In 1984, one million Ethiopians died during a catastrophic famine. The government at the time hid the scale of hunger until a shocking BBC television report ignited a massive relief effort, supported by the Band Aid movement. Though this was too late for too many, thousands of lives were saved.
The severity of suffering seen 25 years ago has not returned to Ethiopia. But, as we are seeing again this year, drought still plagues the country. Oxfam estimates that drought costs Ethiopia roughly $1.1bn a year - almost eclipsing the total annual overseas assistance to the country. The damage done by drought could increase too. Climatic projections predict that, by the 50th anniversary of the 1984 famine, what we now call drought will be the norm, hitting the region in three years out of four.
Each drought demands that the government co-ordinate timely humanitarian response, but we have to ask: what can be done to prevent the next drought from becoming a disaster? The humanitarian response to drought and other disasters is still dominated by 'band-aids' such as imported food aid. This saves lives now, but it does little to help communities withstand the next shock.
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. This begs a second question: 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 the government, non-government organisations (NGOs), and the UN working in partnership with communities to identify what the threats are, such as drought or flood; to analyse how vulnerable a community or country is to them; and to decide how best to reduce the risks posed by these events, before they happen.
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. Nor is DRM the whole answer: without longer-term development of livelihoods, for instance through improvements in natural resource management and farming practices, Ethiopians will still be vulnerable to shocks such as drought; and in the meantime emergency aid will still be required. But framing the response to disasters within DRM, as the Ethiopian government is now trying to do, compared with the current over-reliance on band-aid responses, is:
- More cost-effective: aiming to reduce the need for expensive emergency response; for instance, in a drought providing food in exchange for work on a water conservation project that increases farmers' productivity;
- More sustainable: within DRM, immediate needs are met but there is greater focus on how communities can prepare for the next disaster. DRM gives communities, and especially women, the dignity of building on their assets, abilities, and practices;
- Better suited to the situation of Ethiopians: the DRM approach emphasises local capacity, where people are best placed to understand and address the risks.
Over the past 25 years, the advantages of this DRM approach have become so plain that the remaining question is: why it is not already the guiding approach to disasters in Ethiopia? Donors in particular have further to go to link humanitarian response to development, but all humanitarian stakeholders have a role in making DRM common practice:
- The Ethiopian government should bring together all relevant actors, including national civil society and donors, to lead a co-ordinated, ambitious approach to disasters that targets vulnerability and disaster risk, especially linked to climate change.
- The Ethiopian government should also ensure that all those affected by humanitarian disasters get the right aid at the right time.
- Donors should increase investment in building communities' resilience to disasters and alternatives to imported food aid, including investment in local and regional production.
- The World Food Programme (WFP) should make their emergency food aid programmes contribute more to sustainable development.