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Cover story

Ethiopia - A land of chronic disaster and endless determination

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Heavily laden with sacks of emergency food donated by foreign governments, the camels confidently pad their way down the steep road that runs from Mersa, high in the Girana Mountains, south into the valleys around Dese where hungry people wait. Suddenly, up the grade roars a caravan of huge new Volvo trucks, painted green and burdened down with ammunition and other war supplies for the northern front, their roar and exhaust pushing the camels close to the precipice at the side of the road.

Welcome to Ethiopia.

Poster child for famine, this country of 60 million people is once again in the news. In early April, the BBC broadcast dramatic footage shot in the eastern town of Gode by Rageh Omar, a reporter with Somali origins. Soon the world’s media was trekking to Ethiopia, but everyone wanted to shoot the same dramatic scenes of emaciated children. “Have you been to Gode yet?” became the routine greeting at the bar of the Addis Ababa Sheraton, the new palatial hotel that’s become the in place to hang out after a hard day of covering famine. Relief workers wanting reporters to go elsewhere had a hard sell. “Are there starving children there?” the journalists queried.

Although the suffering and death in Gode are real, and the media deserves kudos for covering it, there is more to the story. The drought that is gripping all of the Horn of Africa is a complicated story to tell, one that weaves together shifting meteorological conditions, conflicting economic development strategies, a bloody war between Ethiopia and its closest neighbor, and the struggle of Ethiopians to be seen by the world as something other than hungry beggars.

According to the United Nations, 16 million people throughout the Horn of Africa -- the easternmost projection of Africa that includes Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea -- are suffering from a severe drought. Half of the regional drought victims, 8 million people, are Ethiopians. If conditions don’t improve soon, another 2.6 million Ethiopians will also need assistance.

The video images from Gode notwithstanding, most drought victims are hungry but not yet starving. “If aid doesn’t come in a timely manner, however, we’re going to see a lot more Godes,” warned Anne Bousquet, the country representative here for Catholic Relief Services.

In many areas, this is the third year without significant rain. If there was any hope things might change this year, La Niña took care of that, sending moisture south. The recent flooding in Mozambique was caused by rain that was supposed to have fallen here in the north. Periodic drought has been Ethiopia’s lot for hundreds of years, yet droughts are becoming more frequent and severe. A century ago the country suffered a drought every 10 to 15 years. Today droughts come with alarming regularity every five years or less.

While global climate change may have something to do with increasing the frequency and intensity of drought here, other factors have contributed to making Ethiopians more vulnerable to erratic or scarce rainfall. Some 80 percent of Ethiopians depend for their livelihood on rain-fed agriculture, yet much of the good topsoil -- more than two billion tons a year -- gets blown away or washed down the Blue Nile River to Egypt. Add a high population growth rate, dwindling farm size, unjust patterns of land tenure, inefficient farming techniques and deforestation, and you’ve got a recipe for chronic disaster.

Herding cattle, not camels

In addition, economic and social changes are eroding some time-tested “coping mechanisms” that allowed the poor to make it through dry spells. For example, in the last three decades many of the country’s pastoralists -- animal herders who roam through the arid landscape leading their flocks between grasslands watered by seasonal rains -- have shifted to herding cattle instead of camels. Cattle are more profitable when it comes time to sell them, but they’re much more vulnerable to drought than camels, as can be seen by the tens of thousands of cattle carcasses currently littering the arid lowlands in the south and east of the country.

Yet these issues are nothing new, and were widely discussed during and after the deadly 1984-85 famine, when up to one million Ethiopians perished in what some refer to as this country’s holocaust. Political leaders inside and outside Ethiopia committed themselves to overcoming many of the structural problems that caused such suffering, and indeed have made great progress in some areas. There’s a sophisticated early-warning system in place, the most advanced system in Africa for monitoring weather patterns and gathering and analyzing agricultural data. The roads are better, allowing more efficient transport of food supplies. A decentralized government bureaucracy responds better than the centralized administrative styles inherited from the emperors. A more transparent relationship with donor nations and greater freedom for nongovernmental organizations also helps. A liberalized market economy translates into a more natural flow of food products within the country between areas of excess production and areas of shortage.

Yet the most important mechanism put in place since the1980s failed to make a difference this year. Since 1992, the government and foreign donors have stockpiled vast amounts of food in the Food Security Reserve, a 370,000 metric ton “buffer” against famine. The Reserve overcame the three- to nine-month lag time inherent in food donations from major donors like the European Union and the United States. In a crisis, food was borrowed from the Reserve, distributed to needy communities and repaid a few months later. Clive Robinson, a Christian Aid analyst who has written about the country’s struggle with drought, said that during the 1990s the Food Security Reserve constituted “Ethiopia’s best insurance against a food crisis.”

When the system failed

Last year, however, the system broke down when several promised food loans were not repaid in a timely manner. Lean times soon became impossible times, and the government had only 50,000 metric tons on hand. All of a sudden international officials and technicians from nongovernmental organizations were hunched over their conference tables discussing “pipeline analysis” and “prepositioning strategies,” all elements of trying to figure out how you move so many tons of food from point A to point B, and in a hurry.

