It is hard to talk about Ethiopia these days in non-apocalyptic terms. Millions of Ethiopians are facing their old enemy again for the third time in nearly forty years. The Black Horseman of famine is stalking that ancient land. A year ago, Meles Zenawi’s regime denied there was any famine. Only ‘minor problems’ of spot shortages of food which will ‘be soon brought under control,’ it said dismissively. The regime boldly predicted a 7-10 percent increase in the annual harvest over 2007. Simon Mechale, head of the country’s Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency, proudly declared: ‘Ethiopia will soon fully ensure its food security.’… Zenawi’s regime has been downplaying and double-talking the famine situation. It is too embarrassed to admit the astronomical number of people facing starvation in a country which, by the regime’s own accounts, is bursting at the seams from runaway economic development.
I concluded with a rhetorical question:
Images of the human wreckage of Ethiopia’s rampaging famine will soon begin to make dramatic appearances on television in Western living rooms. The Ethiopian government will be out in full force panhandling the international community for food aid. Compassion fatigued donors may or may not come to the rescue. Ethiopians, squeezed between the Black Horseman [Scriptural metaphor for famine] and the Noisome Beast [Scriptural metaphor for evil beasts that terrify the land], will once again cry out to the heavens in pain and humiliation as they await for handouts from a charitable world. Isn’t that a low down dirty shame for a proud people to bear?
In January 2010, I followed up with another commentary titled Ethiopia’s “Silently” Creeping Famine challenging the “famine deniers.” At the time, Mitiku Kassa, a top official of Zenawi’s regime had 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.’ Kassa issued 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.’ Zenawi was entirely 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.”
It is now July 2011 and the Black Horseman is standing at the gate. No more “emergencies”, just plain old-fashioned famine. This time it is the international aid agencies that are frantically sounding the 5-alarm famine. They warn that if donors do not provide substantial emergency food aid to 12 million people now, there will be famine of Biblical-proportions in Ethiopia and other neighboring countries unseen in the last 60 years. UNICEF warns that “millions of children and women are at risk from death and disease unless a rapid and speedy response is put into action.”
The silently creeping famine was visible to anyone who bothered to study the periodic reports of the aid agencies (and read between the lines) and regularly monitored the “famine early warning systems” over the past few years. But until now, no aid agency or donor country could force itself to use the “F” word. Political correctness had trumped the truth and the welfare of millions. The very aid agencies that are now frothing at the mouth sounding the alarm of a doomsday famine were describing the problem for the last few years in terms of “severe malnutrition”, “food shortages”, “acute food security phases” “food insecurity, scarcity, insufficiency and deprivation”, “chronic dietary deficiency”, “endemic malnutrition” and other clever phrases. They simply could not call a spade a spade. But famine by any other name is still famine. The “severe malnutrition” of yesterday has become today’s famine silently spreading to consume 12 million people.
Apocalypse in 40 Years?
Lately, everybody has been talking about facts and figures. It’s been all about percentages. Meles Zenawi says between now and 2015 Ethiopia’s economy will be growing at 12-15 percent a year. Recently, he told his party members: “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.” That plan is anchored in what Zenawi calls “agricultural development–led industrialization” (ADLI), which purports to focus intensively on agriculture by technologically boosting the low level of productivity of small scale farmers and commercially linking them to the non-agricultural (industrial) sector. Zenawi says by 2015 extreme poverty in Ethiopia will be cut by 50 percent along with hunger (“severe malnutrition”) consistent with the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. The Ethiopian currency has been devalued by 20 percent over the past year. The annual inflation rate is galloping at 34.7 percent according to official reports (likely much higher). The International Monetary Fund predicts Ethiopia will likely have economic growth of 7.5 percent in 2011. On the political side, Zenawi said he won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent. But lost in the stacks of fantasy percentages is a little big 3 percent that will ultimately determine the survivability of the Ethiopia people.
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau had frightening predictions for Ethiopia, Nigeria and India. By 2050, India will be the most populous nation in the world, bypassing China sometime in the mid-2020s. Nigeria’s current population of 166 million will explode to 402 million. In just four decades, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world.
Ethiopia’s population growth has been spiraling upwards for decades. In 1967, the population was 23.5 million. It increased to 51 million in 1990 and by 2003, it had reached 68 million. In 2008, that number increased to 80 million. The Census Bureau estimates Ethiopia’s population today at 91 million. Since 1995, the average annual rate of population growth has remained at over 3 percent.
