Ethiopian Famine: A Critical Study

Posted on Posted in Africa, Analyses

By Evangelos Koulis, Analyst KEDISA


“A famine can be declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. They are: at least 20 per cent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons” (UN, 2011).

Can famine be interpreted by a set of criteria? Do these numbers provide details concerning the causes that led people to starve to death? The great famine in Ethiopia that lasted between 1983-5 had grave consequences. Food shortages and the drought in combination with the counter-insurgency strategies followed by the Ethiopian government, resulted in approximately one million Ethiopian citizens (De waal, 1991) to die from starvation, human rights abuses and controversial governmental policies. After the publicity given to this tragedy by the media (Benthall, 1993; Franks, 2010a), numerous Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) and Governmental Organisations (i.e UN) rushed to ease Ethiopians’ suffering. As a matter of fact Live Aid fund-raising campaign managed to gather millions of donations for Ethiopia’s famine. By the end of the famine, Ethiopia had to face thousands of traumatised people, a bankrupt economy, a damaged environment and an unstable political system (De Waal, 1991). On the contrary, due to the financial help from international donors, a number of long-term and short-term plans started by international organisations to prevent other famines and make Ethiopia self-sufficient.

Given these facts the main objective of this essay will be to examine the humanitarian intervention problematic by evaluating a series of technocratic and bureaucratic processes implemented in the Ethiopian famine, revealing their ‘failure’ to address the root of this complex emergency.

A brief clarification needs to be made over the terms technocratic and bureaucratic. For the purposes of this essay, these two terms will signify all the managerial and technological practices followed by experts to ‘deal’ with emergency politics and especially famines. Moreover these two terms will symbolise the ideological difference between those who perceive famine as a ‘knowledge’ (Edkins, 2000) problem to be solved, and those who see it as an outcome of abusive political decisions.

In order for this to be accomplished, this essay is going to be structured in four sections. The first section will be an generic examination of the allegations made against bureaucratic and technocratic processes regarding emergency politics. The following section will be an analysis of the managerial and technological practices implemented in Ethiopian famine until the next Ethiopian crisis in 1999-2000 and their results concerning famines prevention. The third section will be an in depth analysis of the political aspect as the root of the Ethiopian famine. The concluding section will be an evaluation of these empirical findings and their interdependence with the problematic of intervention.

  1. Managerial Practices in Emergency Politics

Over the years not only academics but also authors, journalists, aid workers and experts have raised concerns over the aetiology of emergency politics and the ‘remedies’ implemented to prevent them. Many definitions ascribe famines to food shortages or generally in some form of deprivation (Scrimshaw, 1987; Brown & Eckholm, 1974). Amartya Sen sought to define famine as: ‘A particularly virulent manifestation of starvation causing widespread death’ (Sen, 1981) without taking into account the social-economic factors.

These definitions were highly criticised by a number of people for a variety reasons but almost always ending up in the same substance. For example Amrita Rangasami in ‘Failure of Exchange Entitlements Theory of Famine’ criticised Sen’s theory arguing that mortality is not the defining element in famines, but only a stage within a social, economic and political process. Furthermore, she pointed out that the actions or inactions of the community affected are needed to be closely examined (Rangasami, 1985). In parallel with Rangasami, Jenny Edkins stated that the causes of famine lie on social-economic factors and supported the notion that the aporia of Sen’s theory depoliticise and technologise, involving experts and neglecting the victims’ voices (Edkins, 2002).

Instead of food shortages and droughts as the cause, Edkins saw modernity as the key reason for famines to occur (Edkins, 2000). Modernity has distorted the politics of decision-making creating modern politics and depoliticising famines. To accomplish that, modernity and all those who believe in the ‘truth’ of knowledge, rely on progress to find solutions to famines. As Edkins pointed out in her book ‘Whose hunger? Concepts of famine, practices of aid’ regarding modernity “It has been removed from the realm of ethical and political and brought under the sway of experts and technologists of nutrition, food distribution and development” (Edkins, 2000). In addition to that, famines as a field of study in social sciences define famine as a problem which modernity will solve in the near future via technical solutions (Edkins, 2000). However what is missing from these humanitarian technocracies concerning famine’s prevention is political accountability of the actors engaged and shaped them (University of Pennsylvania, 2012). Instead of preventing or resolving famines through development programs (i.e early famine warning etc.), humanitarian aid is just repressing their symptoms (Edkins, 2000).

