the Department for International Development, said yesterday. “It is different from 1984 but there’s still huge need. There’s got to be a recognition that if we are going to stop children from being malnourished and keep people alive we have got to have accurate information and we’ve got to have it in a timely manner.”

Speaking before a meeting with Mr Meles, Mr Thomas said that he also intended to raise credible reports that aid was being withheld from opponents, but insisted he was satisfied that British aid was getting through. His main message, however, was that the Government had not yet grasped the urgent need for reform. The population, about 35 million in 1984, is now about 80 million and will have doubled again by 2050. At the same time, according to some estimates, most Ethiopian agriculture is still less productive than that of medieval England.

Mr Meles blames climate change for the erratic rainfall that has led to three successive poor harvests. The state’s ownership of land and its failure to provide seeds and fertiliser is at least as a big a factor, according to observers.

Similarly, the Government has overseen the building of an impressive road network — but in the absence of a thriving private sector and a more liberalised economy the traffic, other than convoys of aid vehicles, is light.

Two million Ethiopians a year are moving into cities as pressure on the land and education increase, a movement that threatens to overwhelm the state’s efforts to provide housing and jobs.

More than half of Britain’s annual aid budget of £117 million goes on helping to fund work schemes that keep 7.5 million Ethiopians out of the food distribution centres. With less than 5 per cent of the population becoming fully self-reliant in most areas each year, the dependency on foreign aid threatens to increase not diminish.

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Collaborative stories written or reported by OPride staff and contributors.

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