25 years after the Ethiopian famine, what have we learned?

October 22, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

It’s 25 years since the Ethiopian famine and the region is again being flayed by drought. Expect lots of media coverage, at least some of it along the lines of ’why did we bother? Nothing’s changed.’ Not so. Band Aids and Beyond, an Oxfam briefing paper published today, summarizes what’s been learned since then and asks why donors and governments haven’t acted on that knowledge. It argues that ‘For Ethiopians it is more sustainable, dignified and cost effective to identify and tackle the risk of disaster rather than simply waiting for disaster to strike.’


‘In 1984, one million Ethiopians died during a catastrophic famine. The severity of suffering seen 25 years ago has not returned to Ethiopia. But drought still costs Ethiopia roughly $1.1bn a year – almost eclipsing the total annual overseas assistance to the country.

[this prompts two questions, and a single answer]:
1. What can be done to prevent the next drought from becoming a disaster?
2. Seventy per cent of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia comes from the USA. Most of this is ‘in-kind’ food aid, subject to conditions which have nothing to do with development and mean that it costs up to $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid. Are there any more cost-effective ways of dealing with disasters?

The Disaster Risk Management (DRM) approach goes a long way to answering both these questions.  DRM means working in partnership with countries and communities to:

Cash for work project, Amhara region

Cash for work project, Amhara region

• Identify all potential threats to lives and livelihoods (not just one threat, such as drought) and people’s vulnerabilities to these threats;

• Build their resilience – their ability to withstand shocks without jeopardising their ways of working and living.

Women have a crucial role in the response of communities to shocks such as drought, but they are too often marginalised in decision-making. To be effective, DRM must involve women and men equally.

What does DRM look like?

• Providing micro-insurance for farmers to help with rapid recovery from prolonged drought;

• Giving communities cash in exchange for work to reduce the risk of flooding. The cash can be used to buy food locally, which also helps local markets;

• Buying food for emergency reserves from small-scale farmers in the country or region, which provides a boost for agriculture and a meal for those facing hunger;

• Establishing early warning systems and standby stocks to facilitate a timely response to impending food shortages or other disasters.

DRM is not a new concept, but worldwide it remains an under-used idea: just 0.14 per cent of overseas assistance is allocated specifically to tackling disaster risk. [which prompts a third question]

3. Why is DRM not already the guiding approach to disasters in Ethiopia?’

Last word goes to Birhan Woldu, who became the media face of the Ethopian famine in 1984-5, survived and has now graduated with a diploma in agriculture and a degree in nursing:

Birhan Woldu in 1985 and today

Birhan Woldu in 1985 and today

‘25 years ago, my life was saved by Irish nursing sisters who gave me an injection, and food aid from organisations like Band Aid. So it may seem strange for me to say now that to get food aid from overseas is not the best way. As well as being demeaning to our dignity, my education has taught me that constantly shipping food from places like the USA is costly, uneconomic, and can encourage dependency.’

October 22, 2009
Duncan Green