And while donors scurry to meet current needs, they must struggle to rebuild Reserve stocks in order to better respond to future shortages.

How did stocks get so low? Both the European Union and the United States, along with other multilateral organizations like the World Bank, have cut back or eliminated development assistance here, as well as suspended any discussion of debt relief, in retaliation for Ethiopia’s bloody war with neighboring Eritrea. Many in the government here feel the delayed replenishment of Reserve stocks carried the same political message.

Peter With, a food security analyst with DanChurchAid, a major Danish church aid organization, said several European nongovernmental organizations borrowed food from the Reserve in September of last year after the European Commission promised the Ethiopian government that the food would be replaced before Christmas. The 60,000 metric tons in question have yet to be repaid, and probably won’t materialize in Ethiopia until July or August, according to With. With suggested the delay is also caused by a troublesome dialogue between the European Commission and the Ethiopian government. European officials reportedly want the Ethiopian government to depend less on foreign donors to resolve food insecurity, and they’re frustrated by the Ethiopian government’s diversion of resources to the war.

“While one can easily appreciate the complexity of the dialogue between the [European Commission] and the Ethiopian government, the protection of a mechanism such as the [Reserve], a key disaster prevention tool, must be regarded as a humanitarian imperative,” With said. “The replenishment of the Reserve must never be made conditional on finding solutions to complex political issues. ”

With’s boss, DanChurchAid General Secretary Christian Balslev-Olesen, made the point more strongly. “It will be a crime against humanity if we let hundreds of thousands of people die because there’s not enough food here,” he said during a tour of the drought-stricken Borena region in the south of the country. Balslev-Olesen said the cost of feeding all hungry Ethiopians this year would equal “about what we spent on one day of NATO bombing during the war in Kosovo.”

Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea, a conflict over what seems to many to be a barren stretch of sand, broke out two years ago and represents a real drag on this country’s readiness to fight hunger.

The Ethiopian government spends more than $1 million every day on the war, maintaining half a million soldiers along the Eritrean border and resettling and feeding up to 350,000 civilians displaced by the conflict. One-tenth of the country’s trucks have been pressed into service to ferry personnel and war materiel to the northern front. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has refused to accept any food aid shipped through the Eritrean port of Assab, which before the conflict handled 75 percent of relief assistance destined for landlocked Ethiopia. The international community is thus spending more than $6 million to improve port facilities and roads in neighboring Djibouti in order to bring in massive food aid.

The government adamantly insists that the drought and the war are two separate issues that shouldn’t be linked. “In Ethiopia, we do not wait to have a full tummy to protect our sovereignty,” Meles declared in April. His government recently bought four new Russian-built Su-25 attack jets, costing some $20 million apiece, but analysts suspect Russia had to settle for future shipments of coffee rather than hard cash.

Religious leaders from both sides of the conflict have worked behind the scenes since late 1998 to end the war. With assistance from Norwegian Church Aid, three meetings have been held between Eritrean and Ethiopian religious leaders, including participants from Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim traditions. Yet according to one Ethiopian participant, who asked not to be named, the talks “have failed to produce any breakthroughs because neither side has ventured very far from the position of its government.”

There have been scattered reports of government-controlled food distribution being withheld until a community produces the requisite number of recruits, but relief officials say the incidents are few and probably don’t reflect central government policy. Most admit that the war enjoys such popular support among ordinary Ethiopians -- and the economic situation of the poor is so desperate -- that the military easily fills its quotas. “The government doesn’t have any problem getting enough soldiers,” said Dereje Jemberu, director of development and relief work in the north of the country for the Mekane Yesus Ethiopian Evangelical church.

Ethiopia is a nation fractured by ethnic and linguistic differences, and the government in Addis Ababa faces a medley of armed opposition groups scattered around the country. One church official, who asked not to be identified, suggested the slowness of the government’s response to drought conditions in some areas had been affected by political reasoning. “The government left us alone, ignoring all indications of drought, so that when we starve, the rebels will also starve,” the official said. “Starvation will be the ultimate mechanism to achieve a truce.”

There is no thriving public debate about the war, and journalists are regularly jailed under a draconian 1992 press law if they stretch public policy debates too far. Eight reporters were in jail at the beginning of this year, a lower number than in previous years. Only a few people are willing to publicly suggest that government priorities are askew. “If the government would stop the war, it could use that money to feed the hungry,” said Asmamaw Belay, the head relief official of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. “That would save the lives of drought victims and the government at the same time could keep on negotiating for peace.”

Asmamaw said the government “is trying to respond to the drought,” but he told NCR that government leaders were “too late and too hesitant” in their responses. And he compared a government-sponsored celebration in February, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the ruling party, with Emperor Haile Selassie “celebrating his 80th birthday in the palace while outside the people were starving.”

