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The "Silently" Creeping Famine

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"Oh! What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive," said Sir Walter Scott, the novelist and poet. Is there "famine" in Ethiopia, or not? Are large numbers of people "starving" there, or not? Is convulsive hunger a daily reality for the majority of Ethiopians, or not?

No one wants to use the "F" word to describe the millions of starving Ethiopians. In August 2008, the head of the dictatorship in Ethiopia flatly denied the existence of famine in a Time Magazine interview. Meles Zenawi explained, "Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long, it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch -- emergencies, but no famines." Last week, the dictatorship's "Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development", Mitiku Kassa, reacting defensively to the latest Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) projections, was equally adamant: "In the Ethiopian context, there is no hunger, no famine... It is baseless [to claim famine], it is contrary to the situation on the ground. It is not evidence-based. The government is taking action to mitigate the problems." This past October, Kassa claimed everything was under control because his government has launched a food security program to "enable chronic food insecure households attain sufficient assets and income level to get out of food insecurity and improve their resilience to shocks...and halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015."

But there is manifestly a "silent" famine and a "quiet" hunger haunting the land under Zenawi's "watch." In April, 2009, Zenawi gave an interview to David Frost of Al Jazeera in which he openly admitted that famine is rearing its ugly head once again in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. Frost asked: "Is there any danger that as a result of this [current] crises there could be famine like there was famine in 1984?" Zenawi responded:

Well, the famine of 1984 was precipitated by drought in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in general. The famine that could emerge as a result of this [current] crises is likely to be across the continent in terms of not swaths of territory that are drought affected but people suffering hunger across the continent. That is the most likely scenario as I see it.

So, if the famine Horseman of the Apocalypse is haunting Ethiopia and the continent, "silently" and "quietly", why are we not sounding the alarm, ringing the bells and hollering for bloody help? Why are we quiet about the "quiet" hunger and silent about the "silent" famine enveloping Ethiopia today? Why?

It is mind-boggling that no one is making a big deal about the fact that famine and hunger are back in the saddle once more in Ethiopia. Ethiopians need help, and they need a lot of it fast and now. Of course, nothing more depressing than the sight, smell, and experience of famine and hunger. For the second part of the 20th Century, much of the world believed the words "Ethiopia" and "famine" were synonymous. But it is unconscionable and criminal for officials to avoid using the "F" word to describe the forebodingly bleak food situation in Ethiopia today because they are concerned it would cast a "negative image" on them. Even the international experts have joined the local officials in boycotting the use of the "F" word. Just last week, the U.S.-funded FEWSNET declared that the majority of Ethiopians will be facing "food insecurity" (not hunger, not starvation, not famine) in the next six months. According to FEWSNET, because of poor harvests from the summer rains in 2009,

as well as poor water availability and pasture regeneration in northern pastoral zones" [and coupled] with two consecutive poor belg cropping seasons... high staple food prices, poor livestock production, and reduced agricultural wages, [there will be an] elevated food insecurity over the coming six months [particularly in the] eastern marginal cropping areas in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia, pastoral areas of Afar and northern and southeastern Somali region, Gambella region, and most low-lying areas of southern and central SNNPR.... In most areas of the country, food insecurity during the first half of 2010 is projected to be significantly worse than during the same period in 2009... Food security in eastern marginal cropping areas will likely deteriorate even further between July and September 2010. Overall, humanitarian assistance needs are expected to be very high.

Is it not a low-down dirty shame for international organizations, political leaders, officials and bureaucrats to use euphemisms to hide the ugly truth about famines and mass-scale hunger? These heartless crooks have invented a lexicography, a complete dictionary of mumbo-jumbo words and phrases to conceal the public fact that large numbers of people in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa are dying simply because they have nothing or very little food to eat. They talk about "food insecurity ", "food scarcity", "food insufficiency", "food deprivation", "severe food shortages", "chronic dietary deficiency", "endemic malnutrition" and so on just to avoid using the "F" word. FEWSNET has invented a ridiculous system of neologism (new words) to describe hungry people. Accordingly, there are people who are generally food secure, moderately food insecure, highly food insecure, extremely food insecure and those facing famine (see map above). Translated into ordinary language, these nonsensical categories seem to equate those who eat once a day as generally food secure, followed by the moderately secure who eat one meal every other day, the highly insecure who eat once every three days, the extremely insecure who eat once a week, and those in famine who never eat and therefore die from lack of food.

For crying out loud, what is wrong with calling a spade a spade!? Why do officials and experts beat around the bush when it comes to talking about hunger as hunger, starvation as starvation and famine as famine? Do they think they can sugarcoat the piercing pangs of hunger, the relentless pain of starvation and the total devastation of famine with sweet bureaucratic words and phrases?

