WASHINGTON — In response to an urgent request from the government of Ethiopia, the United States agreed Friday to send 115,000 tons of emergency food aid to help stave off a famine that officials say threatens to be as severe as that which devastated the nation two years ago.
The shipment, at a cost of $37.6 million, will supply one-eighth of the total food that Ethiopian and U.S. officials agree will be necessary next year to feed those threatened by a widespread drought.
The Ethiopian request was made early this month after summer rains were sparse throughout much of northern and central Ethiopia, leaving fields of grain dead or dying. Crop failures ranged from 75% to 100% in the hardest-hit provinces of Eritrea and Tigre.
Although famine is not now imminent, relief officials have warned that by early next year when government stockpiles dwindle, millions of Ethiopians might again be driven from their homes in search of food.
Prompt U.S. action is necessary "to help assure the prevention of famine, mass movements of displaced people and costly airlifts of emergency rations" said Jay F. Morris, acting administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is coordinating the aid effort.
Private Groups to Help
Tentative plans have been made for the grain and other supplies to be distributed in Ethiopia by private relief organizations, including Catholic Relief Services and World Vision, according to representatives of those groups. The United States has complained that, in past years when the Ethiopian government distributed U.S. aid, shipments were deliberately withheld or delayed for regions held by rebels fighting the Marxist government.
More aid is likely to be sent in coming months by the United States and private and international organizations, officials said.
The Ethiopian government has requested 950,000 tons of food aid next year, only slightly less than the 1,105,000 tons delivered to the country during 1985 at the height of its worst famine of the century.
7 Million at Risk
AID officials said in a briefing last week that next year's famine may be of "the same level of intensity" as that of 1984-85, with approximately 7 million people at risk in the nation of 45 million. More than 1 million Ethiopians died in the last famine.
The new drought is a particular blow because it was unexpected. Dry spells occur cyclically in the region about every 10 years, and this year's summer rain shortfall came too soon after the last drought to allow new grain stockpiles to be amassed.
Although willing to help, U.S officials find themselves in a policy quandary over the aid request.
Ethiopian Policies Blamed
Repeatedly, State Department officials have suggested that Ethiopian government policies are as much to blame for the food shortages in that country as are the weather patterns that periodically deprive vast areas of rainfall.
By forcing farmers to sell their grain to the government at below-market prices, they have said, the regime of President Mengistu Haile Mariam has discouraged high food production in good crop years that could be stored and used in lean times.
"The outlook is dismal, just in terms of the forces of nature at work," said Richard Schifter, assistant secretary of state for humanitarian affairs, in testimony to Congress last week. " . . . The situation is seriously aggravated by the actions of a government caught up by an ideology which has proved a failure elsewhere and which is once again demonstrating its fundamental flaws through the suffering of the Ethiopian people."
But officials acknowledged that, since the U.S. government provides no regular foreign aid to Ethiopia, it has little leverage with the Mengistu government. The United States must rely on pressure from regular donors, including the World Bank, the United Nations and the European Communities, to persuade Mengistu to take steps to feed Ethiopia's people.
In the meantime, Morris said, "The shortcomings of leadership are not the fault of the children of Ethiopia who once again need our help."
Hope to Stop Evacuations
The U.S. officials expressed hope that the early response will ensure that food is delivered in time to prevent the mass movements of people into famine camps.
In endorsing the Ethiopian request for food aid, the U.N. Disaster Relief Organization advanced a similar argument. "The justification for the urgency of the response is the pressing need to avoid the reopening of shelters and to prevent the displacement of people," the organization said.
That task may be less difficult than it was two years ago because trucks, warehouses and other elements of a food distribution network are already in place, according to representatives of private voluntary organizations that have maintained projects in Ethiopia since the last famine ended.
If "we can stop people from leaving their homes, we can prevent the need for those awful camps that we saw on television," said Willet Weeks, Africa regional director of the Save the Children organization. "If that determined effort is not made, . . . then people are going to move out looking for grain," Weeks said.