Sixteen years after television cameras first brought the plight of Ethiopia’s starving millions into our living rooms, sparking the Live Aid rescue mission of 1985, history appears to be repeating itself on the Horn of Africa.

Just as it needed live images of children starving to death to shake Western governments out of their complacency all those years ago, having had prior warning that a famine was on the cards, so too now has the full threat of a famine had to become a reality before the world could sit up and take notice.

This time round, the Ethiopian famine was well predicted. In April of last year, the UN’s early warning system (GIEWS) reported that two years of drought were threatening 2 million people in Ethiopia with starvation. Nobody listened. Five months later, with further rain failures, the World Food Programme warned that 5.3 million Ethiopians faced starvation. Still, the cries fell on deaf ears. In January of this year, a UN mission in Ethiopia reported that 8 million faced starvation and that 800,000 tonnes of food were urgently needed to avert catastrophe.

At the beginning of April this year, the Ethiopian story finally hit the news headlines, but now with 16 million facing starvation in Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, and with a further 2 million expected be added to this figure if the May rains fail to save the June harvest.

Perhaps many Ethiopians will recall the comments made by one key Ethiopian minister back in 1998 and recounted recently in the editorial of one Ethiopian daily.
In Kissingerian* fashion, the minister in question announced that ‘hunger in Ethiopia is already a thing of the past…it has already been eliminated’ and that Ethiopia would be food self-sufficient within five years and producing a food surplus ( Tamret Bekele in the Addis Tribune, 6th April).

Of course, we cannot criticise this individual for failing to forsee the present tragedy. He after all has no more control over the weather than the Ethiopian economy. But his remarks do point to the misplaced confidence people have in the present system and the inability of capitalist society to avert catastrophe because of its insistence in prioritising profit before need and in failing to implement long-term provisions.

Most of the aid given to Ethiopia in the 80s was spent on emergency provisions, with little set aside for forward planning and for heading off the problems that made rescue missions so difficult back in ‘85. Roads and bridges came low on the list of priorities, as did systems for storing what water did fall on the drought-prone regions. Vulnerable areas, like the Ogaden region were known to offer precarious living conditions but no plans were made for population relocation.

Again, much is hampering the current relief effort. Firstly, as in 1985, there is another war with Eritrea, sparked by an Eritrean invasion over a border dispute and which provides western governments with an excuse to cut aid – the logic being that aid is sidetracked into the military machine. Though not exonerating the likes of Clare Short, Britain’s overseas development minister whose idea it was to penalise Ethiopia for its border dispute nor the Ethiopian government who claim they did not start the conflict in the first place, as socialists we are upset that in an area desperate for concerted human cooperation and a willingness to work together in face of an overwhelming crisis, half a million men are dug into trenches preparing to kill one another over a piece of land none of them will profit from.

As in 1985, food distribution is also proving a logistical nightmare, with poor roads and the threat of inter-clan warfare and banditry halting the relief effort. Moreover, since the conflict with Eritrea, land-locked Ethiopia has since lost the use of two key Eritrean ports And, at present, mid-April, only 50 per cent of the food needed has actually been pledged, with only a small percentage of this actually getting through.

Again, the current crisis and the famine of ’84-5 were caused by rain failure. But there are major differences now. The Ethiopian population is now 60 million, twice its size in 1985, which means an increasing rural population has had to work, and overwork, smaller parcels of land, which could only ever produce weaker and weaker yields. Added to this has been the shrinking availability of fertilisers. Ethiopia’s use of fertiliser, at 7 kg of nutrients per hectare is half the sub-Saharan average and about seven per cent the world average (statistics from Addis Tribune, 6th April).

After the 1985 famine the Ethiopian government sought to hold 350,000 tons of food in reserve to help avert further crises, but with 50,000 tons remaining at the beginning of April, it is evident a massive overseas contribution is needed to help provide the basic 7.2 million tonnes needed to feed the Ethiopian population in the year ahead.

What percentage of pledged food actually gets through remains to be seen, but it’s a fair guess it will fall far short of the 1.2 million tonnes the Ethiopian government estimates is needed urgently. Again, it is too early to predict whether or not the May rains will come and provide a desperately needed source of water to a country in which only 27 per cent of the population have access to clean water even in the wet seasons, as well as saving the June harvest.

Only a month ago this journal reported on the natural disaster Mozambique encountered when the skies dumped a year’s rain on the country in a few short weeks, flooding tens of thousands of square miles. It seems something of a sick irony that we now comment on a country a few thousand miles up the same east coast of Africa that has awaited rain for three years.

In the years ahead we can well predict to comment on further natural disasters as the effects of global warming kick in and, more, to continually point to the failure of capitalism to effectively mobilise its vast technological resources to the benefit of those in direst need. As in Ethiopia 15 years ago, so too now will history continue to repeat itself, as tragedy, then as farce.

*At a world food summit in 1973, Henry Kissinger announced that global hunger would be eradicated within 10 years. There were then 400 million chronically malnourished people on the planet (a 75 million increase over the previous ten years). That figure now stands at 800 million.