Famine in Ethiopia: Of Wars, Droughts and Flawed Aid

January 24, 2013
Food Crisis
After 25 years, famine in Ethiopia was looming again as early as 2000, leaving 6 million people at risk of starvation. As the situation got worse, only 2 years after the number climbed up to 14 million. When pledges of donations took 3 months to come, threatening thousands to die, the country was lucky (unlike others) to have its own food reserves while waiting for food aid.

An early warning of the potential crisis did help Ethiopia benefit from the UN’s World Food Program. But for the last ten years it’s been as if famine was just waiting around the corner, threatening to emerge again.

From tough climate and damaged environment to underdeveloped agriculture and wars, the many root causes of famine in Ethiopia are waiting to be tackled altogether.

Politics and the environment

The environment in Ethiopia is going through really rough times with uncontrolled deforestation, intensive agriculture that causes soil erosion (i.e. the soil produces less and less food), desertification and so on, which increases the risk that famine in Ethiopia shows up again.

What's more, the region is naturally prone to droughts, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. So, let's not even mention that political instability that has plagued the country for decades is also making the whole situation even worse..

Of wars and famine in Ethiopia

famine in ethiopia horn of africa
‍Famine in Ethiopia & Horn of Africa
A 30 years-long rough patch

When compared with today, Ethiopia’s been through a thirty years-long rough patch that started in the 1970s. Not to say that things are so well today, they’re just less bad. The country experienced from social unrest to open wars and economic to human crises with refugees from wars and famines.

For decades, public policies of forced resettlement and forced enrollment of workers (among others) completely messed up the entire economy and agriculture. What’s more, politicians have completely failed to plan in any way for the population growth. Nothing was done in the capital Addis Ababa to accommodate the growing number of people (thus slums were created) and nothing was made to ensure the local agriculture could feed the increase in population.

Migration, conflicts and famine in Ethiopia

It appeared obvious in many studies that civil conflicts led refugees to take shelter in cities, especially women (men would often be killed or abducted). This only aggravated the situation in cities in terms of both accommodation and lack of food. In turn, the situation within cities became more unstable as well.

On the other hand, famine in Ethiopia hasn’t led to massive flows of refugees going to the cities. Most likely, it seems this is thanks to the work of NGOs in famine relief and delivering aid, but also because in times of famine, cities are the hardest hit and the last stop for food delivery from the countryside.

Obviously, most people would rather stay near the production centers (i.e. the fields). Besides, over time the rural population had come to know about the situation in Addis Ababa: insecurity, lack of jobs, and lack of housing; so they gradually came to populate the other cities in Ethiopia.

Droughts, mismanagement and war in East Africa

refugees food crisis ethiopia
‍Refugees from the food crisis in Ethiopia

The core of the problem with the whole region of the Horn of Africa is a mix of rough climate with lots of droughts, serious resources mismanagement and conflicts and wars. It's almost a well-oiled mechanism: when one of the three crises is over, another one kicks in, for example a drought right after a conflict, or a drought after a bad call from the government that destroyed the grain stocks.

Conflicts for instance often strip farmers or shepherds from whatever stock and livestock they have, whenever armed men pass by. Well... you do have to feed your army, don’t you? And if the next year, the very short rain season fails to come, then you’re just out of resources. No stock. Whatever coping plan you had is lost.

Famine is preventable

Giving to warmongering governments

As far as financial aid goes, there have been many hesitations in the 1990s about giving to warmongering governments. By deciding to focus on food aid only of course, the problem was solved. There was no reason the Ethiopian people should have paid for the faults of its government.

Then, there’s a crucial distinction to make between (emergency) relief aid and development aid. Without development aid there is no way to prevent things from happening again. You’re not solving the causes of the famine, which is then bound to happen again one day.

Development aid should focus on both developing the agriculture, trade and means of better distribution (including more and better roads in Ethiopia) as well as measures of prevention and preparedness (food reserves, distribution mechanisms, drought prevention systems etc). In the last 10 years there have been increasingly better ways to know in advance whether a year will present risks of drought or not. But they’re hardly used in East Africa, if at all.

Learning about preventing famine in Ethiopia

If the famine of the early 2000s didn’t go excessively wrong it’s precisely thanks to Ethiopia’s experience in famine prevention from the 1980s (during wartime). But if the country does have its own grain stocks, the state of the agriculture leaves much to be desired.

Over 95% of the fields are rain-fed… meaning that only 5% of fields are irrigated in a region where droughts are pretty common. That’s how famine in Ethiopia has managed to threaten as many as 14 million people in 2002, while just as many people were starving across a total of 6 other African countries.

Advances in agriculture in Ethiopia

ethiopia farmers agriculture famine
‍Modernizing agriculture in Ethiopia to fight poverty and food shortages
Modernizing the agriculture and the economy

In 2004 some progress was made thanks to international help and advice which led to higher yield and more resistant cattle. But Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and the dire lack of infrastructure blocks any further development of the country.

Even while Ethiopia now boasts some economic growth, the expansion of the population is way faster than the economic one which makes it simply insufficient to reduce poverty. On top of that the environmental issues (erosion) mean that agricultural productivity is likely to stay very low. And famine in Ethiopia will simply thrive on this.

As of 2004 the number of Ethiopians in need of food aid went down to 7 million (from 14m), then 2 million in 2005. And yet Ethiopia’s economy remains hardly able to sustain its own population. There are still suspicions that corruption prevents the good distribution of aid which makes the situation even more tensed between donor countries (e.g. the US and the European Union) and the government. That and the ever so present lack of roads makes it hard to get the food to the right people.

The road to food security in Ethiopia

As explained previously in the article on the food crisis what Ethiopia and countries of the Horn of Africa need is better fertilizers and crops adapted to their extreme climate. The first introduction of this technology 5 years ago led productivity to increase by 25% in Ethiopia, and the GDP grew by nearly 6% that year (agriculture counts for 45% of GDP).

Regional trade - key to ending famines

However, drought after drought the risk remains that the World Food Program’s food reserves become empty. So Ethiopia and East Africa will have to develop their agriculture and regional trade so that they can take care of themselves and help each other in the most difficult times. 

This is the best way to achieve food security in Ethiopia and in the whole region, but this requires a lot of cooperation, great vision and leadership.

But things aren't always that simple. The recent rise in cereal prices was good news for many African farmers but a catastrophe for the poor who can’t afford as much food as before. The latest massive drought in the Horn poses yet another threat and famine in Ethiopia is looming large one more time.

One can only hope that in the near future the country will have the resources to develop its agriculture to the point that it can produce enough food for itself and its neighbors when needed. As of 2005 there were still 5 million Ethiopians who were depending on food aid to survive.


  • ‍Environmental Overview, CountryWatch Incorporated, Ethiopia Review 2011
  • Ethiopia Openly Appeals for Help with Looming Famine, Peter Moszynski, The Lancet Dec. 2002
  • Fasting for Food, Ethiopia's Years of Famine, Hana Lee, Harvard International Review 2004
  • Economic Outlook / Food Crisis, West & Central Africa Monitor, Business Monitor International 2005
  • Beneath International Famine Relief in Ethiopia: The United States, Ethiopia, and the Debate over Relief Aid, Development Assistance, and Human Rights, Edward Kissi, African Studies Review 2005
  • War & Famine in Ethiopia & Eritrea, Philip White, Lionel Cliffe, Review of African Political Economy 2000
  • War, Famine, and Female Migration in Ethiopia, 1960–1989, Betemariam Berhanu and Michael White, Economic Development and Cultural Change 2000

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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