Ethiopia holding precarious line against famine, aid agencies report

News and Press Release
Originally published
March 18, 2003, Washington, DC - The executives of three humanitarian organizations warned in a news conference today that Ethiopia is on the brink of famine unless the international community takes immediate action. Eleven million people are currently in need of emergency assistance due to prolonged drought throughout the country, and an additional three million are at risk if there is yet another failed harvest.
Ken Hackett, Executive Director of Catholic Relief Services, traveled last week to Ethiopia with Kathryn Wolford, President of Lutheran World Relief, and Julius E. Coles, President of Africare, where they assessed the needs in what is considered the country's worst crisis since the famine of the mid-1980s.

"More people are affected by this food shortage than in 1984, when one million lives were lost," Hackett said. "This time, we have the systems in place to avert a similar disaster. But the systems are worthless unless we have the needed funds."

The executives are calling upon the U.S. government to approve an immediate $350 million in emergency food assistance for Ethiopia and other drought-affected countries throughout Africa in order to stave off a widespread famine.

The executives acknowledged that efforts to respond to the crisis have been successful thus far due to the early warning signs established in the mid-90s, a responsive Ethiopian government, and quick action on the part of the international community and private voluntary organizations. Yet the food pipeline is expected to be shut down by summer if the current shortfall of 350,000 metric tons of food aid does not come through, leaving millions of people without food to survive.

"Ethiopia is holding a line against a full-fledged famine," Wolford said. "The aid pipeline is not at all secure, and people are already exhausting their coping mechanisms by selling their possessions and leaving their homes in search of food."

In a country where more than 89% of farmers depend completely on rainfall to irrigate their crops, the failure of last season's rains meant the loss of most or all of the harvest for many farmers. In addition, a major drought in 2000 left many in Ethiopia with only a few basic assets entering this period of hardship, having sold their livestock to make it through the previous lean seasons. Many Ethiopians are entering this new food crisis with no assets.

In addition to the need for emergency food assistance, the delegates pointed to the country's need for increased long-term development aid. Widespread poverty and poor infrastructure throughout Ethiopia make the country more susceptible to the negative effects of cyclical droughts. Yet Ethiopia receives only $4 million a year in development assistance from the U.S. government compared to $200 million a year for emergency relief.

"People walk 12 miles just to get fresh water to drink," Coles said. "We must devote more resources to the development of irrigation facilities and water systems. Funding emergencies at the cost of development assistance simply leads to more emergencies."

The organizations are calling upon the U.S. government and the international community to enhance investments in agricultural development, irrigation and infrastructure that will form the foundation of food security.

Ethiopia is one of several countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa in need of emergency food assistance this year. Thirty-eight million Africans are facing severe food shortages and possible famine through the end of 2003 as the result of a convergence of multiple factors: some natural, like drought and floods, and some man-made, like destructive government policies in Zimbabwe and Zambia. This catastrophe is compounded by the AIDS pandemic that is further weakening the population.

In December 2002, executives of American humanitarian relief organizations, the United Nations World Food Program, and the U.S. Agency for International Development gathered at CRS headquarters in Baltimore to launch a coordinated global campaign to respond to the food crisis gripping the African continent. "The Baltimore Declaration: Africa in Crisis," was a unified pledge to prevent famine from taking hold in parts of southern, eastern and western Africa.

"We are aware that there are other events in the world that are demanding attention," Hackett said today. "But, just as we pledged in December, we will not and cannot let the people of Africa go unnoticed."

Catholic Relief Services is marking its 60th year as the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community. The agency provides assistance to people in 90 countries and territories on the basis of need, not race, creed or nationality.

To contribute to Catholic Relief Services' efforts, send donations to:

Catholic Relief Services
"Africa Hunger Crisis"
P.O. Box 17090
Baltimore, MD, 21203-7090


Jennifer Lindsey
Teri Weefur