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Famine and Development: Contradiction in terms in the Ethiopian Context

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Ethiopian News, Tigrai Online, December 6, 2015

Ethiopia should use its waters to produce more food to feed its people
If Egypt can survive solely on the Nile, why can’t Ethiopia combat famine with all its rivers?

Given the promises of development in my home country, I never thought I was going to write on the Ethiopian famine again, because it logically follows that famine (a widespread hunger) would not apt to occur in the midst of intensive development projects such as infrastructure (which is visibly testified) and agricultural and rural as well as industrial developments (which could not be verified easily and which require research and close scrutiny to understand).


In recent years, i.e. in the last fifteen years, there is no doubt, that Ethiopia has made progress, and in light of its fast economic growth, not only claimed by the Ethiopian Government but also reported by world institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), one could simply conjecture that Ethiopia would overcome extreme poverty and altogether conquer famine.

Paradoxically, despite the reports of the Ethiopian Broadcast Corporation (EBC) and the Regional States Television news dispatches of Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia etc on agricultural and rural development with emphasis on irrigation, famine has again hovered over the Ethiopian landscape. In fact, according to their reports, it looked as if irrigation has replaced rain-fed agriculture, but given the present famine looming over the Ethiopian horizon, the contradiction between famine and development has come as a revelation.

If indeed there were irrigation canals that have made rain-fed agriculture obsolete, there could have been year-round harvest with abundant yield and famine would have been out of question. Some may argue that drought, exacerbated by El Nino, is the culprit for the 2015 famine, and they could substantiate their argument by saying, ‘even if Ethiopian farmers utilize irrigation for their respective farms, due to drought the rivers won’t  be able to provide sufficient water and subsequent crop failures could ensue.’ This rationale is not palatable to me and I have not accepted this reasoning for the following reasons:-

  1. Ethiopia is blessed with numerous major and tributary rivers and the rivers have been flowing since geological times. They could have less water when the rains fail, but they won’t dry up completely.
  2. The Ethiopian rivers (Shinta, Dender, Tekezze, Abay (Blue Nile), and Baro) are the source of life for Sudan and Egypt and as we know, in Egypt it never rains and the country entirely depends on its state of the art irrigation and feeds its people. It also sells surplus agricultural products worldwide. If Egypt can survive solely on the Nile, why can’t Ethiopia combat famine with all its rivers? Likewise, the three Ethiopian major rivers, Genale, Wabi, and Shibelli water Somalia. Does this mean Ethiopia is the source of life for its neighbors but ironically unable to feed its famine-stricken people?
  3. El Nino may have caused the drought in Ethiopia, as it has done in California, Australia, and elsewhere, and there is no doubt both the Belg (small rainy season from March to May) and Kremt (heavy rains of June, July, and August) have been scanty this time, but in the end it is the mode of production that matters. In the last four decades, Ethiopia has moved from a predominantly feudal-agrarian society to socialism under the military dictatorship, and now to a hybrid of market economy and developmental state under the EPRDF. But, despite regime changes and promises of development packages, the Ethiopians still suffer from the nightmare of famine syndromes. The majority of Ethiopians are peasants whose livelihood is determined by old fashioned ox-driven hoe agriculture, and in some parts of southern Ethiopia, alas, primitive horticulture is still the modus operandi and modus vivendi. It is this kind of mode of production that can really make people susceptible to drought and famine exacerbated, of course, by failure of rains and subsequent drought.         
  4. A fourth reason that could sufficiently redeem the famine-development nexus could be that this time, Ethiopia is not simply seeking foreign relief aid, and on the contrary, the Government is buying food crop and preventing mass deaths as it happened during the 1973-74 and 1984-85 famines. This is true, but given its potential and the promises of the developmental state Ethiopia should have been a net exporter of crops instead of a purchaser and donor food recipient from foreign lands. While Ethiopia for the first time exhibited the capacity to buy food for famine relief, it is still seeking donor aid and its dependence clearly shows the contradiction between the growth and transformation agenda of its developmental state and the creeping famine disaster.  

If we see drought and famine in the context of a given mode of production, thus, we begin to appreciate that their causes, after all, are man-made. When I wrote “The Politics Famine and Strategies for Development in Ethiopia” (doctoral dissertation) in 1990, I had underscored deforestation, among other factors, as the main cause for drought and famine in Ethiopia. I argued that deforestation can lead to 1) erosion of rich alluvial top soil; 2) gradual disappearance of vegetation; 3) failure of rains; and 4) desertification.1

The cause and effect of drought discussed above, in turn, could have a far reaching impact on the pattern of seasonal variations and could result in erratic rains that could altogether disappear and cause catastrophe to the peasant population. The latter would then be at the mercy of what I call ‘stress of the ecosystem’ and this could help us to further understand that there are three types of drought: 1) meteorological; 2) agricultural; and 3) hydrological. Meteorological drought can be defined as a 25% reduction of the long-term average rainfall in a given region; agricultural drought is associated with lack of moisture on time for the crop growth, and hydrological drought has been related to the reduction of the level of stream flow. The basis for my analysis at the time I wrote my dissertation was Michael H. Glantz’s Drought and Hunger in Africa.2

The delay of Belg rains indeed adversely affects an agrarian society like Ethiopia and the impact of agricultural drought have had a more negative repercussion on the livelihood of the Ethiopian peasants.