As officials and bureaucrats quibble over which fancy words and phrases best describe the dismal food situation, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are dying from plain, old fashioned hunger, starvation and famine. The point is there is famine in Ethiopia. One could disagree whether there are pockets of famine or large swaths of famine-stricken areas. One could argue whether 4.9, 6, 16 or 26 million people are affected by it. But there is no argument that there is famine; and this is not a matter for speculation, conjecture or exaggeration. It can be verified instantly. Let the international press go freely into the "drought affected" and "food insecure" areas and report what they find. For at least the past two years, they have been banned from entering these areas. Is there any doubt that they would reveal irrefutable evidence of famine on the scale of 1984-85 if they were allowed free access to these areas?

Obviously, it is embarrassing for a regime wafting on the euphoria of an "11 percent economic growth over the past 6 years" to admit famine. It is bad publicity for those claiming runaway economic growth to admit millions of their citizens are in the iron grip of a runaway famine. If the "F" word is used, then the donors would start asking questions, relief agencies would be scurrying to set up feeding stations, the international press would be demanding accountability, and all hell could break loose. That is why the dictatorship in Ethiopia reacts reflexively and defensively whenever the "F" word is mentioned. They froth at the mouth condemning the international press for making "baseless" claims of famine, and castigate them for perpetuating "negative images" of the country merely because the international press insists on finding out verifiable facts about the food situation in the country. The fact of the matter is that unless action is not taken soon to openly and fully admit that large swaths of the Ethiopian countryside are in a state of famine, we should soon expect to see splattered across the globe's newspapers pictures of Ethiopian infants with distended bellies, the skeletal figures of their nursing mothers and the sun-baked remains of the aged and the feeble on the parched land.

Denial of famine by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes is nothing new. During 1959-61, nearly 30 million Chinese starved to death in Mao's Great Leap Forward program which uprooted millions of Chinese from the countryside for industrial production. Mao never acknowledged the existence of famine, nor did he make a serious effort to secure foreign food aid. Ironically, the Chinese Revolution had promised the peasants an end to famine. The Soviet Famines of 1921 and 1932-3 are classic case studies in official failure to prevent famine.

Why is it so difficult for dictatorships and other non-democratic systems to admit famine, make it part of the public discussion and debate and unabashedly seek help? Part of it has to do with image maintenance. Official admission of famine is the ultimate proof of governmental ineptitude and depraved indifference to the suffering of the people. But there is a more compelling explanation for dictators not to admit famine conditions in their countries. It has to do with a fundamental disconnect between the dictators and their subjects. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argued:

The direct penalties of a famine are borne by one group of people and political decisions are taken by another. The rulers never starve. But when a government is accountable to the local populace it too has good reasons to do its best to eradicate famines. Democracy, via electoral politics, passes on the price of famines to the rulers as well.

An examination of the history of famine in Ethiopia lends support to Sen's theory. Emperor Haile Selassie lost his crown and life over famine in the early 1970s. He said he was just not aware of it. The military junta's (Derg) denied there was famine in 1984/85 while it waged war and experimented with the long-discredited practice of collectivized agriculture. That famine accelerated the downfall of the Derg. The current dictators have opted to remain willfully blind, deaf and mute to the "silent" famine and "quiet" hunger that are destroying the people.

The official response to famines in Ethiopia over the past four decades has followed a predictable pattern: Step 1: Never plan to prevent famine. Step 2: Deny there is famine when there is famine. Step 3: Condemn and vilify anyone who sounds the early alarm warning on famine. Step 4: Admit "severe food shortages" (not famine) and blame the weather, and God for not sending rain. Step 5: Make frantic international emergency calls and announce that hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians are dying from famine. Step 6: Guilt-trip Western donors into providing food aid. Step 7: Accuse and vilify Western donors for not providing sufficient food aid and blame them for a runaway famine. Step 8: Tell the world they knew nothing about a creeping famine until it suddenly hit them like a thunderbolt. Step 9: Put on an elaborate dog-and-pony show about their famine relief efforts. Step 10: Go back to step 1. This has been the recurrent pattern of famine response in Ethiopia: Always too little, too late.

The fact of the matter is that famines are entirely avoidable, as Sen has argued with substantial empirical evidence.

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence...they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and...a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threaten by famines can have.

There is another question that needs to be answered in connection with the "severe food shortages" in Ethiopia. Why are millions of fertile hectares of land under "lease" or sold outright to foreigners to feed millions continents away when millions of Ethiopians are starving? To paraphrase Sen, such a thing would be unthinkable in a functioning multiparty democracy!

With no pun intended, the "breadcrumbs" of famine (or, as they euphemistically call it, the "early warning signs") are plain to see. There have been successive crop failures and poor rainfall; water availability is limited and staple food prices are soaring; livestock production is poor as is pasture regeneration. Deforestation, land degradation, overpopulation, pestilence and disease are widespread in the land. If it quacks like a duck, swims like a duck and walks like a duck, it is famine!

If those whose duty is to sound the alarm and get help are not willing to do their part, it is the moral responsibility and duty of every Ethiopian and compassionate human being anywhere to create public awareness of Ethiopia's creeping famine and call for HELP! HELP! HELP!

"There has never been a famine in a functioning multiparty democracy." -- Amartya Sen