Oxfam calls for radical shake-up of aid system to break cycle of hunger in Ethiopia

Published: 21st October 2009

Twenty-five years on from 1984 famine food aid remains knee-jerk reaction

International aid agency Oxfam today called  for a radical shake-up  in the way the world deals with food crises in Ethiopia and beyond. The agency rounded on what it called a “knee-jerk reaction” to food crises which is dominated by sending food aid. While the agency recognised that sending food aid does save lives, the dominance of this approach fails to offer long-term solutions which would break these cyclical and chronic crises.     
In a report, “Band Aids and Beyond”, published today to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Ethiopia famine, Oxfam says international donors need to adopt a new approach to humanitarian disasters which  focuses on preparing communities to prevent and deal with  disasters such as  drought before they strike, rather than relying mainly on short-term emergency relief, such as imported food aid.
Twenty-five years ago Ethiopia was struck by one of the worst famines in its history.  An estimated one million people died and millions more suffered from extreme hunger and malnutrition. Today, millions in Ethiopia and across East Africa are facing severe food and water shortages after years of poor rains. It is estimated that drought costs Ethiopia $1.1bn a year – almost eclipsing  the total annual overseas assistance to the country.
Currently, 70 per cent of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia comes from the United States. Out of the $3.2 bn of US humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia since 1991, 94% has been in the form of food aid – almost all of it sourced from within the US rather than purchased locally or regionally. Most US food aid has conditions applied to transport and packaging,  which can cost up to $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid.
Penny Lawrence, International Director for Oxfam, who has just returned from visiting Oxfam projects in Ethiopia, said:
“We cannot make the rains come, but there is much more that we can do to break the cycle of drought driven disaster in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Food aid offers temporary relief and has kept people alive in countless situations,  but does not tackle the underlying causes that continue to make people vulnerable to disaster year-after-year.
“Donors need to shift their approach, and help to give communities the tools to tackle disasters before they strike. Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution. If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores, and wells to harvest rains then they can survive despite what the elements throw at them.”
It is essential that donors rise to the challenge and provide adequate funding for emergency assistance for this year’s crisis  – current response by international donors is far below requirements estimated by Governments and UN agencies. But in this report, Oxfam argues that it is equally essential that donors do more to back programmes that manage the risk of the disaster before it strikes, such as early warning systems, creating stragetically positioned stockpiles of food, medicine and other items, and irrigation programs.
For instance, in Somali region Oxfam is building birkhads, or protected wells, to enable communities to ‘harvest’ rain during the rainy season to make sure there is more water available nearby when the rains stop. These types of programmes receive just 0.14 per cent of overseas aid.  Yet, the agency says, that it  is  a more sustainable approach, as the emergency response is designed  to contribute to development and keep  communities safer in the years to come.  This approach is cost effective: for every $1 invested in this approach, $2-4 are returned in terms of avoided or reduced disaster impacts.
The call for donors to shift their approach comes as Ethiopia faces ever-greater threats from natural disasters. Climate scientists predict that by 2034, the 50 th  anniversary of the 1984 Ethiopia famine, what are now droughts will become the norm, hitting the region three years out of every four. A shift of approach is  needed to prevent climate shocks developing into disasters which will push more peoople into poverty.
Lawrence said: “Climate change makes the urgency of this approach greater than ever before. Ethiopians on the frontline of climate change cannot wait another 25 years for common sense to become common practice.”
Download the report: Band Aids and Beyond: Tackling disasters in Ethiopia 25 years after the famine


Oxfam GB and Oxfam Ireland  have an appeal for the emergency response to the East Africa Food Crisis.
Alternatively, please consider making a donation to the general emergency fund of your nearest national Oxfam affiliate. Your money will be used to fund our emergency work worldwide.

Ethiopians on the frontline of climate change cannot wait another 25 years for common sense to become common practice.
Penny Lawrence
International Director for Oxfam

Notes to editors

1. Further examples disaster risk management programs include: 
Building birkhads, or protected wells, which enable communities to ‘harvest’ rain during the rainy season to make sure there is more water available nearby when the rains stop. Oxfam is doing work like this in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

Food or cash for work programs, for example in the midst of food shortages in theTigray region, people received food for work on an irrigation project, as a result of this the community can rely on a more regular supply of water for their crops.

Micro-insurance programs that pay out to farmers if their crops fail, meaning that they have money to buy food. Oxfam is running a program like this for 200 households in Tigray.

2. Oxfam has several spokespeople available for interviews, including current staff in Ethiopia; aid workers who were there for the response to the 1984 famine; and Oxfam’s International and Regional Directors, recently returned from drought-affected areas.