Ethiopia: An Early Warning for a Famine in 2013
For the past several months, there has been much display of public sorrow and grief in Ethiopia. But not for the millions of invisible Ethiopians who are suffering and dying from starvation, or what the “experts” euphemistically call “acute food insecurity”. These Ethiopians are spread across a large swath of the country (see map above, “Estimated food security conditions, 3rd quarter 2012 (July-September 2012, Famine Early Warning Systems Network FEWS NET).
According to the international “experts”, starving people are not really starving. They are just going through “scientific” stages of food deprivation. In stage one or “Acute Food Insecurity”, people experience “short term instability (“shocks”) but are able to meet basic food needs without atypical coping strategies.” In stage two or “Stressed” situations, “food consumption is reduced but minimally adequate without having to engage in irreversible coping strategies.” In stage three or “Crises” mode, the food supply is “borderline adequate, with significant food consumption gaps and acute malnutrition.” In stage four “Emergency”, there is “extreme food consumption gaps resulting in very high acute malnutrition or excess mortality”. In stage five or “Catastrophe”, there is “near complete lack of food and/or other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” When are people in “famine” situations?
Rarely will the international experts, donors, multilateral organizations, NGOs or ruling regimes use the dreaded “F” word. In Ethiopia, the word “famine” has been deemed politically incorrect because it conjures up images of hordes of skeletal humans walking across the parched landscape, curled corpses of famine victims under acacia trees and children with distended bellies clutching their mothers at feeding camps. It also portends political upheavals. In their analysis of recurrent famines in Ethiopia, Professors Angela Raven-Roberts and Sue Lautze noted, “Declaring a famine was also a complicated question for the Ethiopian government. Famines have contributed to the downfall of Ethiopian regimes… Some humanitarian practitioners gauge their successes, in part, according to ‘famines averted’… President George W. Bush challenged his administration to ensure that famines were avoided during his tenure, a policy known as ‘No Famine on My Watch’; declaring the existence of a famine could be seen as a political shortcoming and, therefore, a political vulnerability.” The one exception to the official embargo on the use of the word “famine” is Wolfgang Fengler, a lead economist for the World Bank, who on August 17, 2011, definitively declared, “This [famine] crisis is man made. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.” In other words, the fundamental problem with “acute” or “chronic” malnutrition (short-term or long-term starvation) in Ethiopia is poor governance, not drought.
In January 2010, Mitiku Kassa, the agriculture minister in Ethiopia, declared, “In the Ethiopian context, there is no hunger, no famine… It is baseless [to claim hunger or famine], it is contrary to the situation on the ground. It is not evidence-based. The government is taking action to mitigate the problems.’ The late Meles Zenawi was equally dismissive: “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch — emergencies, but no famines.” If a technical definition of “Emergency” was intended, that would mean “extreme food consumption gaps resulting in very high acute malnutrition or excess mortality”. To the average observer, that sounds like old fashioned famine. But it is all a semantic game of euphemisms. Kassa made bold assurances that his regime had launched a food security program to “enable chronic food insecure households attain sufficient assets and income level to get out of food insecurity and improve their resilience to shocks…and halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015.”
In 2011, according to the U.N., some 12.4 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti were affected by chronic hunger and tens of thousands of people died from starvation (excuse me, “acute food insecurity”; or was it “acute malnutrition”?). Needless to say, there is not a single case in which starving Ethiopians have been surveyed to classify themselves into one of the five neat “scientific” categories. There is little doubt the vast majority of people presumed to be facing “acute malnutrition” would readily declare they are actually facing famine. But the fact of the matter is that the scope and magnitude of the “acute malnutrition” (or whatever fancy term is used to describe plain old starvation) in Ethiopia could never be independently verified because there is a conspiracy of silence between the ruling regime, international donors, NGOs and even some members of the international press who mindlessly parrot the official line and rarely go out into the affected areas to observe and document the food situation on a regular basis. So, the chorus of silent conspirators would chime in saying, “4.2 million people face acute malnutrition and need immediate life-saving help.” They would never say “4.2 million people are facing life ending famine”. The fact of the matter is that famine by any other fancy name is still famine and just as deadly!
The so-called “acute” (short-term) food shortages, malnutrition, insecurity, etc., are now a permanent (chronic) feature of Ethiopia’s food political economy. “Droughts” are blamed year after year for the suffering of millions of Ethiopians and year after year the regime’s response is to stand at the golden gates of international donors panhandling emergency humanitarian aid. The regime has done next to nothing to deal with the underlying problems aggravating the conditions leading to famine (see my July 2010 commentary “Apocalypse Now or in 40 Years?”), including high population growth, environmental degradation, low agricultural productivity caused by subsistence farming on fragmented small plots of land, government ownership of land, poor transportation and dysfunctional markets that drive up the real cost of food for the poor and other factors. Instead the regime’s solution has been to give away the most arable land in the country to so-called international investors who “lease” the land for commercial agriculture and export the harvest for sale on the international market while the local population starves. Alternatively, the regime relies on the so-called Productive Safety Nets Programmes (PSNP) which purportedly aim “to prevent asset depletion at the household level, create assets at the community level” by providing vulnerable populations income through public work projects and direct support. A joint undercover team from BBC’s Newsnight and the bureau of investigative journalism at London’s City University, separate investigations by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations have documented that PSNP resources have been used to reward supporters of the ruling party and punish members of opposition parties or non-supporters.
