Donors tire of hearing about droughts and food emergencies. We know this, because we know how hard it is to raise funds for these places, and once a critical emergency has dropped off the headlines, the chronic crisis behind the scenes drops from public awareness. Following on from a disaster like the Horn of Africa famine, interest in the place kind of dries up. There’s little way aid agencies can come back to the public the next year and say, “Hey guys, guess what? There’s more starving people in East Africa”.
Which is unfortunate on two counts. First, because there are more starving people in East Africa. And second, because now we find it hard to raise support for them.
Take this, for example. This year has been a good year in Ethiopia. The rains were good, and the harvests pretty solid. Also this year, there are between three and four million acutely food-insecure people in Ethiopia. Think about that number for a moment. Three to four million. The size of a large city in most western nations. All those people, struggling to feed themselves for a variety of reasons- locally poor rains, low entitlements, poor infrastructure, lack of access to markets, displacement- there are dozens of reasons, all complex and all intertwined.
In fact, that’s only part of the issue. Because there are an additional seven million people chronically food insecure. That means that their ability to feed themselves and their families is compromised in some way in a long-term capacity. They may be able to meet some of their food needs, but not all of them. Seven million. We’re talking the population of a massive city, or a small country now. Switzerland. On top of the three to four million who are acutely food insecure.
And this is a good year.
Sound bad? It is. For every one of these ten million or so people who are either acutely or chronically food insecure, this is an unpleasant, demeaning and possible life-threatening situation, particularly for young children. And these concepts of ‘food insecurity’ are not just plucked out of the air- they are based on hard statistics, on international standards, carefully monitored by teams of sectoral specialists feeding into early warning systems nationwide.
And yet, lest you think I’m out here Ethiopia-bashing, I’m not.
Ethiopia has a population of around 85 million people. That means that across this large, diverse and populous African nation, 75 million people are in fact more or less completely food secure. We’re talking Ethiopia- the nation that brought us Band Aid and Live Aid, ghastly and inappropriate images of human suffering in the midst of famine.
More than that, Ethiopia’s government has a safety net program in place that caters for the needs of the seven or so million that are chronically food insecure. With a combination of cereal redistribution and import, bilateral and multilateral aid, the government, supported by operational partners, ensures that the seven million people struggling to meet their own food needs are catered for.
In other words, the Ethiopian government ensures that a good 81 to 82 million of its population of 85 million are in good hands.
And the balance? The balance are also catered for, through a mixture of NGO and UN aid programs, all overseen by the state. It’s not a perfect system. But it is a system. There is coordinated, nationwide monitoring and early-warning systems- which admittedly need tweaking to ensure greater resolution, but which are nonetheless present and functioning. There are welfare programs which, again, certainly require improvement to avoid over-dependence by communities on outside assistance, but which nonetheless prevent millions of people slipping into life-threatening starvation. And there is a network of response agencies funded by a mixture of outside sources who ensure that, under the coordination of the government and the United Nations, those who slip through the safety net receive appropriate levels of assistance.
The needs here are massive, in terms of simple numbers. And yet, at the same time, so is the capacity of both response agencies and the state. We can say three million, even ten million people in Ethiopia are in need of assistance, and we might be inclined to roll our eyes and voice with exasperation that question when will these African countries get their acts together and stop starving? The fact is, Ethiopia has a phenomenal capacity and has made enormous strides for the wellbeing of its population over the 25+ years since the 1984 famine. Most of the population is self-sufficient, and it is able to meet the needs of almost all people, even facing issues such as overpopulation, climate change and displacement. While the material backing for some of this assistance may come from outside, much of the capacity to implement is in fact domestic. The balance, though representing a large number of humans in absolute terms, is a relatively small proportion of the nation in context. And their needs are real.
It’s important to understand the nuances of a country’s context when calls for assistance go out. When a nation like Ethiopia declares a food emergency, as it did in 2011, it’s not because it’s some despotic failed state that simply can’t manage its own affairs. Instead it’s a nation that has made enormous strides in improving the level of support to its own people. It’s a nation in which nearly all people are able to meet their own needs, and the majority of those who are not are covered by ongoing state welfare support networks. It’s a nation facing geographical, historical and environmental challenges, and for the most part, coming out on top. But there’s still a small proportion slipping through the cracks. And for those people, we hope the world will hold back its assumptions and its impatience with what appears to the casual glance to be an intractable, unchanging problem, and provide the assistance needed.