One way or another each of us found ourselves on the ground during the massive Ethiopian famine in 1984-85, which occasioned the famous Live Aid concert in December 1985 and the world-wide humanitarian response that followed. In the West those events bring to mind the horrific images of vast crowds of the emaciated and dying clustering for inadequate food distributions and medical treatment. On this 25th anniversary we offer these recollections of what was happening to people far from the ballyhoo who were living through this ordeal and discuss what aid was reaching them.
The most severe impact of famine was in the north-eastern provinces of Ethiopia – Wollo, Tigray and Eritrea (now an independent state). The drought had certainly affected these areas badly. They were often thought to be suffering from severe and maybe irreversible, decades-long deterioration of the soil’s fertility, as a result of over-population, unsustainable cultivation methods and over-grazing of pasture. (Just how far these dystopian diagnoses based on a simplistic Malthusian model, and which led to a policy of enforced migration, were and are still justified is an issue still relevant to today, as we shall see). But the terrible crisis was the product of another ingredient, widespread fighting between rebel movements and a military government bent on making no concessions. In Eritrea a liberation movement dedicated to self-determination of this former Italian, then British, colony had grown since 1961 and was being contained with Soviet backing, and only then with difficulty; many areas were under control of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) or contested. The Tigray people had later launched an armed struggle for regional autonomy from a regime that they believed marginalised their province. Their movement, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF – today the core of the ruling party network in Ethiopia), had control of much of the province by the early 1980s, though much of this area was inaccessible. The war of repression, with its toll in revenues and cannon fodder, had knock-on effects on well-being and food security in other parts of the country, especially Wollo.
I arrived in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, the week the news of the famine broke on the BBC. However I was no humanitarian worker, nor even a journalist. I was a young lecturer, with minimal knowledge of Ethiopian history and politics, who had been recruited to help develop the infant Theatre Studies Department at Addis Ababa University. It was to be a steep learning curve.
Two things relating to the famine were immediately apparent. City dwellers had been kept in comparative ignorance of the true extent of the disaster. Many Addis Ababa inhabitants were heavily urbanised and seldom travelled to rural areas which they looked upon with some horror. Assignments to work even in regional towns, let alone in the countryside, were generally looked upon as a form of exile in university educated groups; and identification with rural populations, especially if they were not of the Amhara ethnic group dominant in government and the city, was often minimal.
Secondly, although the government had sought to insulate the capital, to some degree at least, from the acute food problems, shortages of almost every commodity were a day to day reality. People depended on subsidised rations of staples like tef – the grain used for making the ubiquitous injera bread central to every highland Ethiopian meal – and sugar. These were distributed through kebele offices – a network of local area organisations which controlled everything from housing to employment to food allocation in this strictly controlled ‘Marxist’ capital. As a foreigner on a government wage somewhat, though not massively, higher than my Ethiopian colleagues, I was not eligible for rations and used the small supermarkets clustered round the University district. Here one could buy a number of foreign imports at a price, but whenever there was a delivery of the locally manufactured and rather thin blue or pink toilet paper rolls news spread round the University community like wildfire and we would rush to secure our allocated two rolls before supplies again ran out.
My first significant initiation to the stark realities of life even in the privileged University zone came after I gave back some work with fail marks attached. I found that one of my failing students appeared to be stalking me and was unnerved when I found him lurking in the dusk at the entrance to my block of flats. I asked him what he was doing and he in turn asked if I knew the significance of my giving him bad marks. I did not so he enlightened me. Any student who failed in his university studies – this applied only to male students – could be drafted to join the Ethiopian army. In subsequent months I got used to the sound of dawn sirens as districts were searched for unemployed young men. Anyone taken was given a hasty training of only a few weeks before being sent off to fight on any one of a growing number of fronts of rebellion within the Ethiopian empire. At times it was said that life expectancy on the Eritrea front was a matter of weeks for this cannon fodder, and I got used to the fact that after the sound of the sirens heralding a raid would come the ululating wails of mothers whose sons had been taken for the wars. Everyone got pass marks from me after my lesson in the consequences of academic failure.
