Is the Era of Great Famines Over?

New York Times, May 8, 2016

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The worst drought in three decades has left almost 20 million Ethiopians — one-fifth of the population — desperately short of food. And yet the country’s mortality rate isn’t expected to increase: In other words, Ethiopians aren’t starving to death.

I’ve studied famine and humanitarian relief for more than 30 years, and I wasn’t prepared for what I saw during a visit to Ethiopia last month. As I traveled through northern and central provinces, I saw imported wheat being brought to the smallest and most remote villages, thanks to a new Chinese-built railroad and a fleet of newly imported trucks. Water was delivered to places where wells had run dry. Malnourished children were being treated in properly staffed clinics.

Compare that to the aftermath of the 1984 drought, which killed at least 600,000 people, caused the economy to shrink by nearly 14 percent and turned the name “Ethiopia” into a synonym for shriveled, glazed-eyed children on saline drips.

How did Ethiopia go from being the world’s symbol of mass famines to fending off starvation? Thanks partly to some good fortune, but mostly to peace, greater transparency and prudent planning. Ethiopia’s success in averting another disaster is confirmation that famine is elective because, at its core, it is an artifact and a tool of political repression.

In 1984, the rains failed in the midst of a civil war, pitting the military regime headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam against rebels in the northern province of Tigray and neighboring Eritrea. When food ran short, Mengistu’s government blocked trade, bombed markets and withheld emergency supplies in rebel-controlled areas.

The suffering that ensued elicited a vast outpouring of generosity from the West, brought about in part by the Live Aid concerts. But all that charity was no more than a Band-Aid, as even its instigator, the musician Bob Geldof, observed at the time. That was because war was destroying Ethiopia’s rural economy, and food aid was being redirected from civilians to soldiers and government militias.

In 1987, as the famine was receding, a group of researchers and I went to Tigray on a mission for Oxfam to study local food markets. We reached a simple conclusion: When farmers could bring foodstuffs to points of sale — when the roads were clear of army checkpoints, when markets were held at night to reduce the risk of being bombed — the local economy worked efficiently enough. With markets in operation, the production of local crops increased, and food prices fell to levels people could afford.

Ending famine required ending fighting.

The Mengistu regime collapsed in 1991. Under the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a former guerrilla turned advocate of rapid economic growth, Ethiopia enjoyed internal peace for the first time in a generation. There were localized droughts but no famines — with one notable exception.

In 1999, food shortages in the southeastern part of the country killed 29,000 people. What could have just been a crisis devolved into disaster because the government was at war with Eritrea along its northern border, and foreign donors, appalled that the government would spend its meager resources on fighting, were slow to provide food aid.

A major drought in 2002 caused hunger nationwide. But the following year, when I traveled with a team from the United Nations Children’s Fund to stricken areas in Wollo (north), Hararghe (east) and Sidama and Wollaita (south), we didn’t see the telltale canvas tents of emergency distribution centers. A vast relief effort mounted by the government and international agencies was managing to deliver at least some food to many villages, and so people were staying at home.

Some people were still going hungry, for sure, and in the worst cases children were starving, but in far smaller numbers than in the past. Our survey of child survival rates also found that outside these pockets of starvation, mortality rates weren’t rising relative to non-drought years.

By 2015, when El Niño brought the worst drought in decades, Ethiopia was better prepared than ever. In the intervening decade, the government had begun programs to help families facing food shortages with various forms of food and cash assistance. It had taken measures to mitigate the effects of droughts, rehabilitating water catchments, reforesting and building roads and clinics, especially in the countryside.

The government also had money on hand. Ethiopia is a petroleum importer, and the central bank had set aside nearly $1 billion in case oil prices rose, Finance Minister Abdulaziz Mohammed told me. But instead oil prices had plummeted, and within a few months of the drought hitting, the government had spent some $300 million on emergency relief, with more to come.

The economy will take a hit. Animals are dying of thirst, and the livelihoods of families that rely on sheep or cattle are being wiped out. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that the G.D.P. growth rate will drop to about 8.5 percent in 2015 and 2016, down from more than 10 percent in 2014. But that’s still 8.5 percent, an impressive figure. And people aren’t dying.

Some risks remain. Ethiopia’s early-warning system is designed to detect and respond to drought in farming areas, rather than, say, small cities. Urbanization, dislocation and other economic changes are happening faster than the government’s prevention and relief measures can adapt.

But these challenges are manageable, so long as there is the political will to manage them. Grimly certain that droughts will recur — and when there won’t be an oil contingency fund to tap — Mr. Mohammed has opened talks with the World Bank to devise a national drought insurance plan. This is a sensible move.

It’s also evidence that after countries have passed a certain threshold of prosperity and development, peace, political liberalization and greater government accountability are the best safeguards against famine. There is no record of people dying of famine in a democracy.

Nearly 115 million people died of starvation between 1870 and 1980, almost 90 percent of them as a result of imperial conquest, great wars or repression under totalitarian regimes, according to an analysis we conducted at the World Peace Foundation. Since then, with the end of major international conflicts and at least some measure of democratization across much of the world, starvation has receded.

So is the era of great famines finally over? Let’s just say it could be. Famine isn’t caused by overpopulation, and as Ethiopia’s experience shows, it’s not a necessary consequence of drought. Politics creates famine, and politics can stop it.


Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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