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Ethiopia: Pain amid Plenty

DEATH IN THE FIELDS: June rains turned the land near the village of Sedguge green, but too late. An uncle bears the body of a 6-month-old who died of malnutrition [Photograph for TIME by Thomas Dworzak / Magnum]


Paleontologists hunting fossils of early man in the Rift Valley of southern Ethiopia call the area the cradle of mankind. This year it’s bursting with life, especially in the fields where local farmers grow barley, potatoes and teff, a cereal used to make the flat, spongy bread injera. As a warm July rain falls on a patchwork of smallholdings half a day’s walk from the nearest road, the women harvest yams, the men plow behind sturdy oxen and fat chickens, goats and cows roam outside mud huts. And yet for all the apparent abundance, this area is so short of food that many are dying from starvation.

All morning, the hills above the village of Kersa have echoed with the wails of women walking in from the fields. They gather on a patch of open grass before a stretcher made from freshly cut bamboo, bound and laid with banana leaves. On it is a small bundle wrapped in a red-and-blue blanket. An imam calls the crowd together, asks them to take off their shoes and arranges them in two lines, women behind men, facing east. “Allahu akbar,” he says twice. Then four men pick up the bier, easily handling its weight with one arm, and walk a short way to a freshly dug hole, into which they lower the bundle and bury it. Three other small, fresh graves nearby indicate Ayano Gemeda, 6, was not the first child to starve in Kersa this year. The distended bellies and chicken-wing limbs of children looking on suggest he won’t be the last.

In the six weeks to mid-July, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) treated 11,800 Ethiopian children for severe acute malnutrition. At a tented hospital in the town of Kuyera, 50 out of 1,000 died, double the rate MSF expects for a full-fledged famine. “It’s very bizarre,” says Jean de Cambry, a Belgian MSF veteran of crises from Sudan to Afghanistan. “It’s so green. But you have all these people dying of hunger.” The verdure around Kuyera is misleading. It is the product of rains in June, too late for the first of two annual crops. From January to May, the fields were parched and brown. And one failed harvest is enough to turn Ethiopia, a nation of 66 million farmers, into a humanitarian catastrophe.

Hunger has swept East Africa this year, spurred by poor rains and rising food prices. The U.N. estimates that 14 million people urgently need food aid, including 2.6 million in Somalia and more than 1 million in Kenya. In Ethiopia, 4.6 million people are at risk, and 75,000 children have severe acute malnutrition. Nearly a quarter-century ago, an outright famine led to Live Aid, an international fund-raising effort promoted by rock stars, which produced an outpouring of global generosity: millions of tons of food flooded into the country. Yet, ironically, that very generosity may have contributed to today’s crisis.

Over time, sustained food aid creates dependence on handouts and shifts focus away from improving agricultural practices to increase local food supplies. Ethiopia exemplifies the consequences of giving a starving man a fish instead of teaching him to catch his own. This year the U.S. will give more than $800 million to Ethiopia: $460 million for food, $350 million for HIV/AIDS treatment — and just $7 million for agricultural development. Western governments are loath to halt programs that create a market for their farm surpluses, but for countries receiving their charity, long-term food aid can become addictive. Why bother with development when shortfalls are met by aid? Ethiopian farmers can’t compete with free food, so they stop trying. Over time, there’s a loss of key skills, and a country that doesn’t have to feed itself soon becomes a country that can’t. All too often, its rulers use resources elsewhere — Ethiopia has one of Africa’s largest armies.

Why do we get aid so wrong? Because it feels so right. “The American people,” says U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto, “are simply not going to sit tight while they see children dying.” Nor should they: a starving man needs to be saved first, before he can be taught to fish — or farm. But as the world rallies again to Ethiopia’s aid, donors face a dilemma. “We’re not getting to the real problem,” says Yamamoto.

What would? Ethiopia thought it had found one answer. In 2005 a $1.4 billion five-year program identified 7.3 million Ethiopians unable to live without free food and gave them jobs in rural projects, such as roads and irrigation. The idea was to create livelihoods as well as to save lives. It was working, slowly. By this year, says a Western economist familiar with the effort, “a few thousand” had left the program and were making it on their own. Then came the double blow of drought and soaring food prices. Of the 7.3 million, 5.4 million suddenly needed extra food aid. The sobering lesson: even the best efforts to eliminate hunger are expensive, slow and uncertain of success. Depressing as it may be, this may not be the last time Ethiopia needs help.
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With reporting by Kassahun Addis/Addis Ababa

4 thoughts on “Ethiopia: Pain amid Plenty

  1. Ethiopia is a very rich land. Rich in human resources, rich in natural resources and most suitable land for agriculture which could feed the whole region without the need of rain.

    The cause of poverty and starvation is the woyane/tigre organization the enemy of Ethiopia and its people including the neighboring countries.
    Unless the bloody woyanes are wiped out from Africa the poverty, starvation is going to remain.
    Ethiopians muste get united to get rid of the blood thirsty woyanes instead of talking.

    Ethiopia Prevails.

  2. Weyane keep receiving money from the US and Europe in the name of food aid and HIV/AIDS cure however the non of the money is used for that instead Azeb ( meles sytanwi’s wife) and former Kinfe’s ex-wife who was killed by the set up meles. She makes only simple dramas and only promotion that does not fit or resolve the problems. Then the rest of the money goes straight to the pockets of meles sytanawi familes and relatives, of course other tplf officials gets their share as well, but guess what according to the news weyane has one of Africa’s largest army, at the same time weyane has created the largest famine place in Africa. Weyane has killed and harassed the largest number of people in Africa. Weyane officials own the largest businesses in Africa. Weayne officials are the only haters of their own country in Africa. Weyane Medias are the biggest liars in Africa. Weyane also have the largest secret service officers in Africa, that was established by the money weyane received in the name of Aid. Weyane officials are the only regime that has given Ethiopian land to neighborhood countries in Africa; actually most of the above atrocities of weyane are even the largest ones in the world as well.
    Death to weyane members and supporters!!!!!

  3. Alex Perry’s article seems to be heavily influenced by Kassahun’s fear of the Ethiopian regime’s persecution of the media. Otherwise, he would have mentioned the basic reason why there is continued famine despite Ethiopia’s vast water and agricultural resources; why famine does not occur in many other countries which have much less resources.

    The main reason for the continued grinding poverty and repeated famine in Ethiopia is, simply, the current regime’s policy of a socialist land ownership by the government, the lack of democracy and rule of law, the backward and stifling policy of a manipulative and a wicked tribalist (apartheid) policy, and the extremely heavy corruption: the governing party, TPLF, owns about 40 companies which are engaged in syphoning off the poor farmers’ very limited resources.

    The other huge problem facing 85% of the Ethiopian people living in the rural areas is the selfish and misguided policy of the western governments which sustain the brutal regime in Ethiopia by providing it with arms that it uses to murder its own people.

    The solution: as sure as night follows day, the Ethiopian people will get rid of the cruel regime as they did the previous inhuman Derg government.


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