Ethiopian Famine 25th Anniversary – Questions and Answers

As the world begins to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia, ONE looks at the causes of the famine, the current food crisis in Ethiopia, how the country has changed in the past quarter century, and what needs to happen now.

What happened in Ethiopia in 1984-1985?

The 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia caused an estimated one million deaths and made millions more destitute. The crisis was focused in the northern highlands of the country where record low rainfalls were compounded by the effects of civil war. The Marxist Derg regime was diverting almost half of its national budget to military spending in its war with Tigrayan rebels from the north while enforcing disastrous agricultural policies. The scale of the disaster was evident by mid 1984, but it was the BBC television news reports of Michael Buerk and cameraman Mohamed Amin, broadcast on October 23 and 24 1984, that galvanised a huge international response. Buerk described the scenes of dying families huddled in feeding camps as “a biblical famine in the 20th century”. Singer Bob Geldof organised musicians to form the group Band Aid and recorded the “Do they know it’s Christmas?” single in November. This was followed by USA for Africa’s single “We are the World” in March 1985. In July 1985 Geldof organised the Live Aid fundraising concerts which were watched by more than 400 million people worldwide.

How bad is the current crisis in Ethiopia and the wider region?

Ethiopia is currently suffering from a serious food crisis. More than six million people need emergency food aid. Another 7.5 million are receiving government aid in return for work on community projects as part of the National Productive Safety Net Program. Across the wider region, 23 million people are badly affected. Oxfam, which has launched an emergency appeal, says this is the worst food crisis in a decade. More frequent droughts as a result of climate change have compounded deep-seated structural issues in a region where extreme poverty is widespread.  In Ethiopia, malnutrition is rising among children, and there are outbreaks of life threatening diarrhoea.  The price of staple foodstuffs has risen beyond the reach of many poor families.  The situation is not currently a famine – as defined technically by the numbers of people dying each day from hunger related causes – but it is serious.  The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) says its appeal is underfunded. It is being forced to cut emergency rations and in some cases suspend them. Between now and the end of the year, heavy rains are forecast because of the El Niño effect. Humanitarian experts say this could actually worsen the situation, causing floods and disease among people and livestock.

Why is Ethiopia still hungry 25 years after Live Aid?

While there is currently a high level of suffering in Ethiopia and surrounding countries, today’s crisis is not comparable to the famine of 25 years ago. Ethiopia has changed dramatically since then.  It is no longer at war and no longer ruled by a Marxist regime. While the current government still has a long way to go in terms of political freedom, there has been progress in developing famine early warning systems, local government structures and aid delivery mechanisms.  But the population has doubled in the past quarter century to 80 million, putting a greater strain on resources. The country’s infrastructure is still poor and domestic agricultural markets could work much better. For example there have been instances of surplus maize in the south and south-west of the country while there are high prices and shortages in the North and East. Shipping food aid from overseas (the majority of it come from the US) is costly and inefficient.

What needs to happen to remedy this situation?

Vulnerable people in Ethiopia – and the wider region – need urgent help now to get through this crisis. Donor governments need to immediately fund the World Food Programme’s appeal for food aid for Ethiopia which has an estimated shortfall of US$435 million between now and March 2010. But Ethiopia also needs concerted longer term investments in farming to increase productivity and make it better able to cope with its erratic weather. Agriculture in Africa has been underfunded for years. Recently there has been some progress on the part of African governments and donors to start to turn this situation around. The L’Aquila  food security initiative announced at the G8 Summit in Italy in July committed the G8 nations to channel US$20bn over three years to famers in poor countries like Ethiopia. The funding would be directed in support of nationally designed plans to increase farm production. Donor governments must now quickly clarify how much new money they will contribute to the initiative and how it will be spent. In Ethiopia the money could help smallholder farmers get access to agricultural advice, credit, fertiliser and improved weather resistant seeds. It could improve farmers’ access to markets to sell their surplus produce and increase their incomes.

How is climate change affecting Ethiopia?