In 2012, to say that millions of Ethiopians will face starvation every year (disguised in the bureaucratic lingo of “acute malnutrition”, “food insecurity”, etc.) is like predicting the sun will rise tomorrow. But it is the long term prospects for “food insecurity” in Ethiopia that are unspeakably frightening. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau made the catastrophic prediction that Ethiopia’s population by 2050 will more than triple to 278 million. Considering the fact that Ethiopia cannot feed its 90 million people today, how could it possibly feed triple that number in less than forty ears? But such facts have not stopped the ruling regime from denying the existence of famine conditions and declaring a crushing victory on famine in just a few years. The late Meles Zenawi in 2011 declared: “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.”
Ethiopia and to a lesser extent many African countries face a formidable challenge in feeding their people in the next year or so. In 2011, Africa imported $50 billion worth of food from the U.S. and Europe. Food prices in Africa are 200-300 percent higher than global prices, which means higher profit margins for multinationals that produce and distribute food. With a steady growth in global population, the prospect of transforming Africa into vast commercialized farms is mouthwatering for global agribusinesses and speculators. One of the new “hunger games” that was recently proposed by the G-8 Summit is the “New Alliance for Food Security” aimed at accelerating the “transfer” of hundreds of millions of hectares of arable African land to Cargill, Dupont, Monsanto, Kraft, Unilever, Syngenta AG and the dozens of other signatory multinationals. Working jointly with Africa’s corrupt dictators, these multinationals aim to “liberate” the land from Africans just like the 19th Century scramble for Africa; but will they really liberate Africa from the scourge of hunger, famine, starvation and poverty?
2013 as a Year of “Catastrophic Global Food Crises”
Scientists are predicting that 2013 will be a “year of serious global crises” with significant food shortages and price hikes. The crises is triggered by recent droughts in the main grain producing countries including the U.S., Russia and Australia. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80 percent of the U.S. has undergone some drought or “abnormally dry” conditions this past summer. This has resulted in significant loss of corn, wheat and soybean crops and is expected to reduce exports of grains and trigger increased prices on the global commodities markets. This crises will inflict a double whammy on the food importing countries of Africa. Increases in commodity prices (food, energy) will have a disproportionate impact on large vulnerable populations in Ethiopia because the impoverished households typically spend more than half their total incomes on food.
Two decisive factors for the coming global food crises have been identified. According to a highly regarded recent study by the New England Complex Systems Institute, [NECSI] (a group of academics from Harvard and MIT who specialize in predicting how changes in environment can lead to political instability and upheavals), the global food crises is driven by efforts to replace food crops with biofuel crops and greedy global investors (e.g. hedge funds, investment banks, etc.) who speculate (bet) on commodity (food) prices. NECSI researchers Marco Lagi, Yavni Bar-Yam and Yaneer Bar-Yam argue that because “the American breadbasket has suffered debilitating droughts and high temperatures [this summer], leading to soaring corn and wheat prices in anticipation of a poor harvest, we are on the verge of another crisis, the third in five years, and likely to be the worst yet, capable of causing new food riots and turmoil on a par with the Arab Spring.” NECSI researchers predict that in 2013 a “spike in prices is inevitable.”
Catastrophic Famine and Food Riots in Ethiopia in 2013?
On November 24, 2010, the Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia announced that the number of people in need of emergency food aid had decreased from 5.2 million from earlier in the year to 2.3 million. Agriculture minister Kassa was quoted as saying that the “overall good performance of rains in 2010 and successful disaster management endeavors have reduced the disaster risks and vulnerabilities and decreased the number of food beneficiaries”. In April 2011, the Ethiopian regime appealed for emergency food assistance in the amount of USD 398.4 to meet the needs of some 3.2 million people. Later that year, officials reported that the number of needy people had increased to 4.5. On September 12, 2012, the agriculture ministry announced that 3.7 million Ethiopians will need humanitarian assistance between August and December 2012. According to Kassa, “The country needs 314 million metric tons of food to meet the gap.” Of the 3.7 million “food insecure people”, 47 percent of them are in Somali region followed by 27 percent in Oromiya, 10 percent in Tigray, and 7.7 percent in Amhara regional states.