Living in the capital remained a life insulated from the worst of the famine taking place just to the north of us, though news coverage did increase over the following months of 1984. When the Christmas vacation came – along with that dreadful song Do They Know It’s Christmas?; a catchy but crass exhibition of ignorance and arrogance given that highland Ethiopia has been deeply Christian since the 4th century AD – many University staff were sent to help build camps for famine victims. As a foreigner I was exempted but I had friends from Medicins Sans Frontieres and I spent a single weekend helping to establish the camp nearest to the capital. Certain memories stand out from my only encounter with the sharp end of the Ethiopian famine. Large tents were being put up as feeding and hospital centres with bottle top washers used to stop guy ropes rubbing on the canvas. The Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors were perpetually exhausted as they dealt with a seemingly endless stream of new arrivals. I learnt how to clean malnourished children’s eyes that had been painfully glued together, and spent hours sitting by a standpipe washing the eyes and ignoring the children’s cries so that they could subsequently be given eyesight saving drops and ointment. And I watched a stream of those who came to be known locally as famine tourists pass through the camp. These were officials from aid agencies and journalists who came to this particular camp because it was nearest to the capital and so could be reached and returned from within a day. They usually flew in from head offices in Nairobi, and could be found throughout the following year headquartered in the Hilton for the few days they spent in Ethiopia. At the camp they seemed to spend most of their time trying to avoid holding hands with the many children desperate for a little affection, and seeking entry to the tent reserved for the dying in search of good photo opportunities. Famine tourists, whether government sponsored, aid officials or pop stars, became a mightily despised breed as Addis Ababa citizens dealt with their profound ambivalence towards the phenomenon of Western aid that was recognised for its humanitarian generosity but always seemed to involve a reluctance to engage with ordinary Ethiopians and to view the whole ancient, proud country as a basket case suitable only for Western pity.
Philip White and I found ourselves some months later making the laborious trek overland from Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast and then the more hazardous climb up dried river beds and rough tracks, at night to avoid Ethiopian government spotter planes, into the arid, northern highlands of Eritrea. These were the areas ‘liberated’ by the EPLF beyond reach of the food relief operation mounted by the Ethiopian authorities in areas it controlled. Yet one notable achievement in keeping people alive during the great famine was a food relief pipeline, the ‘Cross-border Operation’ it was called, that did extend into these remote fastnesses. The last link in the chain was distribution by the humanitarian arm of the EPLF, the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA), to scattered populations at points not too far from where they lived. Using funds from Band Aid, lorry convoys laid on by charities like War on Want and Christian Aid in association with other European church bodies shifted food aid from Port Sudan close to the Eritrean border into the hands of ERA. The bulk supplies had been shipped there by the major food donors, the World Food Programme and US, Australian and other governments. The latter were respectably kept at arms length from any direct dealings with armed ‘terrorists’, heaven forbid! But this complicated channelling had worked, as we were to find out.
Philip and I with a Swede, Lars Bondestam, formed a special Leeds University team, funded by a consortium of NGOs, the Emergency Relief Desk, to evaluate how the operation worked, but focussed even more on what were the levels and forms of longer term need through ‘structured’ food insecurity. This was early in 1986; the worst of the drought seemed over and the international donors required evidence that people wouldn’t just quickly bounce back from loss of crops and livestock, that the livelihood systems through which people survived had suffered irrevocable harm. In short we were charged with testing how far the famine was a result of war.
A parallel operation had been set up to reach the many parts of Tigray in Ethiopia proper that were beyond Government’s control and in the hands of the TPLF. But this faced even more demanding logistics in more remote and difficult terrain, made worse by a falling out between EPLF and TPLF – maybe presaging the full-scale war that was to break out in 1998 after both movements had come to power in independent Eritrea and Ethiopia respectively. As a result the Tigray operation in the 1980s was not able to reach so close to where people lived. There were consequently scenes of people trekking in weakened states for days to reach the few havens, where large encampments developed of dependent people – similar to what occurred in Wollo and other parts of Ethiopia in images seen on TV screens in the West. Sadly our colleague Lars was blown up by a land mine when returning a year later from a similar evaluation of the Tigray operation to the one we had done together in Eritrea.
We saw no scenes of mass starvation in our travels in Eritrea. The crucial achievement was not just that enough food came in but that it was fanned out to be available near to where people lived. We witnessed some of these local hand-outs of rations. We also saw ERA teams and EPLF administrators sitting in the shade painstakingly compiling lists of the eligible, taking into account how much of a harvest, how many livestock and other disposable assets they had, ahead of a distribution. In the highland areas where people had smallholdings, producing some crops even if insufficient, around their village, we saw them walking off to or from a distribution in a nearby village or small town, but within a day’s journey. They would be back by nightfall. Donkeys were indispensible – especially for the many women on their own during the war. The poorest of the poor were those who had sold off even their donkeys and had to lug their bags of maize on their shoulders or else hire someone to help them.
