29 October 2013
Children in the village of Awo, such as 13-year-old Tiblets Gebray, often suffer from chronic malnutrition and depend on outside support during lean years. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
In the Autumn issue of ONE, Don Duncan writes about efforts to help in the hungry in parts of Ethiopia. Here, he offers his personal impressions of the region he visited.
I was only about 5 when Irish rock singer Bob Geldof was making headlines again. We were used to seeing him prancing around a stage singing hits like “I Don’t Like Mondays” with his band, The Boomtown Rats. Ireland is a small place and we are almost systematically proud of anyone who makes it big beyond our shores.
By 1984, Geldof was becoming known more for his humanitarian credibility than for his indie credibility. Responding to BBC reports of a burgeoning famine crisis in Ethiopia, he established a series of charity initiatives in the United Kingdom and beyond involving rock stars and rock concerts. Band Aid in 1984 and Live Aid in 1985 netted a combined total of $245 million for Ethiopia.
Almost 30 years later, Geldof remains high in the Ethiopian consciousness. Everywhere I went, the mere mention of my nationality elicited the same response: Bob Geldof!
In Europe, the legacy of the Band Aid/Live Aid era has been a deeply entrenched image of Ethiopia as a place of poverty, misery and famine. My experience so far in this county has been to the contrary, thankfully. Sure, the country has its problems but it is rapidly developing and most of the regions are stable, food secure and progressing.
It was not until I got to the northern region of Tigray that a shadow was cast on this largely positive impression. Many areas near the border with Eritrea in northern Tigray, as well as in the desert areas of southeastern Ethiopia, are in constant danger of famine. Population growth over the past 30 years, combined with the detrimental effects of climate change on yearly rainfall, have rendered many swaths of the region barren and left its population chronically food insecure. It is here that I found the schools where CNEWA is helping to provide crucial high-energy biscuits during the months where food is most scarce.
It was shocking to me to think that, while the rest of the country develops, some areas are slipping back to conditions similar to the traumatic famine that swept the country in the 1970’s and 80’s. But then I began to see terraces along the hills, dams on streams, small reservoirs, canalization and irrigation systems and other such technology dotting the landscape that spoke of a real effort to stave the effects of climate change. I was told that since the fall of the communist Derg regime in 1990 — a regime that worked on natural resource rehabilitation, but only in the villages it wanted to repopulate — the new administration has been very serious about land rehabilitation across the whole country.
It reminded me of how famine can be political. Again, I thought of Bob Geldof and the politics of his Live Aid and Band Aid initiatives. Through music and televised events, he created a widespread consciousness of the Ethiopian famine among the populations in the West and, by extension, forced Western government to stand up, pay attention and take action.
Most encouraging of all is that, unlike the external aid of the 1980’s, the land rehabilitation initiatives in Ethiopia today are managed domestically by the Ethiopian government. While much of the money for the projects comes from foreign governments and international agencies like the World Food Program, Ethiopia has taken the fore on managing its own risk with regards to drought, famine and food insecurity. This is very encouraging.
Still, for many of the homes and schools I visited in northern Tigray, this sea change is imperceptible. Their fields are still poor and their stomachs empty for much of the year. But all around them, technologies and infrastructures are being put in place that will eventually, perhaps in the next few years, return a level of productivity to their land and food to their table.
Read more of Don Duncan’s reporting in Hungry to Learn, in the Autumn issue of ONE. To find out how you can help feed the hungry in Ethiopia, follow this link.
Tags: Ethiopia ONE magazine Farming/Agriculture Hunger Famine