Posted 13th June 2008
Jun 12th 2008 | HARAR
From The Economist print edition
Famine is once again threatening the continent’s second-most-populous country and once again its government is partly to blame
GORU GUTU is perched in the misty heights of the steep hills above Harar, in eastern Ethiopia. For the poorest, life here is still akin to serfdom—minus a tsarist order. The government owns the land; a banner over its local office proclaims “the people” to be “the base of all development”. Yet labourers get by in Goru Gutu district much as they have always done, tilling soil by hand, digging ditches, doing whatever it takes to buy a few cups of grain to keep their families alive.
This year, however, their efforts have been in vain. The land is green but hailstorms, rains that came too late, then rains that fell too heavily, as well as infestations of insects, have left Goru Gutu starving. As you head deeper into the hills, the animals get thinner, the children more listless. The food in the market is too expensive, and there are no informal sales on the roadside. No one is eating. Where wheat and maize should have been growing in the terraces that slice back and forth along the slopes, there is nothing. The average daily labouring wage, equivalent to 80 American cents, is not enough to survive on.
So it is across much of south and east Ethiopia. In the highlands the rain was erratic; in the lowlands it fell not at all. The result is that an extra 4.5m of Ethiopia’s 80m people need emergency food, on top of the 5m or so who already get it, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.
The government says a recovery is possible if the rains expected later in the year are good. Foreign aid specialists say that the food shortages are “going in the direction of high mortality”. The government is supposed to have 450,000 tonnes in a grain stockpile, with 100,000 tonnes in reserve to keep prices from rising too much. But it has only 65,000 tonnes left.
If Goru Gutu district is an indicator, things will get far worse; many people will starve to death. Ibsaa Sadiq, a local government official, reckons that nearly half of the 116,000 people who live here, especially women and children, need food aid to survive. A feeding centre run by the government, assisted by Catholic nuns, cares for some 800 of the hungriest children. They spend days or weeks in a metal shed smelling of diesel and disinfectant.
Hindiya, 18 months old, is puffed up by edema, a protein deficiency. Even if she survives, she may suffer mental and physical stunting, heart disorders and a weakened immune system. Her mother, Fatima, gently peels back a dirty cloth to show how the skin along Hindiya’s calves and heel has split wide open. She is in excruciating pain. Her three siblings survive on a bowl of maize-meal porridge a day, with no milk or sugar; no one in the family has ever eaten meat. If she makes a full recovery Hindiya will be sent home with rations, but there is no money for a return visit. “This is a revolving door,” explains an aid worker. “Next time we’ll have nothing for these children.”
Because of the failed harvest, more food has to come from outside. Prices have been pushed up by rising fuel costs as well as by scarcity. Potatoes, maize and sorghum cost three times more in the market than they did last year, yet wages have hardly budged. The communal spirit that encourages people to share food, especially when it is scarce, may start to break down. People in Goru Gutu who have buried grain in pits by their huts get at it only by night for fear of begging neighbours.
A famine on the scale of 1984, when Band Aid and Live Aid raised about $150m in relief for Ethiopia, is still unlikely. Logistics and medical understanding have improved. Yet, sadly, some of the conditions that created that famine have not really changed. Ethiopia still has too many people eking out a living on too little land, depending on rains that can never be relied on. Meteorologists say that the problem is not just the amount of rain but the climate’s increasing volatility.
The government has also failed. After several good harvests since the last big famine, in 2003, Ethiopia had a chance to progress. Instead, it dithered over reforms to promote private business and overhaul the country’s sclerotic banking system and mobile-phone sector. Aside from coffee, qat (a narcotic leaf chewed by Somalis), horticulture and a little tourism, Ethiopia is one of Africa’s very few countries that still has virtually no serious private business—and thus few jobs—outside the state sector. Almost three-quarters of the population may be under- or unemployed.
So few families have a chance to save anything for hard times. The lack of wealth creation makes the government more vulnerable to external shocks. The soaring price of oil may cost Ethiopia $1 billion this year—equivalent to its entire foreign-exchange earnings. Meles Zenawi, the prime minister, cannot be blamed for record oil prices or for the rising cost of food worldwide, both of which have sparked riots in several African countries. But he bears some responsibility for failing to increase his country’s hard-currency earnings.
His government people point out that new power-generating projects are set to turn Ethiopia into an exporter of electricity. They also point to reductions in infant mortality and say that Ethiopia is achieving several of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Still, with 80% of its people living off the land, Ethiopia is producing far too little to cope with a possible doubling of its population by 2050.
The government’s lack of enthusiasm for private enterprise is matched by its lack of enthusiasm for competition in politics. Mr Zenawi has already splintered the ineffectual opposition parties with the liberal use of torture and imprisonment. A proposed new law on charities would stamp on many groups working to improve human rights and encourage press freedom.
This week the government brushed off allegations of war crimes in the Ogaden region, where it is conducting a ferocious counter-insurgency against an armed separatist group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front. A report by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based monitoring group, says that violence against civilians in Ogaden has risen dramatically since the front’s guerrillas slaughtered 70 Chinese and Ethiopian oil workers last year. At least 159 civilians, it says, have been publicly executed, including young girls. The government has banned journalists from visiting the worst-affected areas, but some of the allegations of burning villages have been backed by satellite imagery.
Don’t mention the famine
Mr Zenawi is particularly sensitive about famine talk. He has denied that pastoralists in the south are losing livestock to the drought or that the rates of malnutrition elsewhere are at all close to what foreign aid workers claim. The government has banned photographs of the starving and has told field workers not to give information to foreign journalists.
Ethiopia understandably yearns to shed its reputation as the world’s poster child for famine. Some foreign agencies do seize crudely on images of emaciated infants to secure extra funding. But the government’s attitude comes close to denial; it will not help the people of Goro Gutu.
“The only future is resettlement,” blurts out a local official. Even so, if the population of the district were to stand still, some 4,000 people a year would have to be resettled from Goro Gutu to more fertile land; the government has a budget to shift a few hundred. With its population increasing so fast and farming methods still too basic to sustain it even when the rains are good, Ethiopia’s chances of making real progress any time soon look slim.
Source: The Economist