More aid now is critical for 11 million hungry people in Ethiopia, agency heads tell Washington

Baltimore, March 19, 2003 -- Ethiopia is holding a precarious line in the war against famine, a three-agency delegation told a Washington news conference yesterday.
"Outside aid has made a big difference", the delegates reported, but more is needed urgently -- $350 million more, they said, for additional food and related non-food aid from the U.S. government. After the news conference the delegation spent the afternoon bringing the same message to members of Congress. Now is the time for long-term development assistance to pre-empt the next food crisis as well, they stressed.

Although the topic was crisis in Ethiopia, the crisis in Iraq inserted itself. One reporter asked how the crisis in Iraq would affect the delegation's call for aid.

"We will not let Africa go unnoticed," said Kenneth Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services. "We are here to say there is not enough food in the aid pipeline, and that our government -- which has done a lot in this case -- must do more."

Eleven million people are at risk. The aid pipeline is not secure. Food reserves will be depleted by April and pledges of food beyond mid-year are uncertain," said Lutheran World Relief President Kathryn Wolford, speaking for the agencies that work in the name of tens of millions of Americans.

Wolford and the heads of Catholic Relief Services and Africare have just returned from a mission to assess the severe food shortage in Ethiopia. The delegation held a briefing at the National Press Club yesterday, conveying a mixture of alarm, optimism and confidence.

"Will we all be too distracted by other news to respond at all?" asked Wolford. "As faith-based agencies, we have no choice but to raise the issue of Ethiopia now."

"It is impossible to visit Ethiopia today and not think about the 1984-85 famine," Wolford said. More people are at risk today than in that epic disaster of a million deaths, she noted.

Population increases, crop failures in lowland areas, environmental damage and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS all add to the risk of a major humanitarian crisis, Wolford said. Eritrea, where two million people are affected by a similar food crisis, also needs assistance, the group said.

The delegation visited a family whose youngest child is three years old, but is the size of a one-year-old, Wolford said. The home was bare except for a cooking pot and a few utensils. "They have nothing left to cushion the impact of the current drought and are still reeling from the drought three years ago. They have already depleted their meager assets of seeds and animals," she said.

But today's crisis can turn out relatively well, the delegates stressed. 350,000 more tons of prompt food aid is critical, CRS's Hackett said, and an increase in long-term assistance can radically change prospects for vulnerable people in the crisis-prone country.

Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of food aid in the world, yet is one of the smallest recipients of development aid even though it is among the world's very poorest countries. Africare President Julius Coles, the third member of the delegation, noted that U.S. Government emergency aid to Ethiopia was 50 times greater last year than its agricultural development assistance ($200 million versus $4 million). Aid experts calculate that $1 of long-term mitigation aid is worth $7 of emergency relief.

Substantial new investments in agriculture, marketing, and education today can break the cycle of recurring hunger tomorrow, Coles said. It takes educated, literate people with real skills to make a lasting change, he said.

"It is going to have to be a 'both-and,'" Wolford said. "Emergency aid today and investment for the future." Funding emergencies at the expense of development assistance simply leads to more emergencies, the delegation said.