Food prices have been soaring in Ethiopia for the past three years. In August 2011, the Ethiopian Central Statistics Agency reported food prices, which comprise more than half the Consumer Price Index, were up 47.4 percent from 2010. Transportation costs and housing were up more than 40 percent during the past year (the price of a liter of gasoline was 21 birr). In 2011, the regime imposed price controls on basic staples which led to shortages and was subsequently dropped after the controls proved to be ineffective in controlling inflation or increasing supply. Michael Atingi-Ego, head of the International Monetary Fund mission to Ethiopia in a press statement this past June noted, “For 2011/12, the mission projects real GDP growth at 7 percent and end-year inflation at about 22 percent… Gross official foreign reserves have declined to under two months of import coverage… Rebuilding gross official foreign reserves will provide a buffer against potential exogenous shocks given the current volatile global environment.” The fact of the matter is that when the “inevitable global food crisis” hits in 2013 with inflation running at over 20 percent and foreign reserves of two months, the only outcome to be expected is total disaster.
One does not need a crystal ball to predict famine in Ethiopia on the order of magnitude seen in mid-1970s and mid-1980s given the “inevitable price hikes” in the global food markets and the manifest lack of meaningful preparedness and remedial policies by the ruling regime. In a recent “confidential preliminary” report, Tadesse Kuma Worako of the Ethiopian Development Research Institute offers an analysis that exposes the multidimensional effects of food price increases on the population beyond mortality rates:
In Ethiopia, food expenditure of total household income estimated to account for more than 60 percent that any increase in food price has negative effect on the well-being of large majorities… Food-price increases are having serious consequences for the purchasing power of the poor. Affected groups include the rural landless, pastoralists, small-scale farmers and the urban poor. Despite the various causes of food crises, the hardships that individuals and communities face have striking similarities across disparate groups and settings. These include: inability to afford food, and related lack of adequate caloric intake, distress sales of productive assets, and migration of household members in search of work and reduced household spending on healthcare, education and other necessities… Ethiopia is a country which registers one of the highest child malnutrition rates in Sub-Saharan Africa. Child stunting, which is measured as abnormally low weight to height for age in children, is an indicator of poor long-run nutritional status. Although the prevalence of child stunting in Ethiopia decreased during the second half of the 2000s, the prevalence is still significantly high compared to developing countries average. Early childhood malnutrition (among children between six and 36 months) can cause irreversible damage to brain and motor-skill development, stifle human capital formation by causing delays in enrollment and later increasing the probability of grade repetition and drop-out, lower current health status, and increase in lifetime risk of chronic disease associated with the premature mortality.
Tadesse believes that proper policies could have averted much of the hardship on the population yet remains concerend about the decisive role of global food proices and the exchange rate. “The negative effects of high food prices could have been ameliorated if policy makers had been better informed about the food price situation. In the long-run however, domestic food and non-food prices are determined by the exchange rate and international food and goods prices which means that the exchange rate and international prices explain a large fraction of Ethiopia’s inflation.”
An Early Warning for Famine and Political Upheaval in Ethiopia in 2013
On December 13, 2011, NECSI scientists reportedly wrote to the US government alerting policy makers that global food prices were about to cross the threshold they had identified resulting in global political upheavals. Days later, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia and set the Middle East on fire in what is now known as the “Arab Spring”. Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1975 because he neglected to address the famine situation in the northern part of the country, which to this day suffers from famine or as they say “acute” and “chronic” malnutrition. The military socialist junta that ruled Ethiopia denied there was a famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and was overthrown in 1991 by those who are in power today. History shows that high food prices often trigger major political upheavals. In a study of the “food crises and political instability in North Africa and the Middle East”, NECSI scientists argue:
In 2011 protest movements have become pervasive in countries of North Africa and the Middle East. These protests are associated with dictatorial regimes and are often considered to be motivated by the failings of the political systems in the human rights arena. Here we show that food prices are the precipitating condition for social unrest and identify a specific global food price threshold for unrest. Even without sharp peaks in food prices we project that, within just a few years, the trend of prices will reach the threshold. This points to a danger of spreading global social disruption…. Conditions of widespread threat to security are particularly present when food is inaccessible to the population at large. In this case, the underlying reason for support of the system is eliminated, and at the same time there is “nothing to lose,” i.e. even the threat of death does not deter actions that are taken in opposition to the political order. Any incident then triggers death-defying protests and other actions that disrupt the existing order.
The government of PM Hailemariam Desalegn must come forward and explain how it expects to deal with the effects of the “inevitable global food crises” in Ethiopia in light of its depleted foreign reserves and how his government will avert potentially catastrophic famine in the country. Planning to panhandle more emergency food aid simply won’t cut it. Relying on Productive Safety Nets Programmes simply won’t do it. If the government of PM Hailemariam Desalegn cannot come with a better answer or alternative to the looming famine over the horizon, it should be prepared to face not only a hungry population but also an angry one!
*** Over the past few years, I have written numerous commentaries on famine in Ethiopia (click here and see footnotes for partial list).
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: