Ethiopia drought: How can we let this happen again?

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Ethiopia’s Tigray and Afar regions to the north have once again been hit by a drought that is estimated to be the worst in 50 years – more terrible than that of 1984, which contributed to the famine that killed more than one million Ethiopians.

The alarm has now been sounded – after an avoidable delay, according to some – with the United Nations and Save the Children swinging into action to raise funds for Ethiopia. This time the argument for funds isn’t just to save lives but to ensure that Ethiopia’s current developmental momentum – and its best chance of being able to handle such droughts – remains on track.

But how could this be happening again – little more than 30 years after a global humanitarian appeal that raised many millions of dollars and saw foreign NGOs rush in to establish famine relief efforts and a host of infrastructure projects designed to prevent such a disaster recurring?

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Such incredulity, already voiced in some media, is understandable: although the response from the Ethiopian government has been seen as partially successful, imminent crisis, exacerbated by the reaction – or lack thereof – from the international community, remains a distinct possibility.
Donor fatigue

Herein lies Ethiopia’s greatest challenge: donor fatigue, especially after 2015 proved to be such a tumultuous, humanitarian-crisis-riddled year.

The harsh economic truth this time is that Ethiopia is competing for international funds against the likes of war-torn Syria and Yemen, and a migrant crisis. In addition, the cogs of the bureaucratic donor system are not renowned for turning quickly.

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Initially, Ethiopia tried what many in the West complain that developing countries don’t do enough of: tackling the situation itself, employing a sophisticated food security network developed over the decades since awful images of the 1984 famine came to stigmatise Ethiopia.

Ethiopia tried what many in the West complain that developing countries don’t do enough of: tackling the situation itself…

The Productive Safety Net Programme is a welfare-for-work initiative enabling six million people to work on public infrastructure projects in return for food or cash.

Furthermore, there is a national food reserve and early warning systems throughout the woredas – the local administrative organisations.

Ethiopia’s efforts went as far as the early opening of a railway line – the country’s only one – between Djibouti and Addis Ababa, to transport food aid. It also committed an unprecedented $192m to help to prevent deaths from starvation. The country’s ability and its means of providing emergency relief have changed beyond recognition since 1984.

But these efforts hit a snag: between June and October in 2015 the estimated numbers of those affected by the drought doubled to around 8.2 million.

Predicting the severity of the drought’s severity was beyond Ethiopia’s ability with the ocean-warming El Nino causing unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere. Neighbouring Somalia has about three million people hit by crop failures and food shortages.

So, finally, Ethiopia’s government has asked for help. But some within NGOs say that the government delayed unnecessarily while going it alone to maintain the narrative of Ethiopia’s great economic renaissance, achieving about 10 percent annual growth over the past decade.