Advertisement

Ethiopia sends out drought SOS to stop history repeating

Thirty years after Ethiopia's horrendous famine a desperate battle is being fought to save another generation.

There can be no place on earth where the word drought has more dreadful resonance.

In Ethiopia in 1984, a famine of famously "Biblical proportions" claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

"The real question is do we have to see children dying like we did 30 years ago, or can we stop it happening again," John Graham, country director for Save the Children, told me.

Back then, John was a young aid worker helping to organise food supplies into the country torn apart by civil war.

Babies are weighed in an African nation increasingly dependent on aid for its growing population to survive.

In the three decades since, Ethiopia has changed beyond recognition.

Double-digit growth has brought roads, schools and clinics.

So why, 30 years on, is there this desperate fight to stop history repeating?

Ethiopia hopes the international community will respond to what amounts to an SOS to the world.

The answers are complex and the subject of much debate.

Then, a government that tried to cover up the crisis and aid agencies slow to respond took the blame.

This time, in contrast, the Ethiopian government has committed $380 million (£270 million) to combat the crisis.

Ethiopia's history of famine deaths is seared into the collective memory of the nation.

But it is simply overwhelmed by the scale of the drought.

Some believe that pride and a determination to present the country as a success has again meant the appeal for international help was slow coming.

But perhaps the biggest change since 1984 is that the population is now approaching 100 million people, more than double that of 30 years ago.

The Ethiopian government has committed £270 million to combat drought but it is overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis.

Of course, in part, that is testimony to the success of the aid industry. But it is also a failure. There are many more hungry mouths to feed.

Ethiopia, even in good times, has been the biggest African recipient of aid, pointing to slow progress to breaking the dependency on outside help.

There are many more hungry mouths to feed in Ethiopia than 30 years ago.

But John Graham rejects criticism of the aid programmes.

We are working on development projects, schemes to stop this happening again. But these are problems that don't go away overnight or even a decade.

Every time there is a drought, we ask how can we do things better. And I think we are doing things better.

– Save the Children country director John Graham

Still for now Ethiopia is sending out another SOS to a world distracted by many other crises and hoping once again the world will respond.