As has been stated above, however, the main cause for drought and famine in Ethiopia is deforestation, and although reforestation measures have been taking place in recent years in Ethiopia, the country was not successful in replacing the lost forests. Planting trees on the plain fields, valleys, and mountain sides is a good sign of greening Ethiopia and eventually reforest the various regions in the country, but the lofty measure of planting trees (even if they are planted in millions) could not meet the intended goal unless it is maintained by professional rangers. The latter could monitor the newly planted trees and ensure that the continuous reforestation projects lead to a meaningful forestry management.

Deforestation has been going on in Ethiopia for centuries because the people had no alternative source of fuel other than wood from the jungle, and the latter also served as the main source for building construction. By the 1950s, thus, the Northern provinces turned into semi-arid zones; by the 1960s and 1970s only 18% of Ethiopia’s forests remained, mostly in the south-western part of the country, and by the time I submitted my dissertation, only 2.7% of Ethiopia’s original forests remained in the entire country, the most dense forests being in the south-west (west of the Rift Valley) and the Bale area (east of the Rift Valley).

It is the problems stated above that are still the main reason for the recurring famines, including the present nation-wide hunger of 2015. It is with the latter reality that I now like to make some recommendations not only for combating famine but altogether defeat it once and for all. And as per my simple maxim, ‘in order to solve a problem, you have to find and locate the problem.’ We have already located and found the problem in regards to the Ethiopian famine. Let me proceed with the solution(s):

The first solution is to have a good understanding of famine syndrome indicators, generate information out of the early indicators which we call ‘sequential famine indicators’, which, in turn, are divided into 1) early famine warning system indicators; 2) pre-famine syndrome indicators; and 3) famine syndrome indicators. The reason why the indicators are called ‘sequential’ is that they reflect stages of crisis and how that one crisis gives rise to another or to a higher crisis. In other words, unlike other calamities like earth quake and tsunamis, creeping famine syndromes are relatively easy to gauge, and the Ethiopian leadership must be able to fathom the syndromes via early warning systems (EWS).3

The second solution emanates from ‘crop forecasting methods ’, developed by the UN Food Agricultural Organization (FAO) and they include ‘crop simulation models’, ‘crop-weather analysis models’ and ‘empirical statistical models.’ The method for crop forecasting is derived from an agro-meteorological data base. The FAO method of forecasting, however, can best be implemented in pre-famine and post-famine situations.4

The third solution, should come, as a matter of course, from an in depth analysis of multiple factors (multivariate analysis) of economic, social, political, and environmental. For instance, we can make an investigative discourse and survey in an interrogative format and figure out actual problems:  Economic dimension: ‘Do people live in subsistence economy or have surplus to sell?; social dimension: ‘Do people believe in fate, superstition, and observe religious holidays?; political dimension: ‘is the political machine in favor of the people or against them?’; environmental dimension: ‘is the balance of nature maintained?’5

If we systematically intertwine the three solutions discussed above, we can successfully avert drought and mitigate ensuing famine, but if famine is spread due to negligence or ill-preparedness, we have no choice but to engage in relief and save lives. There are three phases in disaster relief that I have adopted following Randolf C. Kent: 1) Emergency phase: entails measures to ensure the immediate survival of victims. At this phase, ideology becomes irrelevant and the humanity school prevails. 2) Rehabilitation phase: assistance of materials to rebuild housing, provisions of seeds and equipment to produce crops, to dig wells etc. rehabilitation is concerned with those basic steps required to restore the community to a point where it can stand on its feet again. 3) Post-rehabilitation: overlaps with general approach to development. This stage may also be used promote pre-disaster planning by community organizations.6

On top of the three phases of relief, there are six (could be more sometimes) aspects of disaster relief that I have employed in conjunction with the 1984-85 famine upon which my study depended heavily. The present famine in Ethiopia may not be compared to the 1984-85 famine in its magnitude but it could still affect more than ten million people if we agree on a conservative figure.