Similarly to Edkins, Mark Duffield rejects those definitions that attribute famine’s cause to a natural deprivation. He conceptualises complex emergencies in a context of political crisis produced by internal socioeconomic factors and political actors. Crises like that disintegrate the cultural, civil, political and economic foundations of the societies affected (Duffield, 1994). Along with that, Duffield also states that complex emergencies are: “internal to political and economic structures” (Duffield, 1994). Like Edkins, Duffield questions the technocratic practices designed to relief those affected by these disasters. Famine early warning systems in correlation with the monitoring of the livestock prices consist of a variety of support mechanisms, as a counter measure to these disasters (Duffield, 1993). These managerial doctrines are highly interconnected not only with states but also with humanitarian aid agencies (IDS, 1988).

Apart from the fact that these bureaucratic and technocratic policies don’t address the political perspective of famines, criticism also arose over the effectiveness and the ethos of these practices. A characteristic example of this ambiguity lies on the fact that until 2003 all the humanitarian responses to famines were identical regardless the needs. This means that instead of distinguishing the temporary needs for food aid from the chronic ones, humanitarian aid agencies were responding in the same way, in different kind of emergencies (Frignet, 2004). This simple fact unveils the lack of plan even by those present themselves as ‘experts’. In association with the latter another, even more serious allegation made by Duffield. In his book, ‘The symphony of the damned: racial discourse, complex political emergencies and humanitarian aid’ he accused aid workers of pursuing pluralism, which has grave implications in their attempt to help others and it is contrary to their original objective by intensifying the fragmentation of the social division (Duffield, 1996).

To conclude, all the above allegations regarding the definitions and the processes of these complex emergencies and their controversial responses, consist of only a small (but significant) fragment of the whole picture of the theoretical work, dedicated in revealing the depoliticisation of famines and as a consequence their technologisation. While most of the academia has concentrated on the African examples of famines, other cases’ examinations can also be traced (i.e Irish famine). Indeed, all the above accusations of the mainstream ‘objective’ procedures that follow these emergencies indicate the failure of the modern humanitarian relief agencies, along with the states engaged. Nevertheless, this failure is not total, as most of the academics and people admit, humanitarian relief agencies offer significant help to those affected by these tragedies, but due to the misperception of the problem (famines as natural disasters), the responses fail to prevent or solve famines.

  1. Evaluation of the Managerial Solutions Implemented in Ethiopia

   At the World Food Conference in 1974, governments proclaimed that ‘every man, woman and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition in order to develop their physical and mental faculties’. They promised that, within a decade, ‘no child would go hungry’ (FAO, 2012). Until today Ethiopia still faces food security crises. “In 2003, up to 15 million people were considered food insecure” (Pankhurst, 2004). Since 1985 it is estimated that every year five million people are in need of food assistance (WHO, 2005; FAO, 2010; USAID, 2010). Famines consist of a systemic emergency, meaning that even when these tragedies are typically over, thousands of people still suffer. For this reason internal but mainly external economic development and agricultural specialists create programmes to prevent new calamities from occurring.

Programmes like that have started in Ethiopia even before the devastating famine of 1983-5. In mid-70’s Ethiopia introduced the early famine warning system, a useful data collecting system able to analyse and predict disturbing stats in Ethiopian territory. Other similar development projects, consisted of  the National Policy for Disaster Prevention, Preparedness and Management (1994),  Ethiopian Food Security Reserve and National Guidelines for Food Aid Targeting (2000) to mention some. All these long-term and short-term projects generally aimed at the amelioration of the agricultural sector, prevention of famines, distribution of food aid (within a form of work for the ethiopian citizens), reserve food for emergency situations etc.

Despite the positive results that each of the above managerial/technological projects accomplished, the overall picture of Ethiopia until mid-2000 (where 10 million people out of 55 were on the verge of starvation) (Hammond & Maxwell, 2002) demonstrates the inability of these projects to prevent famines. For example before 2003, Sidama zone in Ethiopia wasn’t considered a problematic region (Frignet, 2004), this change reflects the expansion of food insecurity regardless of the millions tons of food delivered to Ethiopia, and all the developmental reform programmes already on track. Indeed, many aid workers admit that after three decades of humanitarian aid, Ethiopia’s situation has steadily worsened (Frignet, 2004).

In addition to the above, these state and non-state programmes also failed to battle other serious consequences of the famine. In many areas of the Ethiopian territory, food distribution was critiqued by citizens as rather unfair because of the high corruption. There were many cases where individuals registered twice in order to receive food aid. Along with that an even more controversial allegation, regarding discriminations over the age and the economic status of those receiving the aid, was made by a number of people and NGO’s. Moreover a number of crop production problems (Frignet, 2004) indicate that it is not enough to develop new programmes based on international standards to increase food productivity. Collateral factors such as people’s social status and their potential, need to be examined for these projects to be successful. Structural and economic reforms in Ethiopia should have been created to suit local people circumstances, as the ultimate goal for these reforms is to be ‘run’ by them and not by external specialists.

