In a Land of Forgotten Promises, Hunger Keeps Haunting Millions

Dec 23 , 2023.

The scars of protracted drought are evident in an unforgiving landscape, parched and barren. In the arid expanse, six children, their childhoods usurped by survival, forage in the soil, not in play, but in a sad quest for sustenance — a telling scene of the dire straits their community faces. The greenness of life has long fled from these fields in Tigray Regional State, leaving behind only the spectre of hunger.

In the distance, a lone cattle, skeletal in form, grazes listlessly — an emblem of the land's depleted bounty. Closer to the fore, a middle-aged woman etched with the lines of hardship, scratched into the earth. Her efforts, more an act of desperation than agriculture, sought to unearth anything remotely edible. She shared her plight with a journalist: her empty home and markets beyond the reach of her impoverished means.

Adjacent to this scene of quiet struggle, another woman recounts a tale steeped in loss — the death of her sister to famine. A tragedy not just of personal grief, but one that leaves behind orphans, and a community haplessly trying to overcome the relentless grip of hunger. They are some of the two million people in Tigray facing starvation, as disclosed by the regional authorities.

A broader perspective reveals a more harrowing picture that over 20 million Ethiopians across various regional states require urgent humanitarian assistance. These heartbreaking figures remind Ethiopians and the world that the poster child for economic growth for two decades finds itself yet again at a juncture of a humanitarian crisis. The spectre of famine, a grim reaper in its historical narrative, looms large over its arid fields and among its bulging population. Despair is unfolding across the country, where skeletal cattle graze barren lands and children, far from the carefree innocence of youth, scour the soil for food.

In its recent humanitarian estimate, the United Nations has uncovered the magnitude of the crisis. To feed a third of those in need, a daunting 2.9 billion dollars is required in 2024. The figure is accompanied by another distressing report from UNICEF, disclosing that up to 1.8 million children with disabilities are in dire need of immediate aid. These numbers quantify the crisis and stress the colossal failure of national and international mechanisms to prevent the recurrence of famine in Ethiopia.

The recurrence of famine in Ethiopia, reminiscent of the mid-1980s tragedy, should serve as a powerful reminder of the unlearned lessons. The international solidarity and mobilisation of resources witnessed during that era, marked by global concerts and airdrops of food, are conspicuously absent today. Politics, it appears, has overshadowed humanity, with international communities failing to respond effectively to Ethiopians' plight.

Dependence on rainfed agriculture makes Ethiopians particularly vulnerable to climate shocks. The Horn of Africa region has experienced five consecutive years of poor rainfall, compounding the effects of internal conflicts and mass displacements. The tragic confluence of natural and human-induced factors has escalated a drought into a famine, exposing human failings.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics, would likely view the current crisis through the lens of his seminal thesis published in 1981, three years before the "Great Famine" in Ethiopia. Sen argued that famine is less about food scarcity and more about economic, social, and political structures that fail to ensure equal access to food. His research, informed by studies of famines in Bengal (1940s) and Ethiopia (1970s), brought to light that famine results from inequitable economic structures, policy misjudgments, and social disparities.

These structural failings manifest in Ethiopia's lack of inclusive political and equitable economic systems. They translate to a failure of institutions and public policies to ensure equitable food distribution and safeguard vulnerable populations.

The current crisis echoes the 1984-85 famine, where civil war, social and economic disparities, and delayed global responses. Now, as in the past, major donors like USAID and the World Food Program (WFP) have blamed mismanagement and theft in suspending aid, harming the victims instead. Federal and regional officials' alleged diversion of aid, which hindered relief efforts for six months, showed the urgent need for transparency and accountability. Restoring donor trust is imperative, especially in the face of historic funding shortfalls.

While immediate humanitarian aid is essential, it is but a temporary response.

A long-term strategy would focus on structural changes to address the root causes of famine. Sen’s advocacy for inclusive economic growth and equitable distribution urged the need for policies beyond increasing food production to ensuring that growth benefits all segments of society.

The rural population, constituting around 80pc of the workforce, has been unable to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. This should call for a comprehensive overhaul of policies about food production, land management, and public administration. Any political force trying to rule the country ignoring the plight of the rural population can only do that at its eventual peril.

Learning from past mistakes, such as mishandling the drought in Borena, Oromia Regional State, is crucial. Prompt recognition and response to crises, coupled with a focus on inclusive development, can prevent such disasters from spiralling out of control. The federal government’s acknowledgement of the crisis in 2015 was a step in the right direction, but current conditions demand more than recognition.

It requires a paradigm shift in how Ethiopians perceive and approach the recurrent food security problems. Although the agricultural sector is a foundation of the economy, it has remained vulnerable to climatic shocks and has been largely unaffected by modernisation efforts. To break the cycle of famine, Ethiopia needs to modernise its agricultural practices, embracing technology and sustainable farming methods that can withstand environmental fluctuations.

Political leaders at the helm of power need to show clarity on the land question. Land is more than an economic resource; it is entangled with social and cultural identities. Hence, any policy change should be sensitive to these dimensions, ensuring that land reforms support smallholder farmers and not inadvertently displace or disenfranchise them.

Ethiopia's experience also shows the importance of political stability and governance in ensuring food security. The ongoing violent conflicts and political unrest in various regions, including Tigray, have significantly contributed to the current crisis. A peaceful resolution to these conflicts and a move towards a more inclusive and stable political environment is essential for long-term solutions to take root.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 23,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1234]

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