Every government and regime in Ethiopia over the past one-half century has blamed famine on “acts of God.” For the last two decades, the current regime has blamed “food shortages”, “chronic or severe malnutrition”, “food insecurity”, etc., on “poor and erratic rains,” “drought conditions,” “deforestation and soil erosion,” “overgrazing,” and other “natural factors”. Zenawi’s regime even had the brazen audacity to blame “Western indifference” and “apathy” in not providing timely food aid for the suffering of starving Ethiopians. There is not a single instance in which any Ethiopian government or regime has ever taken even partial responsibility for food shortages, extreme malnutriion or failure to act and prevent starvation and famine.
The issue of “food security” aside, the central question is: Does Zenawi have a policy to deal with the little big 3 percent problem?
In 1993, Zenawi’s “Transitional Government of Ethiopia” in its “National Population Policy of Ethiopia” (NPPE) declared that “its major goal [was] the harmonization of the rate of population growth and the capacity of the country for the development and rational utilization of natural resources thereby creating conditions conductive to the improvement of the level of welfare of the population.”
Among the major objectives of the NPPE included “closing the gap between high population growth and low economic productivity through planned reduction of population growth…, reducing the rate to urban migration, reducing the current total fertility rate of 7.7 children per woman to approximately 4.0 by the year 2015… mounting an effective country wide population information and education programme addressing issues pertaining to small family size and its relationship with human welfare and environmental security.”
Among the strategies to be used in achieving these objectives included “expanding clinical and community based contraceptive distribution services, raising the minimum age at marriage for girls from the current lower age limit of 15 to, at least, 18 years, making population and family life related education and information widely available via formal and informal media”, facilitating delivery of population and family planning related services by non-governmental organizations and changing the law “to remove unnecessary restrictions pertaining to the advertisement, propagation and popularization of diverse conception control methods.”
Given the fact that the average annual rate of population growth in Ethiopia has remained at over 3 percent since 1995,commenting on the NPPE is belaboring the obvious.
Will There Be Ethiopia in 2050?
Whether Ethiopia survives as a viable nation in 2050 free of war, disease, pestilence and famine will not depend on an imaginary 15 percent economic growth or a ludicrous 99.6 percent election victory. It will depend on what is done to deal with the little big 3 percent problem. In other words, overpopulation poses the single most critical problem and decisve issue in Ethiopia today and the years to come.
Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century British economist argued that human population, if unchecked, tends to grow much faster than the capacity of the land to produce food. He explained that population can be controlled through “preventive checks” (such as family planning, wide use of contraceptives to slow growth, marriage at later age) or “positive checks” (mortality caused by war, disease, plague, disaster). The bottom line is that if Ethiopia cannot adequately feed, clothe and shelter 90 million of its people today, there is no way on earth she can do so for 278 million in just 40 years. If the “Malthusian catastrophe” is what is looming on the Ethiopian horizon, the outcome is predictable and certain: massive starvation and famine, extreme overcrowding, endemic poverty, total depletion of natural resources and massive environmental degradation. Widespread and extreme civil strife, conflict over scarce resources and epidemics will complete the grim picture.
What needs to be done is pretty clear. As the Indian economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has convincingly argued, the best way to avert famines (and simultaneously deal with the underlying problem of overpopulation) is by institutionalizing multiparty democracy and strengthening human rights: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy” because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”
Ethiopia’s famine today is a famine borne of “food scarcity” as much as it is a famine borne of a scarcity of democracy and good governance. Ethiopians are famished for democracy, starved of human rights, thirst for the rule of law, ache for accountability of those in power and yearn to breathe free from the chokehold of dictatorship. But after two decades of one-man, one-party rule, we do not even see the ghost of democracy on Ethiopia’s parched landscape. We can only see a malignant and entrenched dictatorship that continues to cling to power like ticks on a milk cow; and in the dark and gloomy 40-year Ethiopian horizon, we see the specter of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse aiming their swords, spears and arrows against a defenseless population of 278 million. Our only shield is a genuine multiparty democracy that functions under the rule of law!
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/
“Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” said Sir Walter Scott, the novelist and poet. Is there “famine” in Ethiopia, or not? Are large numbers of people “starving” there, or not? Is convulsive hunger a daily reality for the majority of Ethiopians, or not?
No one wants to use the “F” word to describe the millions of starving Ethiopians. In August 2008, the head of the dictatorship in Ethiopia flatly denied the existence of famine in a Time Magazine interview. Meles Zenawi explained, “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.” Last week, the dictatorship’s “Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development”, Mitiku Kassa, reacting defensively to the latest Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) projections, was equally adamant: “In the Ethiopian context, there is no hunger, no famine… It is baseless [to claim famine], it is contrary to the situation on the ground. It is not evidence-based. The government is taking action to mitigate the problems.” This past October, Kassa claimed everything was under control because his government has 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.”
