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Famine – keep the basic balance

1985 October 25
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by Paul Vallely

The rain season seemed good in Ethiopia this year, but in the pas few weeks it has become clear that the rains stopped too early. Crops have grown but have not matured and independent agricultural forecasts indicate that the country will need about a million tons of food aid next year, almost as much as it needed this year, to feed its people.

The second year of famine will be different, however. The infrastructure of aid established during the past nine months ought to mean that, provided the grain is pledged (and there is at this stage every indication that it will be), there should be no repetition of the queues of children, with bodies like breathing cadavers, clutching empty bowls.

Yet the plan to keep the six million people expected to be affected next year out of camps and in their home villages may still founder – not for lack of foreign aid but because of the way foreign money is entering the country.

In the past six months there has been a marked shift of food aid from the public to the private distribution systems in Ethiopia. Bilateral donors have transferred their food contributions from the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) to the burgeoning number of voluntary agencies – there are 47 in the country.

Of the food pledged between May and the end of this year, 427,000 tons have been consigned to the agencies and only 181,000 tons to the RRC. This represents an increase of more than 250 per cent in the agency allocation while the RRC, which needs 50,000 tons a month for general distribution, is currently receiving only 23,000 tons.

This reapportioning of resources represented a conscious political decision by western governments and in particular the United States, which provides more than a third of all the country’s food aid. The West was anxious to be seen to help the victims of famine but equally anxious to avoid bolstering the pro-Soviet regime of Colonel Mengistu and his Marxist Workers Party. To use the voluntary agencies seemed the obvious solution.

Both the Ethiopian military government and the voluntary agencies are worried about this trend. At a meeting of non-governmental organizations in Addis Ababa this week, held to help give Bob Geldof advice on the best way to spend the pounds 48 million raised by Live Aid, David Alexander, field director of the Save the Children Fund, described the trend as ‘very alarming’. Hugh Goyder, of Oxfam, noting the political strings attached to US aid, said the other big donors (Canada, Australia and the World Food Programme) should be asked to allocate all their aid direct to the RRC. The Americans would ensure that at least a third of the million tons needed would go to the agencies.

‘If it is not committed now, there will be a lot of shilly-shallying in six months when children start dying,’ said Peter Searle, of World Vision.

The fear is that the RRC, generally considered by even those who oppose the Ethiopian regime to be the most effective famine relief organization in the Third World, is being seriously undermined by the new imbalance. Until recently the roles of the agencies and the RRC have been quite distinct. The charities looked after the medical needs and therapeutic feeding of the most vulnerable sections of the population. Their service took for granted a base of general food distribution by the RRC, but that base has been eroded.

The RRC has been at work for 11 years, since the famine of 1974 which brought the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie. It has a staff of 17,000, more than 400 field stations, an effective monitoring procedure and an early warning system whose predictions have been consistently verified by events. But with less than 50 per cent of its grain requirements being met, it now hands out half-rations and distributes irregularly in areas of great need. This year there is an empty ring to agencies’ talk of ‘supplementary feeding’, often there is no basic diet to supplement.

The agencies’ supplementary food is not only more expensive than the cereals which ought to form the basic diet; it also presents long-term health dangers. As has been recorded at one Oxfam medical centre, patients are restored to health by intensive feeding only to return home to an inadequate RRC ration, leading to their readmission to the clinic six months later.

Furthermore, the agencies, lacking the strategic overview of the RRC, are concentrating too heavily in some areas. ‘Eritrea and Tigre seem to be the ‘in’ places as far as US opinion is concerned. Hence all the American agencies, with all their massive food supplies, are there. In Eritrea today they have food surpluses. Here in Wollo, we have a chronic famine still,’ said one aid worker.

Berhane Deressa, the deputy commissioner of the RRC, was told by Bob Geldof that there was a crisis of confidence among donors about the RRC. ‘When you consider some of the policies of this Marxist government, it is hardly surprising,’ Geldof said. But he added that while it was understandable for individuals to prefer their donations to go through a private charity, a greater responsibility devolved on to larger bodies to ensure that they were not spending money in a way that was counterproductive. At least a third of the Live Aid money would therefore be spent through the RRC, he said, although its use would be carefully monitored.

The Ethiopian government hopes other donors will follow that lead and reverse the funding imbalance. If they do not, agencies say, RRC could be forced to reduce rations further, throwing more people into the emergency care of the agencies.

For the long term – when, in development theory, increasing emphasis is being placed on the creation of indigenous institutions to shoulder responsibility and build expertise – there seems little sense in promoting the atrophy in Ethiopia of the body which is considered a model of its kind.

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