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Hunger is once again stalking Ethiopia

Food prices combine with drought to trigger a new crisis. The government insists things are improving.

August 05, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

AJEE, ETHIOPIA — They call it the green hunger.

Four-foot cornstalks sprout from rain-soaked earth, and wind billows fields of teff, the staple Ethiopian grain. Goats and cattle are getting fat on lush grasses -- but the children are still dying.

"It's strange to see hunger when everything is so green," said Wariso Shete, 26, a southern Ethiopia farmer who recently buried his 3-year-old son. "But there is no food. The boy just starved."

Once again, images of emaciated children are emerging from this Horn of Africa nation, rekindling memories of the 1984 famine that killed nearly 1 million people. This time Ethiopia has been grappling with a double whammy: drought in its traditional breadbasket and a global food crisis that has pushed prices sky high.

Although recent rains and an influx of humanitarian aid have experts cautiously predicting the crisis might be stabilizing in parts of the country, nearly 10 million people will need emergency aid to survive until the harvest in September.

Green hungers are just one oddity of Ethiopia's long struggle to feed itself. The country, considered the water tower of East Africa because its highlands are the primary source of the Nile, suffers chronic drought. It is Africa's second-largest corn producer, but requires hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid every year.

An exploding population is one cause. Others point to a socialist-leaning government that's been slow to embrace market-based policies. And everyone agrees that international donors spend too little -- less than 5% of all aid -- on long-term development, such as irrigation.

In an interview, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi emphasized that the current crisis masks dramatic progress.

"This emergency is occurring in an environment of spectacular success in agriculture," he said. "The vast majority of farmers have never had it so good."

Agriculture production is growing by 10% a year, he said, and as recently as 2006, Ethiopia grew so much corn that it exported surplus to Sudan.

National pride might explain why the government initially seemed to downplay the drought, accusing the United Nations of exaggerating the number of malnourished children. Meles' exasperation with those who portray Ethiopia as desperate and needy was evident.

"I'm telling those people to go to hell," he said. "Ethiopians are not hapless. They are not helpless. We are making a real dent in poverty."

One of the biggest problems is population growth. Ethiopia, with an estimated 80 million people, has doubled in size since the mid-1980s.

Simply put, the nation, in which 85% of people toil as small farmers, has reached a point where it can't easily grow enough food to meet its needs. Although agricultural production has increased overall, it has declined per capita, according to the World Bank.

Even in a year without drought or crisis, one in 10 people rely on international food aid to survive. More than 400 children die every day from malnutrition. Ethiopia is one of the few African nations with its own factory for Plumpy'nut, a peanut-based paste used to remedy acute malnutrition.

"We have not moved far enough away from the poverty line for us to have enough cushion," Meles said. "One unexpected weather event can push us over the precipice."

Some praise Ethiopia's government for its anti-poverty campaigns, which have reduced child mortality by 40%. New roads have fostered nationwide trade, helping stabilize agricultural markets. The government allocates about 17% of its budget to agricultural development, nearly three times as much as its neighbors.

But Ethiopia's state-dominated economy is also blamed for the persistent food shortages. The government controls all major industries, and there is no private ownership of land.

Under pressure from Western donors, Meles, a onetime Marxist who preaches the free market, has opened the window to private enterprise, notably allowing private flower farms to export to Europe.

"They talk about free market, but you don't see it," said economist Befekadu Degefe, a government critic. "They see the private sector as a threat, as competition, so they try to eliminate it."

In the agricultural sector, the government controls the distribution of fertilizer and, to a lesser extent, seeds; it sometimes restricts sales, as with a current export ban on cereals; and though farmers are free to grow what they want, 20,000 agricultural advisors keep close tabs, also functioning as tax collectors. "The government hand is still a little too heavy," said Glenn Anders, USAID's mission director in Ethiopia.

One of the government's successes is the Safety Net, a welfare-for-work program in which more than 7 million chronically needy farmers receive cash or food in exchange for labor on new roads, mountain terraces or other public infrastructure. The proactive approach is cheaper than emergency aid, donors say.

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