But there is manifestly a “silent” famine and a “quiet” hunger haunting the land under Zenawi’s “watch.” In April, 2009, Zenawi gave an interview to David Frost of Al Jazeera in which he openly admitted that famine is rearing its ugly head once again in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. Frost asked: “Is there any danger that as a result of this [current] crises there could be famine like there was famine in 1984?” Zenawi responded:
Well, the famine of 1984 was precipitated by drought in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in general. The famine that could emerge as a result of this [current] crises is likely to be silent across the continent in terms of not swaths of territory that are drought affected but people suffering hunger quietly across the continent. That is the most likely scenario as I see it.
So, if the famine Horseman of the Apocalypse is haunting Ethiopia and the continent, “silently” and “quietly”, why are we not sounding the alarm, ringing the bells and hollering for bloody help? Why are we quiet about the “quiet” hunger and silent about the “silent” famine enveloping Ethiopia today? Why?
It is mind-boggling that no one is making a big deal about the fact that famine and hunger are back in the saddle once more in Ethiopia. Ethiopians need help, and they need a lot of it fast and now. Of course, nothing more depressing than the sight, smell and experience of famine and hunger. For the second part of the 20th Century, much of the world believed the words “Ethiopia” and “famine” were synonymous. But it is unconscionable and criminal for officials to avoid using the “F” word to describe the forebodingly bleak food situation in Ethiopia today because they are concerned it would cast a “negative image” on them. Even the international experts have joined the local officials in boycotting the use of the “F” word. Just last week, the U.S.-funded FEWSNET declared that the majority of Ethiopians will be facing “food insecurity” (not hunger, not starvation, not famine) in the next six months. According to FEWSNET, because of poor harvests from the summer rains in 2009
as well as poor water availability and pasture regeneration in northern pastoral zones” [and coupled]with two consecutive poor belg cropping seasons… high staple food prices, poor livestock production, and reduced agricultural wages, [there will be an] elevated food insecurity over the coming six months [particularly in the] eastern marginal cropping areas in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia, pastoral areas of Afar and northern and southeastern Somali region, Gambella region, and most low-lying areas of southern and central SNNPR…. In most areas of the country, food insecurity during the first half of 2010 is projected to be significantly worse than during the same period in 2009… Food security in eastern marginal cropping areas will likely deteriorate even further between July and September 2010. Overall, humanitarian assistance needs are expected to be very high.
Is it not a low-down dirty shame for international organizations, political leaders, officials and bureaucrats to use euphemisms to hide the ugly truth about famines and mass-scale hunger? These heartless crooks have invented a lexicography, a complete dictionary of mumbo-jumbo words and phrases to conceal the public fact that large numbers of people in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa are dying simply because they have nothing or very little food to eat. They talk about “food insecurity ”, “food scarcity”, “food insufficiency”, “food deprivation”, “severe food shortages”, “chronic dietary deficiency”, “endemic malnutrition” and so on just to avoid using the “F” word. FEWSNET has invented a ridiculous system of neologism (new words) to describe hungry people. Accordingly, there are people who are generally food secure, moderately food insecure, highly food insecure, extremely food insecure and those facing famine (see map above). Translated into ordinary language, these nonsensical categories seem to equate those who eat once a day as generally food secure, followed by the moderately secure who eat one meal every other day, the highly insecure who eat once every three days, the extremely insecure who eat once a week, and those in famine who never eat and therefore die from lack of food.
For crying out loud, what is wrong with calling a spade a spade!? Why do officials and experts beat around the bush when it comes to talking about hunger as hunger, starvation as starvation and famine as famine? Do they think they can sugarcoat the piercing pangs of hunger, the relentless pain of starvation and the total devastation of famine with sweet bureaucratic words and phrases?
As officials and bureaucrats quibble over which fancy words and phrases best describe the dismal food situation, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are dying from plain, old fashioned hunger, starvation and famine. The point is there is famine in Ethiopia. One could disagree whether there are pockets of famine or large swaths of famine-stricken areas. One could argue whether 4.9, 6, 16 or 26 million people are affected by it. But there is no argument that there is famine; and this is not a matter for speculation, conjecture or exaggeration. It can be verified instantly. Let the international press go freely into the “drought affected” and “food insecure” areas and report what they find. For at least the past two years, they have been banned from entering these areas. Is there any doubt that they would reveal irrefutable evidence of famine on the scale of 1984-85 if they were allowed free access to these areas?
