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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Ethiopians Live in Fear of the Famine's Return

Scotsman.com News -- IT IS 21 years since Aymut Kashay and his family came out of the hills to find sanctuary at a feeding station deep in the Ethiopian highlands. He was in Korem, Tigray, at the centre of a famine that swept through the country, killing one million people. Today the land around Korem is green. The fields are full of maize and barley. But the people here are still hungry, leaving many in Ethiopia to wonder where billions of dollars of aid has gone.

"It is history now, but being an old man I know I could never go back to a thing like that," says Aymut, 85, squatting in the shade of a eucalyptus tree. "It worries me that the hunger could return."

Last time he spent months drifting in and out of consciousness. His wife was dead when he woke.

"Day after day, hour after hour, it seemed that everyone was dying. I wasn't even aware that she had died. I was so weak," he says.

Villagers like Aymut are surviving on one meal a day. Almost a quarter of Tigray's four million population is reliant on food aid for survival this year. In all, more than eight million people depend on aid in Ethiopia.

But many observers question how useful western aid has been in Ethiopia. Getahun Tesfaye, of the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute, says a billion dollars of aid each year has made little difference to rural farmers.

Their income, he says, has remained at 100 birr per year - about $15 (£8.53). "If you just give aid as a handout, to people who are not making an effort, people who are not trying to change their lifestyle, then it doen't bring results," he says.

"In the long term, it creates dependence and reduces incentive for change."

Instead, the country has gone backwards in many ways since Live Aid. Average income has fallen from $190 to $108 (£61), making it one of the poorest countries on the planet.

Services and infrastructure are almost non-existent. Ethiopia's road network extends to only 50cm per man, woman and child. Those responsible for channelling aid into the country say a rocketing rural population is putting additional pressure on a limited amount of land. Paulette Jones, of the World Food Programme (WFP), adds that Ethiopia receives relatively little aid when its 73 million population is taken into account - about $20 (£11.40) per head, much less than many other African countries. Emergency aid, she says, remains vital.

"There are plenty of critics of food aid but a fifth of the people in this country would have died were it not for emergency food aid," she says. However, much has also changed during the past 20 years. The hated military regime of Mengistu Hailie Miriam - blamed for turning a blind eye to the unfolding catastrophe in 1984 - has been toppled, replaced by a rebel leader who has introduced Ethiopia's first multi-party elections. Addis Ababa, the capital, has a gleaming new airport and the country's emerging flower industry has foreign investors queuing up for a piece of the action.

And the government is trying to tackle hunger, resettling millions of people from arid zones to more fertile areas, and introducing a "food safety net" which will guarantee supplies to 5 million needy people.

David Shinn, US ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999, says comparisons with 1984 are pointless. He is optimistic that democratic reforms under way in Ethiopia may herald a new era of prosperity.

"If Ethiopia can implement this process that they began earlier this year, and truly create a more democratic form of government, I can be quite optimistic about Ethiopia," he says. "If it doesn't do that and goes back to its old ways, where those who are in power stay in power under any circumstances until they are thrown out militarily, then it's awfully hard to be optimistic."

But, for all the progress, many living in Tigray believe they are powerless to prevent a future famine. People like Aymut Kashay believe in an angry God whose anger must be avoided at all costs.

"We never tire of working for development activities but whatever we do," he says, squinting into the sun, "we are still in God's hands."

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