Ethiopia: Living Under the Threat of Famine

By Daniel Teferra*

Recent reports coming out of Ethiopia are reminiscent of what occurred during the 1973-1974 and 1984-1985 famines. Video reports showed dead animals lying scattered across fields in rural Afar and Gojjam.  It is estimated that 4.5 million people will be in need of food by the end of the year.

The long reign of Emperor Haile Selassie came to an end as a result of the 1973-1974 famine, which was triggered by long droughts in Tigray and Wello provinces in the north. The famine, coupled with the global economic crisis, created a widespread dissatisfaction in the country. Exploiting the discontents of the public effectively, the Stalinist regime of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam seized state power in 1975.  

In 1984-1985, Tigray and Wello were afflicted by famine again.  Parts of Begemder and Eritrea were also hit. Now, it was the Mengistu Hailemariam regime’s turn to be brought down by famine. An endless rebellion engulfed famine-affected north, which finally defeated the regime and elevated the current TPLF/EPRDF government to power in 1991.  

Although Haile Selassie’s government was blamed for the 1973-1974 famine, the successive regimes did not eliminate the threat of famine. They failed to privatize land and capitalize Ethiopia’s rural sector to generate sufficient surplus for food and industrialization. The present regime, for instance, borrows huge sums of money to finance its unproductive real estate industry and build costly infrastructure projects rather than invest in agricultural transformation.

Ethiopia is a predominantly subsistence economy.  Famine is inevitable in a subsistence economy during bad years due to inadequate surplus. For instance, migratory herders do not farm and consequently depend entirely on their herds for food.  They store their savings in the form of cattle. Thus, when a drought hits pastoralist areas, animals die first and then the herders are devoured by starvation and famine.

In areas of crop cultivation, peasants live from harvest to harvest. When there is a drought, crops fail and peasants have nothing to lean on. They consume the seeds they have saved for sowing and survive for a while. Then the worst manifestations of famine set in. The weak die a slow and agonizing death from starvation inside their own homes. Those who still have some energy left will migrate to towns or feeding centers, if there are any, in search of food. Many perish along the way.

During the last 24 years, droughts have occurred in Ethiopia a number of times. There has been no mention of famine though, thanks to the continued supply of American food aid. The current regime would have been history by now without U. S. help. In order to fight famine vulnerability, the United States Food Assistance Program (FFP) has been providing   emergency food assistance to Ethiopia through Western NGO’s, including TPLF’s NGO, Relief Society of Tigray (REST).

There is no guarantee that American food aid will always be available. This is true, especially if relationships with America are not so good. For example, the Mengistu Hailemariam regime acknowledged, with no delay, the 1984-1985 famine--which also affected other African countries--and appealed for international help. Nevertheless, the United States of America, which supplied half of all Africa’s food assistance at that time, was sending only a trickle of aid to Ethiopia. Ethiopia was considered “an enemy territory” by U. S. policy advisors. The Reagan Administration argued that it was the Soviets to blame for not helping their ally, Ethiopia.      

Ethiopia is a food-deficit country. This means Ethiopia imports more food than it exports and lacks sufficient foreign exchange to close its deficit by purchasing food on the international market. As a result, it has to rely on outside food assistance to survive. In 2002 to 2011, the average annual food deficit of Ethiopia was a whopping 1.2 million metric tons (see figure 1 below).

American food aid has helped Ethiopia ward-off famine. It has also deprived the government of the motivation to transform Ethiopia’s outdated subsistence agriculture. Ethiopia’s rising dependence on American food aid under the current regime relative to previous governments proves this fact (see figure 2 below, Ref. History of USAID in Ethiopia).

Ethiopia does not have to rely on American food aid for its survival. It is endowed with rich agricultural potential. By exploiting its enormous agricultural resources, Ethiopia can feed its rapidly growing population. It can provide raw materials and labor for manufacturing. It can create markets for domestically manufactured goods. It can generate tax revenue to fund infrastructure and social services. It can earn foreign exchange to pay for imported goods.

 Agriculture has been Ethiopia’s mainstay for centuries. If developed, it can be the country’s reliable source of economic prosperity and national security. However, Ethiopia is still struggling with its selfish and restrictive feudal tradition, which gives the ruling elite and the state a monopoly over landownership. Peasants still live like serfs working the land they don’t own. There is no free movement of labor and capital because of ethnic barriers. As a result of all these, the rural sector is undeveloped and undercapitalized.

Ethiopia’s regimes are more alike than different. Out of ignorance or self-interest or both, they put their own self-preservation and aggrandizement ahead of the well-being of the people. They refused to privatize land to the peasantry and the rest of the population.  Consequently, it became difficult to capitalize the agricultural sector and generate sufficient surplus to provide a buffer against starvation and famine in critical times.

 In Ethiopia, no regime can survive without eliminating the threat of famine. The United States cannot stay in the Horn of Africa indefinitely and continue to foot the bills for Ethiopia’s food deficit.  America’s so-called strategic alliance with the TPLF/EPRDF regime can end.

Natural stresses are problematic in Ethiopia, especially in the north, and are sure to strike again. Ethiopia will continue to live under the threat of famine unless the rural sector is capitalized and the subsistence system of crop cultivation and herding is finally liquidated. Only then can Ethiopia achieve self-sufficiency in food and ensure its continued existence.    

*Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ferris State University; UW-Whitewater,