Obviously, it is embarrassing for a regime wafting on the euphoria of an “11 percent economic growth over the past 6 years” to admit famine. It is bad publicity for those claiming runaway economic growth to admit millions of their citizens are in the iron grip of a runaway famine. If the “F” word is used, then the donors would start asking questions, relief agencies would be scurrying to set up feeding stations, the international press would be demanding accountability and all hell could break loose. That is why the dictatorship in Ethiopia reacts reflexively and defensively whenever the “F” word is mentioned. They froth at the mouth condemning the international press for making “baseless” claims of famine, and castigate them for perpetuating “negative images” of the country merely because the international press insists on finding out verifiable facts about the food situation in the country. The fact of the matter is that unless action is not taken soon to openly and fully admit that large swaths of the Ethiopian countryside are in a state of famine, we should soon expect to see splattered across the globe’s newspapers pictures of Ethiopian infants with distended bellies, the skeletal figures of their nursing mothers and the sun-baked remains of the aged and the feeble on the parched land.
Denial of famine by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes is nothing new. During 1959-61, nearly 30 million Chinese starved to death in Mao’s Great Leap Forward program which uprooted millions of Chinese from the countryside for industrial production. Mao never acknowledged the existence of famine, nor did he make a serious effort to secure foreign food aid. Ironically, the Chinese Revolution had promised the peasants an end to famine. The Soviet Famines of 1921 and 1932-3 are classic case studies in official failure to prevent famine.
Why is it so difficult for dictatorships and other non-democratic systems to admit famine, make it part of the public discussion and debate and unabashedly seek help? Part of it has to do with image maintenance. Official admission of famine is the ultimate proof of governmental ineptitude and depraved indifference to the suffering of the people. But there is a more compelling explanation for dictators not to admit famine conditions in their countries. It has to do with a fundamental disconnect between the dictators and their subjects. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argued,
The direct penalties of a famine are borne by one group of people and political decisions are taken by another. The rulers never starve. But when a government is accountable to the local populace it too has good reasons to do its best to eradicate famines. Democracy, via electoral politics, passes on the price of famines to the rulers as well.
An examination of the history of famine in Ethiopia lends support to Sen’s theory. Emperor Haile Selassie lost his crown and life over famine in the early 1970s. He said he was just not aware of it. The military junta’s (Derg) denied there was famine in 1984/85 while it waged war and experimented with the long-discredited practice of collectivized agriculture. That famine accelerated the downfall of the Derg. The current dictators have opted to remain willfully blind, deaf and mute to the “silent” famine and “quiet” hunger that are destroying the people.
The official response to famines in Ethiopia over the past four decades has followed a predictable pattern: Step 1: Never plan to prevent famine. Step 2: Deny there is famine when there is famine. Step 3: Condemn and vilify anyone who sounds the early alarm warning on famine. Step 4: Admit “severe food shortages” (not famine) and blame the weather, and God for not sending rain. Step 5: Make frantic international emergency calls and announce that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are dying from famine. Step 6: Guilt-trip Western donors into providing food aid. Step 7: Accuse and vilify Western donors for not providing sufficient food aid and blame them for a runaway famine. Step 8: Tell the world they knew nothing about a creeping famine until it suddenly hit them like a thunderbolt. Step 9: Put on an elaborate dog-and-pony show about their famine relief efforts. Step 10: Go back to step 1. This has been the recurrent pattern of famine response in Ethiopia: Always too little, too late.
The fact of the matter is that famines are entirely avoidable as Sen has argued with substantial empirical evidence.
Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence … they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threaten by famines can have.
There is another question that needs to be answered in connection with the “severe food shortages” in Ethiopia. Why are millions of fertile hectares of land under “lease” or sold outright to foreigners to feed millions continents away when millions of Ethiopians are starving? To paraphrase Sen, such a thing would be unthinkable in a functioning multiparty democracy!
With no pun intended, the “breadcrumbs” of famine (or as they euphemistically call it the “early warning signs”) are plain to see. There have been successive crop failures and poor rainfall; water availability is limited and staple food prices are soaring; livestock production is poor as is pasture regeneration. Deforestation, land degradation, overpopulation, pestilence and disease are widespread in the land. If it quacks like a duck, swims like a duck and walks like a duck, it is famine!
If those whose duty is to sound the alarm and get help are not willing to do their part, it is the moral responsibility and duty of every Ethiopian and compassionate human being anywhere to create public awareness of Ethiopia’s creeping famine and call for HELP! HELP! HELP!
“There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy.” Amartya Sen
(Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.)