Aid agencies such as Oxfam working with communities on the ground in Ethiopia report that the intervals between regular droughts are becoming shorter. A century ago the country suffered from drought every 10-15 years. By 1984 there were droughts roughly every 8 years but recently there have been droughts every couple of years with 2006, 2008 and 2009 all drought years.  If the temperature rises within the predicted scale, this could result in crop damage, malnutrition, outbreaks of disease, land degradation and damage to infrastructure. The country will need substantially increased funding to cope with the impacts of this trend.  Ethiopia emits 0.07 metric tonnes of CO2 per capita annually meaning only 6 countries (all African) emit less. The injustice of the suffering caused by climate change is clear.  The Ethiopian government has launched a national survey on climate change to detail the specific challenges people are facing. Governments need to act at the critical UN climate change summit in Copenhagen in December, to halt the march of global warming that is going to hit the innocent first and hardest, and to fund their adaptation needs.

What did all the appeals of the 1980s achieve for Ethiopia?

The Band Aid/Live Aid initiatives marked the greatest outpouring of collective compassion for a faraway people the world had seen. These initiatives raised £150 million and saved thousands of lives. They galvanised a generation in the UK, not just to give money but to get involved in the fight against poverty. Band Aid Trust projects have had long term impact on the ground in many areas.  ONE’s Executive Director Jamie Drummond recently visited the Daereda Valley in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, a region where he worked in 1995.  At that time, the valley had been denuded of trees and greenery by drought and a desperate population; fertile topsoil had been washed away in flash floods. Since then, “food for work” projects funded by the Band Aid Trust have transformed the valley. In return for food aid, community volunteer groups have planted trees, contoured hillsides, and dug ponds and damns. Now the river flows all year, the land’s fertility is restored and its productivity greatly increased.   This is just one example of a longer term project that has been replicated across the region. It is aimed at supporting communities to build up their resilience to climatic shocks, and helping prevent food crises rather than reacting after the fact.

How has development campaigning changed in the past 25 years?

The powerful images from the famine of the 1980s touched a generation in the West and inspired many people to get involved in international development.  The Band Aid/Live Aid generation – both the public and musicians such as Bob Geldof and Bono – went on to form the Jubilee movement for debt cancellation, and spearhead the Make Poverty History and Live 8 campaigns of 2005.  These campaigns reflect the shift in development campaigning since the 1980s from purely raising money to addressing the root causes of poverty, a shift from ideas of charity to ones of justice. Although the 25th anniversary of the Ethiopian crisis is a time to reflect on the reasons behind the famine and enduring hunger in the region, it also coincides with other, more hopeful events.  The anniversary of the Live Aid concerts, in July 2010, will happen at the same time as Africa’s first ever football World Cup in South Africa.  The World Cup will be watched by billions around the world and is being viewed by many campaign groups as an opportunity to showcase all that is vibrant and dynamic in today’s Africa, as well as achieving specific goals such as getting children into school and stamping out malaria.

What has changed in Ethiopia and Africa as a whole since 1984-85?

A huge amount has changed in Ethiopia and across Africa in the past 25 years, but particularly in the past decade there have been significant development gains. In Ethiopia, malaria deaths have been halved in two years and 90% of children are now enrolled in primary school, up from just 37% in 1996. Across sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, 34 million more children are now in school and more than three million people are on life saving anti-retroviral AIDS drugs. In the decade before the global economic crisis hit, 18 African countries were registering economic growth rates of five per cent or more.  These gains are now under threat because of the impacts of the economic crisis and climate change.  Poor governance is also still a problem across too much of Africa. In Ethiopia, political and press freedom is limited and humanitarian aid restricted in certain parts of the country.

Anniversary diary dates

October 23/24 1984 – Michael Buerk and Mohamed Amin’s BBC reports
November 25 1984 – ‘Feed the World’ Band Aid single recorded
November 29 1984 – Single released, went to top of charts
March 7 1985, “We are the World” single released by ‘USA for Africa’
July 13 1985 – Live Aid concerts London, Philadelphia, Sydney, The Hague, Moscow
July 2 2005 – Live 8 concerts in UK, France, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Canada, South Africa, Russia
July 2 2005 – Make Poverty History rally, Edinburgh
July 6 – 8 2005 – Gleneagles G8 Summit
June 11 – July 11 2009 – World Cup, South Africa