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Teaming Up Against Hunger

A CNEWA report regarding the ongoing food crisis in Eritrea and Ethiopia.

prepared by CNEWA staff

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Eritrea and Ethiopia are among the poorest nations in the world, unable to feed themselves even in the best of times. Last spring, they faced the worst food shortage in nearly 15 years, a shortage caused by three years of drought and exacerbated by a costly and unresolved war between the two countries.

Some controversy existed as to the extent of the food shortage. Was it like that of 1985, when famine affected 7.5 million Ethiopians and killed 300,000, or did the media exaggerate the extent of this crisis?

There is no doubt that an emergency existed. According to the United Nations, 1,760,000 individuals out of a population of three million – more than half of Eritrea’s people – lacked sufficient food. In Ethiopia, the percentage was smaller: 6 to 8 million out of a population of 63 million.

“We shouldn’t get hung up on statistics,” warned Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., CNEWA’s Regional Director for Eritrea and Ethiopia. “Each one of those people was a hungry individual with a pain in his or her stomach every day.”

Part of the problem resulted from the mismanagement of government policy. After the famine of the mid-1980’s, Ethiopia’s Marxist government, together with several donor countries including the United States, agreed to set up a reserve of food to be used in case of emergency. For more than a decade, however, donor countries, through their relief agencies, requested permission to borrow from this food bank for their own ongoing programs. The Ethiopians consented with the understanding that the food would be replaced. Unfortunately, donor countries were slow to replace food supplies and the reserves diminished. Consequently, when acute food shortages developed last spring in southeastern Ethiopia, near the border with Kenya, and in the northern highlands near the town of Adigrat, there was not enough food in reserve to meet the need.

Drought conditions in Eritrea, particularly in the western lowlands, coupled with the significant number of Eritreans displaced by the war with Ethiopia, caused severe food shortages. The U.N. and several international relief agencies rushed aid to Eritrea, especially for those internally displaced Eritreans living in emergency camps. There were hundreds of thousands of hungry people, however, who remained in their villages, who did not fit into the programs of the international agencies and whose plight was often known only by the religious who worked among them.

Despite the widespread fear that they were only prolonging the crisis by sending food to nations that were impoverishing themselves by waging war, donor countries and their relief agencies responded generously to the emergency in both countries. Bureaucratic red tape, however, delayed the distribution of incoming food supplies while thousands of people were starving.

Brother Vincent had a plan to move quickly. He knew food was available; grain surpluses had been harvested in parts of western and central Ethiopia and sold to merchants in other areas. Largely as a result of the war, however, costs had soared and money was in short supply; cash was needed to purchase food.

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Tags: Ethiopia Eritrea Hunger Drought Brother Vincent Pelletier