One last argument that has to be addressed regarding these programmes and the consecutive humanitarian aid implemented in Ethiopia from 1975 until today, is the dependency created to the Ethiopian people. After more than 30 years of international aid (in many forms), Ethiopia still receives humanitarian aid every year. The question deriving from this fact is whether Ethiopia’s situation is getting worse, or if Ethiopians have learned to live and depend on these relief programmes from international charities and organisations (i.e USAID). The long-term project to gradually constitute Ethiopia self-sufficient in the agricultural sector was in vain. Despite the counter-argument by technocrats that this failure emanates from the lack of technological advances and that emergency situations can only be handled by immediate actions (Fassin and Vasquez, 2005), all the arguments presented until now illustrate exactly the opposite. As Jenny Edkins stated modernity is what creates famines (Edkins, 2000), and something that creates and reproduces a problem certainly can’t be the solution to it.

The following section will analyse the roots of the Ethiopian famine. The sociological and political factors that are constantly being neglected by technocrats and bureaucrats in favor of other, more ‘convenient’ resolutions.

  1. The Roots of the Evil

The managerial/technological solutions presented in section two, did not address the fundamental causes of the Ethiopian famine. Thus, a fallacious interpretation of an issue leads to wrong solutions and simply can’t resolve the problem. As many academics have pointed out (Jenny Edkins, Mark Duffield etc.), it’s not the practices that need to be changed regarding emergency politics situations, but instead the perception of what causes a complex emergency.

The great famine that occurred in 1983 is an aporia of all the erroneous governmental policies that took place in the years before the famine. In 1974, the reign of the emperor Selassie came to an end, and the Marxist-Leninist military junta (Derg) of Mengistu Haile Mariam established the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia which ruled Ethiopia until 1991. During these years, and mainly because of the authoritarian policies implemented by the Derg, rebellions broke out that led to counter-insurgency strategies by Mengistu government. Considering these facts the root of the famine should be dichotomised: On the one hand, on account of the policies implemented by the military junta, that sparked the uprisings and on the other hand because of the counter-insurgency strategies that deteriorated the situation of the civilians in order to ‘deal’ with the growing problem of the rebels.

Initially in the early-80’s, the military junta in an effort to follow the soviet model of development, embedded a number of projects such as the collectivisation resettlement and the villagisation that had detrimental consequences for the Ethiopian people. The restrictions putted in effect by these programmes gradually staggered agricultural production and the income of rural households (Hendrie, 1994; de Waal, 1997; Young, 1997). A characteristic example of these cruel projects that took place is the violent resettlement which moved approximately 500,000 Ethiopians leaving behind almost 40,000 dead.

These policies created deep frustration and triggered armed rebellions by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). On the contrary, the Derg started a campaign in Tigray, Wollo, and Eritrea to suppress these rebellions. This campaign led to the civil war known as ‘Red Terror’ that lasted from 1975 to 1977 and was stigmatised by indiscriminate violence towards not only the rebels but also the Ethiopian citizens as a way of repression.

Consequently, the combination of the controversial military junta policies (i.e compulsory violent resettlement), the campaign waged against the rebels along with a prolonged period of drought and an exhausted soil (due to the agricultural development reforms) are the reasons that led to the great famine of 1983-5 (Article 19, 1990; Brauman, 1986; Clapham, 1991; de Waal, 1997).

It is these dramatic events that occurred in Ethiopia before the deadly famine that NGO’s, governments, international agencies and donors didn’t consider before starting a number of structural development projects. Indeed, without political accountability of those responsible for creating these tragedies, famines cannot be confronted successfully. For this to be done, political will is of immense significance, not only to face these complexities but also to prevent them. The depoliticisation of the Ethiopian famine by those hustled to help didn’t solve the problem and there are numerous examples of even deteriorating the living conditions of the Ethiopians. A characteristic case of this ‘failure’ by NGO’s is that between 1983-5, while the humanitarian aid was sent to the Ethiopian government as non political, it was used for rather political and military purposes (Edkins, 2000). This reflects that the enormous amount of money gathered, which “changed the face of international fund-raising” (Huddart, 2005), served specific interests even though aid workers knew the situation. Maybe this manipulation of relief aid hasn’t been addressed because fund-raising works better when these complexities are being attributed to natural causes (Binet, 2005; Franks, 2010b).

In closing, the stressing point of this essay is the following: humanitarian aid as strictly aid for people affected by a disaster is creditable, however this is the last stage of a prolonged problem. Without addressing the rickety political system that is creating these problems, these actions go in vain. On the contrary, all the projects that accompanied humanitarian aid and aimed in solving food insecurity in Ethiopia, are simply trying to resolve a different problem, which is a natural disaster.