One dramatic memory was of a palm-covered oasis in the lowlands near the Sudan border. Arriving early in the morning in a rugged 4×4, we found hundreds of more nomadic people dotted about under the trees with their camels. To avoid the spotter planes, they had to wait all day well after the handing out of bags of food until it was safe to trek off to their scattered and distant homes with their loaded animals under the protection of the gathering dusk. Vehicles like ours and even little trails of camels had often been targets of small bombers summoned up when reconnaissance planes spotted such movement.
It was mid-1987 when we made the first of three field visits. By then the worst of the drought was over, although the distributions continued. But how to assess the continuing need – this in a country where there were no statistics on food production or imports and there hadn’t been a census since 1931? Some kind of direct survey had to be attempted at village level. We considered that all that could be realistically attempted was a survey of a few sample communities. Our partners from ERA and EPLF were much more ambitious and attempted to get data from 401 villages, covering two thirds of the country. They just about succeeded, reaching as many as 382 of these villages. We got information on population and their own available food production by asking ‘how many months was last year’s harvest good for?’, and on their livestock – for eating, milk, sale and ploughing. We tried to document how the fighting had impacted on their lives. It varied but was often massive: crops and animals destroyed or confiscated, roadblocks and other travel restrictions, especially endangering women, that affected their access to markets, to sell produce and livestock and buy necessities, to obtain firewood and water. Recovery was by no means automatic once the rains resumed.
We heard of one village near the Sudan border where renewed risk was feared, and trekked there on foot (to avoid the spotter planes, of course) during the blazing daytime sun. When taken to see the village chairman he wouldn’t field questions about how bad it was until he had discharged the customary duties of a host. A girl was sent with a donkey to fetch water, and a boy to bring a young goat, which our host slaughtered, quartered and cooked under a sheltering tree as we waited. It was probably one of his few remaining animals, but first things first!
As the one team member with no previous links with the EPLF that might arouse suspicion on the part of the Ethiopian regime (the ‘Derg’), I preceded my first visit in 1987 to ‘the field’ (as the EPLF referred to their Eritrean areas of operation) with a short trip to Addis Ababa and the Eritrean capital Asmara. The aim was to see what relevant information might be available from Ethiopian government sources as well as intergovernmental agencies and NGOs working on the Ethiopian side. I arrived in Asmara to find this famously attractive town – with its palm-tree lined boulevards and Italian coffee bars – with a superficial air of normality but also a heavy military presence, high food prices, substantial dependence on food aid and a water supply system that had been out of action for weeks due to drought and lack of maintenance. Photos I took were later pored over with great interest and not a little nostalgia by EPLF cadres in the field.
At this time the government-controlled Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) was officially claiming to be the only agency distributing much needed food aid in Eritrea, reaching all parts of the territory apart from some remote ‘rebel’ bases in the north. Their Asmara office even had precise figures as to numbers in need (not 400,000 but 399,450!) and the tonnage that was needed. Off the record, some RRC staff conceded that what independent observers were saying was more likely to be accurate – that RRC information about and access to most rural areas, apart from those close to towns and main roads, were severely constrained by security conditions and that the real number of needy people was likely to be far higher (the UN estimate at the time was around 700,000). According to International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who were able to move more freely around the countryside, the nutrition situation had improved considerably since the height of the famine, but substantial pockets of malnutrition remained.
While the government line was that ‘rebel’ or ‘bandit’ activity in Eritrea was little more than an irritant, there was widespread recognition in other quarters that the fighting, forced conscription by the Derg and restrictions on movement and marketing were major obstacles to post-drought agricultural recovery as well as humanitarian access. So too were efforts to enforce compulsory membership of peasant associations which were obliged to supply the Agricultural Marketing Corporation with quotas of grain and other produce at way below market prices. Like the dam-building project I was shown, some of the donor-resourced food aid was being used for nearby food-for-work projects organised by these peasant associations, but some aid workers pointed out that the timing of these projects was unfortunate as they sapped participating households of labour just when this was needed for land preparation and planting in time for the main 1987 rainy season – and most of those working seemed to be women! Moreover, along with tools and oxen for ploughing, seeds were in critically short supply because the ICRC, which had taken on this vital post-drought role in conflict-affected areas, had been banned from doing so during these critical months because it had declined to work under RRC control. Finally, there was concern – which we later found to be echoed by ERA – that a major desert locust outbreak was under way and already airborne, necessitating aerial spraying operations which would need to be sanctioned by both of the warring parties, which proved impossible.