An old trick

Despite months of shuttle diplomacy by the Organization of African Unity and emissaries of U.S. President Bill Clinton, it is unlikely the war will end soon, and meanwhile the Food Security Reserve repayment scandal allows the government to conveniently blame the international community for hunger, diverting attention from its own failings. It’s an old trick in these parts. In his book The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski described how -- when donors refused to pay high customs fees on relief shipments during a famine -- the court of Haile Selassie rebuked “the rebellious benefactors, saying that by suspending aid they condemn our nation to the cruelties of poverty and starvation.”

While politicians worry about who will get blamed for people starving to death, Eneinat Amara worries about what she’ll feed her children. The 57-year old woman lives in the village of Gubalaftu in the North Welo region. The fields around her village are brown. Normally they’re green this time of year, but the highland area is entering its third year of drought.

There’s only enough food for one meal a day. Eneinat prefers to eat it in the evening. “It gives me something to look forward to during the day,” she declares, coughing. Along with her children and many others in this village who are weakened by an insufficient diet, she suffers from chronic respiratory problems.

As mealtime approaches, Eneinat tends a small fire in the round stone and thatch structure that is the traditional home to families in the stark northern highlands of Ethiopia. She cooks a little bit of wheat, stirring in some moss and leaves, what are known here as “famine foods.” Their use is a sign that life in the highlands has grown critical. Eneinat got the wheat from the Mekane Yesus Ethiopian Evangelical Church. It’s not enough to go around, but the church’s grain storage warehouse down the road is empty, awaiting a new shipment promised for the end of April.

The new food for Gubalaftu will come from Catholic Relief Services, which trucked the food in April from the seaport at Djibouti to the South Welo town of Kombolcha. CRS there turned the food over to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Mekane Yesus Evangelical Church and the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat for distribution in communities throughout North Welo.

CRS and the three churches are all members of the Joint Relief Partnership, an ecumenical alliance formed during the 1980s famine to coordinate emergency response among faith-based relief organizations here. The partnership is supported by both the Rome-based Caritas Internationalis, a Roman Catholic network of aid agencies, and the Geneva-based Action by Churches Together, which groups together Protestant and Orthodox relief agencies. According to Negase Jemaanih, the CRS field officer in Kombolcha, such ecumenical cooperation is crucial. “We’re working hand in hand with other churches throughout the area,” he said. “By cooperating together we can better respond to those who need food to survive.”

In the dusty town of Kobbo, five hours to the north, the parish priest, Fr. Tamrad Tefera, said he hoped to get distribution of the new food supplies underway on May 1. Tamrad said he’d seen alarming signs of the incipient famine in the drop-off in attendance at the parish-run elementary school. “Most of the children are coming to school hungry, and some have quit coming altogether,” he told NCR. Tamrad said that people living in villages far from the town were worse off, many surviving on just a small remnant of teff, an Ethiopian grain. He said that in some communities, where farmers had no seeds left to sow and no animals left alive to sell, people had begun dismantling their houses, selling the wooden timbers or exchanging the straw from their roofs for food.

The delay in getting food to Kobbo and Gubalaftu and thousands of other isolated villages where people are hungry has exacerbated the situation. By waiting until traditional coping mechanisms have been exhausted and people have depleted their entire asset base in order to purchase food, tardy relief aid has insured that the eventual process of recovery will be much longer and more painful than otherwise.

Yet the food is starting to arrive, and aid workers on the ground push aside political arguments and point out how the assistance provides not just nutrition but also hope.

‘Aid creates hope’

“Some people argue that food aid creates dependancy, and that can be a problem,” said Ken Soerensen, a relief consultant in Addis Ababa for DanChurchAid. “Yet people here only get it when they really need it, and far from producing dependency, after farmers have lost their crop for yet another year, food aid helps provide the strength and hope for them to go out and plow the fields and sow the seeds one more time. I’ve seen it on their faces and in their attitudes. Rather than dependency, food aid creates hope.”

For some in the developed world, the word Ethiopia brings to mind hopeless images of starving kids in a country someplace in Africa that can’t take care of its own problems and has to repeatedly beg for help from the north. As a result, Ethiopians who go abroad are often startled by the questions asked of them. They are, after all, proud to be Ethiopian, to come from a cradle of independence, the only nation in Africa not to be colonized, a country with its own alphabet and rich culture, not to mention some of the best marathoners of all time. “I was amazed at the questions people asked me, irritating questions, assuming that farmers here were lazy or somehow to blame for what happens to them,” said Dereje of the Mekane Yesus Evangelical church, who spoke in U.S. churches last year. “People here work hard, not waiting for others to help them, even digging up their fields with their hands if necessary. But what can they do when there’s no rain?”

It’s easy to see that hope abounds, despite the continued lack of rain. In recent weeks, the fields around villages like Gubalaftu and towns like Kobbo were plowed by farmers unsure of rain and not knowing if they’d even have seeds to sow. If their animals were too wasted by hunger to work, as Dereje said, they turned up the earth themselves. According to Kidane Mariam Gebray, a Catholic priest and former general secretary of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, the religious faith of rural farmers keeps them from losing hope.

“Farmers in this country are all believers, be they Christian or Muslim,” Kidane said. “So they never lose hope. They believe that next year will be better. That’s their faith and their tradition. No matter what has happened, when the rains come they forget about the past and sow their fields.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000