The six aspects of relief are: 1) preparedness; 2) prediction; 3) assessment; 4) appropriate intervention; 5) timely intervention; and 6) coordination. All six serve as infrastructure to the national disaster relief plan, and we cannot afford to take out one out of the whole because the latter will collapse if all the necessary ingredients are not in place.

Now, by going back to my critique of the 2015 Ethiopian famine, I like to conclude by reflecting on several perspectives drawn from media outlets and institutions, in an effort to reinforce my analysis and also to render to the reader different standpoints, other than mine, on famine. I will, of course, critically examine the various perspectives as shown below.

The Africa Report in its report entitled “Ethiopia braces for effects of El Nino”, provides the following information: “Secretary of Ethiopia’s National Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Committee (NDPPC), Mitiku Kassa said the government committed $192 million, to address emergence food and non-food needs as a result of the drought.” In this same report, we are told that the Ethiopian regions affected by the drought are southern Tigray, eastern Amhara, Afar, and Siti Zone of Somali region, as well as eastern area of Debub or the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples region, East and West Hararge, Arsi and West Arsi, and lower Bale zones of Oromia.7

Relief Web also reports that “The Ethiopian Humanitarian Country Team (EHCT) has analyzed and wide range of data recommended by Ethiopia’s National Meteorological Agency analogue years of El Nino episodes of 1997 and 2002 to learn the lessons of the past and to inform future needs and implementation strategies. The major conclusion of this analysis is one of warning: without a robust response supported by the international community there is a high probability of a significant food insecurity and nutrition disaster.”8  

Both of the above reports are focused on El Nino and its impact on Ethiopia’s food insecurity without even making a slight reference to the mode of production as well as to the agro-industrial level of Ethiopia. Unlike these reports, Harambee Today comes close to my own analysis and at least touches upon ‘who gets what’ in the socioeconomic formation of Ethiopia. Here is how Harambee Today puts it:

Although Ethiopia’s economic growth is often cited as the region’s strongest – nearly nine percent each year for the past four years – much of the growth and benefits have been unequally distributed, and have been concentrated in the business class. Much of Ethiopia’s population is limited to low wages – an average $60 per month – and pre-industrialized agricultural jobs.9

Two major media outlets, namely the New York Times authored by the Editorial Board and the BBC interview of Chris Fawkes have reported the same repetitious El Nino effect on Ethiopia’s drought and their reports were not helpful in terms of overall political economy analysis.10

One other institution, among the plethora of news dispatches that reported on Ethiopia’s drought and famine, is the Agricultural Knowledge, Learning Documentation and Policy (AKLDP), and although the title of its report, “El Nino in Ethiopia: uncertainties, impacts and decision making” implies that weather patterns engender drought and famine, I give it credit for at least underscoring the disadvantages of rain-fed agriculture. AKLDP puts it this way:

In recent years Ethiopia has seen substantial investments in agriculture through the Government of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Growth Programme, the Feed of the Future program of the United States Government, and programs supported by a range of other donors. However, the economy of Ethiopia and the food security of its population is [are] highly dependent on agriculture which is rain-fed, and therefore susceptible to drought.11


Based on the above analysis and reports and my own critical remarks, I highly recommend that the Ethiopian government reconsider its current policies on agricultural development in such a way to give priority to reforestation and irrigation while at the same time undertaking massive environmental protection in soil and water conservation. If this recommendation is implemented (I mean implemented practically), weather patterns like El Nino could still have influence on Ethiopia but Ethiopia would not be vulnerable to recurring famines. On the country, it will reclaim its nature-endowed waters and its alluvial soils, while at the same time transforming itself from a relatively backward mode of farming to mechanized agriculture and to export-led industry. Then and only then can we exclaim with confidence that Ethiopia emancipated its people from abject poverty and medieval-like ravages of hunger. 


  1. Ghelawdewos Araia, The Politics of Famine and Strategies for Development in Ethiopia, Doctoral Dissertation, Columbia University Teachers College, 1990, p. 16
  2. Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid, p. 18
  3. Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid, pp. 119-120
  4. Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid, p. 122
  5. Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid, p. 124 (see Table on ‘EWS and other Contexts’)
  6. Ghelawdewos Araia, Ibid, pp. 128-129
  7. “Ethiopia braces for effect of El Nino”, The African Report, October 14, 2015
  8. “Ethiopia: Drought”, Relief Web, June 2015
  9. “El Nino May Worsen Food Insecurity in Ethiopia”, Harambee Today: An Economic Discourse on Africa (there is no specific date for this report)
  10.  “El Nino Strikes Ethiopia” New York Times, October 21, 2015 and “Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in decades, exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon, BBC, 10 November, 2015
  11.  “Project Ethiopia: Technical Brief”, AKLDP, September 2015

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), 2015. For educational and constructive feedback, you may contact Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia via dr.garaia@africanidea.org

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