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Africa's plight: 'We need food aid otherwise we and our children will die.'

By Andrew Hewett - posted Tuesday, 1 July 2003

"I have a headache and pain all over my body. Our animals have all died from thirst and hunger. We have wheat to eat but it is no good for sick people or babies. We have no milk. Without our animals we have nothing to do but wait for God to give us a better life".

Madina, a 35-year-old woman from Ethiopia talks to Oxfam aid workers after she and her 85 year-old mother Cadiga walked through the parched Ethiopian landscape for three days to reach a water point. Cadiga and Madina are the human faces of a food crisis unparalleled in Ethiopia's history, where more than 12 million people - one in five Ethiopians - are now threatened with starvation.

With a strange sense of deja vu, it took the recent visit by rock icon Sir Bob Geldof to Ethiopia to finally push this forgotten emergency - now more than 12 months in the making - into newspapers around the world. Nearly 20 years ago it was also Geldof who pushed the plight of Ethiopians starved by drought onto television screens and channelled public concern through his Live Aid campaign.


As in 1984, this crisis has been triggered by rain failure. In 2002, Ethiopia's February Belg rains failed, preventing 85 per cent of Ethiopians dependent on cultivating land from planting long-cycle crops. Further rain failures later in 2002 confirmed the looming crisis, leaving most farmers with only one or two months' food supply.

Critically, at least one lesson has been learned during the past 20 years. In 1984, the international community failed to respond to Ethiopia's plight until after the crisis had escalated. Now however, the Ethiopian government has a fully operational early-warning system which successfully identifies looming food shortages and provides the World Food Programme (WFP) and donor governments with sufficient advanced warning of food shortages for aid to be pledged and reach communities in need before it is too late.

Sadly, what has not changed since 1984 is the political will of donor governments to respond to Ethiopia's calls of need before it is too late. Last week, the WFP announced that it has been forced to cut Ethiopians' food rations from 15 kilograms to 12.5 kilograms a month because donor governments have failed to provide the aid needed. Currently, the WFP has about half of the 619,000 metric tonnes of food aid needed by Ethiopia. The shortfall - some 230,000 metric tonnes - amounts to some $150 million of additional aid urgently needed. Australia's initial contribution of $2.5 million is welcome - but we must give more, now.

Most agree that this crisis cannot be solved by short-term food aid alone. Long-term investment is needed to tackle broader structural issues. Insufficient investment in rural markets and infrastructure has combined with the small size of land holdings - usually just one hectare per farmer - and insecure land tenure to stymie diversification and investment by farmers into their land.

Other structural problems require corporate social responsibility to be more than a buzzword. With 60 per cent of Ethiopia's export earnings coming from its millions of small-holder coffee farmers, the global slump in coffee prices is also having a devastating effect on Ethiopia's capacity to respond to the drought.

Deregulation of the global coffee industry has pushed coffee prices down by 70 per cent in the past four years, reducing Ethiopia's export earnings by more than $150 million per annum and coffee growers' income to not even three cents per cup for the typical $3 cappuccino sold in Australia. This of course has been a gold mine for the world's big coffee roasters - Kraft (makers of Maxwell House), Nestle and Sara Lee - who remain unwilling to take responsibility for their role in deepening the crisis faced in Ethiopia, despite reaping combined profits of more than $28 billion in 2001.


As an Ethiopian coffee farmer recently told Oxfam, "It is unfair that they buy our coffee at such a small price when you tell us that a cup of coffee in Australia costs $3. We get less than 3 cents per cup. Australians must respond to our emergency as it is unjust. We are in a critical situation for the next three months. We need food aid otherwise we and our children will die."

More than 28 million people across Southern Africa and Ethiopia are facing extreme food shortages and the risk of starvation. Without swift international action, the Ethiopian crisis has the potential to be a repeat of the 1984-85 disaster. Oxfam Community Aid Abroad is bringing relief to the region, but we need your help. To donate money to Oxfam Community Aid Abroad's Africa in Crisis appeal, call 1800 088 110 or donate online at

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About the Author

Andrew Hewett is Executive Director of Oxfam Australia.

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