Travelling from Asmara to the arid EPLF base area involved a circuitous route via Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Port Sudan. Like other visitors, I was impressed by the efficiency of ERA’s operations with its fleets of trucks moving food aid into Eritrea, by the rehabilitation centre for the many landmine amputees, by the apparently humane treatment of Ethiopian prisoners of war we saw on the way in, by the main base area hospital – ‘the world’s longest hospital’ – with its many departments built under camouflage along the banks of a seasonal river and its well-equipped operating theatres, and by the workshops that could fix anything from watches to artillery and manufacture necessities ranging from the black plastic sandals worn by all EPLF cadres to sanitary towels to sterile intravenous fluids to books printed in several different Eritrean languages. As foreign cooperants, we were given VIP treatment in the ERA’s similarly camouflaged resthouses, including three nutritious meals a day, homemade rice wine and a daily coffee ceremony with the best coffee I have ever tasted.
Our first trip to the field was to launch the survey by testing and finalising its design and sampling procedures and training the cadres who were going to administer it, many of the latter having been invalided out of frontline service. Three months later we were back to collate and carry out a preliminary analysis of the data they had collected. During these pre-laptop days, this meant many long, hot hours checking and transcribing the data onto summary sheets, using calculators and a portable typewriter, the idea being to leave the original survey report forms, which were completed in the Tigrinya language, in the field.
At this time we also made visits to a sub-sample of villages to check the quality of the data. In my case this meant several days in Senhit province, driving up and down hair-raising escarpments by night and either sleeping or holding meetings with village groups under trees by day. The meetings usually involved translating between at least three languages (in this province Tigre, Tigrinya and English) and were time-consuming affairs, but hugely valuable for the insights they provided. Light was shed on the problems of trying to market cattle and buy provisions in nearby Ethiopian-occupied towns where both were subject to confiscation at checkpoints, so that camels had to be hired to make much longer trading journeys into Sudan. For me, these meetings also underlined how food aid is not just about replacing people’s lost crop production; it’s also about protecting people from high food prices and especially, in these ‘agropastoral’ areas, from having to dispose of their livestock at low prices to buy this food, to the extent that they can no longer breed up their herds even when pastures improve. This meant that any estimate of food aid ‘requirements’ would need to relate to the objectives that food aid was to be aimed at: just keeping hunger at bay until people could rebuild their livelihoods, or helping that rebuilding process as well?
The dangers of air-attack were also brought home to me during these village visits. One afternoon we rested at an EPLF encampment while waiting for nightfall so that we could travel to the next village. A good opportunity, I thought, to wash my underwear, which I duly hung out to dry on a thornbush – only to be ticked off for doing so on the grounds that they could be seen by Ethiopian spotter planes. Half an hour later we were jolted awake by a jet fighter screaming low overhead, followed by the deafening crash of close-by anti-aircraft fire. My ERA guides were kind enough to mention that it probably wasn’t my underpants that attracted the MiG, but suggested once again that I dry my clothes under cover in future!
Ethiopia and Eritrea today: the End of Famine?
One of the slogans of Band Aid was “Make Hunger History”. But the realities today are disappointing. In Ethiopia this year, even in the absence of drought, 10% of Ethiopia’s 85 million people rely on food relief in some form. The UN’s World Food Programme calls it ‘structural food insecurity’. These are signs of permanent impoverishment that show there has been no break-through in food production, and in livelihoods for the poorest, despite healthy overall growth in the economy. Rural development strategy misguidedly repeated population movement from the habitual famine areas – a repeat of the military regime’s forced migration policy that helped to create the crisis of 1984-85. Now there has been a shift to seeking new solutions in grandiose projects whereby huge tracts of land are being made over to international companies for bio-fuel or Chinese or Gulf state sovereign funds for food production. The largest just announced is a chunk as big as Belgium!
Nor has food security been addressed in Eritrea. Domestic production even in a good year hardly meets half of food needs, and the stagnation of the economy means purchasing imports would be almost impossible but for remittances from the many Eritreans abroad.
Lionel Cliffe is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. He has worked on political economy and politics of development in Africa for fifty years, with field work in Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, and Eritrea.
Jane Plastow is Professor of African Theatre at the University of Leeds.
Philip White is an independent consultant and researcher specialising in food security and livelihoods, social protection approaches to hunger and vulnerability, conflict, complex emergencies and disaster risk reduction, with particular focus on southern Africa and the Horn as well as Nepal. Together with Lionel Cliffe he has published on Eritrea and Ethiopia over a number of decades.