Ethiopia, where food aid sustains hunger
By Abebe Gellaw / July 23, 2010
Live Aid, which celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this month, was conceived after heart wrenching TV footages of dying children and emaciated adults weeping for the dead, as well as the abhorrent misery they had to face, globally brought into sharp focus the forgotten horrors of war and famine in Ethiopia.
Though it was too late to save nearly a million Ethiopians, who perished with unimaginable indignity during the 1984-85 famine, so many people across the globe reacted with tears and compassion as BBC correspondent Michael Buerk and the late cameraman Mohammed Amin brought the gruesome footages to TV screens across the world. Buerk described the scenes as “the closest thing to hell on earth.”
Deeply troubled by what they saw on TV, British musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure founded Band Aid in 1984 and organised the historic Live Aid concert on July 13, 1985, which was simultaneously held at Wembley Stadium in London and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. The charity event was broadcast live to 60 countries and was reportedly watched by nearly two billion people. That powerful marriage of music and charity at a global scale was so successful that Live Aid raised a huge amount of money that helped save the lives of millions of starving Ethiopians.
In fact, the famine has passed and the civil war in Northern Ethiopia, which was the root cause of the tragedy by making relief operations almost impossible, ended in 1991 with the fall of the military junta led by Mengistu Hailemariam. Subsequently, the victorious northern rebel groups, the Tigray People Liberation Front and the Eritrean People Liberation Front, set up separate tyrannical regimes in Asmara and Addis Ababa respectively.
Notwithstanding famine of biblical proportion has not occurred in the last 25 years, hunger is still stocking Ethiopia, which has become the biggest recipient of food aid in the world. Ethiopia’s biggest donor, the United States gives over 1 billion USD in aid annually to prop up the government, a key ally in the war on terror. According the U.S. State Department, the United States, the largest food aid contributor in the world, provided $862 million in assistance in the 2009 fiscal year. On top of that, it donated more than $374 million in food aid in the same year.
Twenty-five years after Live Aid, nearly 13 millions Ethiopians, i.e. one-sixth of the total population, estimated at 80 million, are facing hunger. Over 5.2 million people receive direct emergency food assistance while 7.8 million people are beneficiaries of a food-for-work scheme called productive safety net program. In Tigray alone, which was the epicentre of the last famine, half a million households, over three-quarter of the population, are dependant on the scheme.
There is no doubt that food aid will continue to be part and parcel of the aid package to disaster-prone countries like Ethiopia. But the fundamental problem is that food aid is sustaining hunger in stead of eradicating it. Ethiopia is a classic example of this failure. Food aid has been institutionalized and permanently embedded into the economy. Likewise, control over relief aid has proven to be a powerful political weapon for the ruling party, which claimed to have won 99.6 percent parliamentary seats in the recent national elections. It appears that the Ethiopian government has convinced itself that feeding the starving millions is the responsibility of faraway rich countries.
More tragically, Ethiopia’s chronic hunger can be attributed to corruption and lack of responsible political leadership than erratic rainfall, which is a fact of life in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia is one of the fewest countries in the world where land cannot be sold or bought. “The right to ownership of rural and urban land is exclusively vested in the state,” declares the constitution. But the trouble is that the state has been amalgamated with the ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) led by Mr. Zenawi. TPLF still runs the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), which was a major recipient of Live Aid money, a substantial part of which was diverted to its war effort during the height of famine, according to a recent BBC investigation.
Set up in 1995, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), another interesting brainchild of the TPLF and run by the Prime Minister’s wife, Azeb Mesfin, owns over thirty-five multimillion dollars companies. EFFORT, which is more akin to a monopolistic business conglomerate than a charitable entity, was launched with a start-up capital of $150 million, according to Canadian journalist and scholar Dr. John Young, who chronicled the history of the TPLF in his penetrating book, Peasant Revolution in Ethiopia. But the fact of the matter is that even veteran members of the TPLF, including former senior officials, Defence Minister, Seye Abreha and Tigray administrator, Gebru Asrat have admitted that a significant amount of money from relief aid was one of the sources of the start-up fund that enabled the TPLF to launch its companies.
Narrow nationalists within the TPLF believe that imposing their superiority is panacea to everyone. A high ranking official told Reporter newspaper that EFFORT will soon launch a $120 million (well over a billion birr) project in Tigray. According to the official, the gangster capitalist front has already shortlisted five foreign companies bidding to take the lucrative contract. But even such disproportionately unfair projects will not ensure Ethiopia’s food security dilemma as they are only depleting funding that should have gone to independent agribusinesses.
The tragic food aid dependency of Ethiopia, where the annual defence budget is seventy times more than funds allocated for irrigation projects yearly, can only reveal a serious structural deficiency that needs a complete overhaul. This hunger-ravaged country, which was once dubbed the water tower of Africa, is not poor in terms of water resources. The country generates nearly 85 per cent of the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt and the Sudan, but has only utilized less than 3 percent of its irrigable land while poor peasant farmers survive on food donated by countries that have managed to utilize their water resources more wisely and efficiently.
In recent years, the government has adopted a new strategy of attracting foreign investors to develop the agricultural sector. That has even turned out to be problematic and controversial as Chinese, Indian and Saudi companies are leading the land grab rush by securing hundreds of thousands of irrigable virgin land for cheap to grow food in a hungry country not for the local market but for export and to feed their own people. According to, The Great Land Grab: Rush for world’s farmland, a report published last year by the U.S.-based policy think tank, the Oakland Institute, the trend will only aggravate food insecurity for the poor in countries like Ethiopia, where food aid is just sustaining chronic hunger and rampant malnutrition. If food aid is failing the very people it was supposed to help, it is confounding why key stake holders are sustaining such a detrimental policy.
Ethiopia’s perennial food aid dependency is not a direct result of lack of water or land, resources which are abundant and being given away to rich foreigners. It is mainly caused by a highly myopic and corrupt regime which is squeezing maximum profit out the hunger, suffering and abject poverty of tens of millions of Ethiopians. The Meles regime has neither the commitment nor the right mindset to take Ethiopia out of the quagmire of chronic hunger.
The writer, Abebe Gellaw, can be reached at email@example.com