  1. Humanitarian Intervention Under Question

    Why is an action that aims to relief millions of starving people has raised so many debates over it’s ethos? Is it because many state and non-state actors use these complex emergencies to advance their interests (Keen, 1994)? Or is it as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) stated in December 1985, when they were expulsed that famine wasn’t the cause of the thousands of deaths but instead it was the enforced resettlement along with other government policies that led to this tragedy?

The ‘truth’ might lies somewhere in between these two arguments. On the one hand, the involvement of NGO’s like Eritreans Relief Association (ERA) and Relief Society of Tigray (REST) in the liberation movements in Ethiopia (Duffield & Pendergast, 1994), invalidates the role of humanitarian aid as apolitical commitment to alleviate suffering. On the other hand it has been argued that humanitarian intervention is being exposed (and consequently affected) to hegemonic agendas (Sylvester, 2006), that aim to conciliate the welfare of the Western states with the calamities occurring in third world countries (Douzinas, 2007).

However, the humanitarian intervention problematic that was depicted above is only an aporia of all these fragmented pieces of truth presented in section two and three. The managerial practices that are being followed in these complex emergencies, and the neglected root of famines which lies on their depoliticisation, create all these dilemmas.

The conclusive thought deriving from the Ethiopian famine concerning humanitarian intervention is the following: the technocratic processes implemented in famines, not only neglect the actual causes of this tragedies, that is the political, but they also reproduce the humanitarian intervention problematic. Since they don’t prevent famines, they fuel with their (in)actions the growing problem of intervention and all it’s dilemmas. Humanitarian intervention concerns and skepticism wouldn’t exist if these emergencies’ political aspect was being confronted.

As situation remains as it is, humanitarian intervention, whether this can be interpreted in food aid, development projects or even economic aid, can be metaphorically seen as a vicious cycle. Governmental and Non-governmental international agencies are trying to resolve a problem, but all they manage is to contain it’s consequences. A reconceptualisation of the famine as a political problem is essential in order for these practices to be effective. Humanitarian aid in an apolitical term is pivotal and symbolises compassion. Although the main accusations relate to the Ethiopian political system and it’s policies, international agencies can be blamed over complicity for knowing the root of the problem and not facing it.


Reflecting upon a wide range of literature regarding the enigmatic picture of the technocratic and bureaucratic practices implemented in complex emergencies, this essay has made an attempt: to evaluate the practices followed in the Ethiopian famine case, in correlation with their failure to address the actual root of the problem. Section two was an endeavor to assess the development reforms that accompanied Ethiopian famine from 1983 until 2003. This evaluation in short depicted the failure of these processes to deal with the prevention of the famine. Section three was a political interpretation of the famine drawing on the erroneous governmental policies that created the great famine between 1983-5. The last section combined the empirical findings of the Ethiopian famine to draw a parallel conclusive thought, regarding humanitarian intervention problematic in complex emergencies. Based on the findings, it was argued that humanitarian intervention problematic is an aporia of the managerial practices implemented, and as a result this reproduces these tragedies (by not solving them) and humanitarian intervention problem.

What these empirical findings ‘confess’ is that until now starvation consists of a major trauma in Ethiopia. After so many years of developmental reforms the situation remains still or becomes worse. Technocrats and bureaucrats, the so called ‘experts’ have failed to stop hunger in Ethiopia and moreover to prove that famines are a natural disaster. The repoliticisation of famines seems to be the requisite element to face them and other emergency complexities in 21th century. Only when those responsible of the Ethiopian famine take political accountability, the problem will successfully be faced. In addition to the latter, unless famines’ perception change, humanitarian intervention will not be able to be disentangled by the ethical concerns it raises.

To conclude, famine is a man-made (i.e Ethiopia, Somalia) plaque responsible for millions of innocent civilian’s deaths. For this reason it can be (and should be) prevented. The victims of these calamities are not apolitical, instead they are highly politicised, facing the physical consequences of criminal political actions. Giorgio Agamben, drawing upon the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato and their distinction between ‘Ζωή’ (‘bare life’) and ‘Βίος’ (‘qualified life’), stated that ‘Ζωή’ is ‘the simple fact of living common to all living beings’ whereas ‘Βίος’ is life qualified by the political and the social, the ‘way of living proper to an individual or a group’ (Agamben, 1998). Between 1983-5 approximately 1,000,000 Ethiopians lost their lives. Because of the crimes committed against humanity, these people starved to death. This kind of life does not even qualify for what Aristotle’s defined as ‘Ζωή’. Maybe the most significant thing to be realised from these complexities, is that famine’s victims do have a ‘Βίος’. They do qualify for the social and the political as individuals and they deserve to be treated accordingly.



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