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Ethiopian Famine

August 30th, 2009

ethiopmain_237753cI know I run the danger of harping on one string but I cannot ignore it. This weekend The Independent carries a report on the food crisis and famine conditions in Ethiopia which we saw first-hand a couple of weeks ago. The rains that were due in the spring did not come and the longer rains expected in August have been late. The result is that there are no crops and no food. The last paragraph of this report makes the compelling point that the continent which has contributed least to climate change is suffering most.

It also comes at a time when Western governments are struggling to honour their commitments in terms of overseas aid. The food distribution programme which we visited was originally designed to feed 5,000 people for four months, but because of the overwhelming need, it was changed to help 10,000 people for 2 months. This weekend marks the end of the first month. In a month’s time the store will be empty and there will be no food left. It is all so heart-breaking.

The main practical difference between a food crisis and a famine is whether enough aid arrives to keep the starving alive. So while the scope of the problem can be measured in the number of hungry people, the severity depends on the generosity of those in the rich world. And this year they have been miserly. Despite the promise of G8 leaders at their summit in L’Aquila, Italy, last month to provide $20bn (£12bn) to improve food security in poor countries, contributions have slumped dramatically this year as donor states have shifted priorities to supporting banks and stimulating their own economies. “The international community is not living up to its promise to the World Food Programme,” Mr Kebede said.

The WFP had little trouble raising its $6bn budget last year, but in 2009 it has collected less than half of that. Its Ethiopian operation, which had $500m in 2008, is short $127m this year, equivalent to 167,000 tonnes of food. The Famine Early Warning Network forecast this month that the shortfall would reach 300,000 tonnes by December. Rations for the 6.2 million people receiving emergency food aid have, as a result, been slashed by a third from a meagre 15kg of cereals, beans and oil a month to just 10kg. Even if the shortfall were made up today, it would take three months for supplies to be loaded on to ships bound for Djibouti, then transferred to trucks for the arduous overland journey to land-locked Ethiopia.

Aid agencies are worried about the main harvest this autumn, arguing that the time for action is now, not when the food runs out in November – usually the driest month – let alone when starving children with distended bellies capture the attention of the West’s television viewing public.

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