Famine in Ethiopia Jan 03:  Visit 7-12th January

Ethiopia suffered tragically from the famine in 1984. A similar humanitarian crisis is now looming as the country faces a severe and widespread drought that continues to desertify the rift valley region on the eastern side of the highlands.

UN agencies like the WFP, FAO and WHO estimate that Ethiopia’s 11.3 million people (18 per cent of the population) are at risk from starvation unless around 1.4 million metric tons of food assistance is made urgently available. The cost of this food assistance for 2003 is US$300m – a mere $2.5 per needy person a month! A further 3 million people are also at risk and need to be closely monitored. In 2002, Ethiopia received 33 per cent of food assistance from the EU 33 per cent from the USA  and the rest from Japan, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and various NGOs.  

Ethiopia, with a population of 63 million, is a complex mixture of many distinct ethnic and linguistic tribes. There are two major religions – the Orthodox Abyssinian Church and Islam. Although Ethiopia is three times the size of Germany, it has a road infrastructure not much bigger than a tiny country such as Luxembourg. Snow-capped mountains, deep gorges, high (2000m metres) plateau and barren wastelands form its land. Such geography, coupled with uncertain rainfall, do not facilitate irrigation and agricultural cultivation. Whilst the Blue Nile and other rivers flow through the western part, Ethiopia has been unable to harness the water because of geopolitical difficulties. The civil war with Eritrea and a period of Marxist rule diverted and depleted scarce financial and human resources.

EU aid is especially appreciated by Ethiopia as EU cash is used to purchase grain produced internally by farmers in the western part of Ethiopia. It is tragic that lack of roads prevent the food surplus from the western part of Ethiopia to be distributed to the Afar State in the North East, the Eastern Oromiya State, the Somali State in the South East, and the Northern states of Amhara and Tigray.

During our Parliamentary visit, we witnessed the extreme barren conditions of two villages in the Arsi Region (Oromiya State) where almost a thousand people squatted on hot sand for almost a day to receive meagre rations for the month – 12.5Kg for those who are starving and 15Kg for those with serious illnesses! I talked to several villagers and asked if they could identify their single most important need. Each time they said: “Water”. When asked about their second most important need they said: “Seed”. These villagers walk 7 miles each way to fetch water and the little they can carry is used exclusively for drinking, cooking and for their animals. There is no surplus for washing or sanitation. I did not have the courage to ask these villagers if they cared for democracy, human rights or the environment – the look in their eyes conveyed their desperation and fear of survival.

Ethiopia’s appeal for food assistance needs immediate action and I hope the EU will act without delay. However, food assistance on its own is not enough to help Ethiopia to be self-reliant. There is a need to assist in programmes for extending the rural infra-structure – only 4 per cent of the country is accessible by paved roads. We need to help them build shallow wells, bore holes, reservoirs and dams for water conservation as rainfall is so erratic and unpredictable. The national health budget allocates $1.5 per person per annum – not enough to buy a treatment dose of most antibiotics! The HIV/AIDS pandemic spreads fastest in conditions of social instability, conflict, poverty and powerlessness. Ethiopia’s cattle population of almost 28 million require veterinary medicines to prevent widespread disease and death. Education is inaccessible to children in rural areas and this seriously affects the country’s capacity to build a pool of skills that will help to achieve national self-reliance.

We visited a privately run dairy farm that produces an excellent range of milk, butter, cheese and yoghurt which is sold domestically and exported to neighbouring countries. We also visited a rose farm using modern irrigation and fertilisation techniques to yield good crops of high value roses for export. These privately run projects offer proof that targeted assistance in agro-processing can realise substantial value added and benefit for poor countries.

It is time that the EU examines carefully its policies on aid for each country. It must determine the best way to use funds and technical expertise to exploit natural resources, including human resources, to maximise benefit for the rural populations. Each percentage growth in agriculture can finance a 2 per cent growth in industrial production. In this way there would be, over time, a shift from agriculture to agro-industry and other industries. Help to achieve food sufficiency and self-reliance must be the primary aims of all development assistance.