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Hunger Looms In Ethiopia

I leave Ethiopia today, December 22, after nearly two weeks of visiting rural communities and meeting with local CARE staff and health workers. My first trip ever to this country came on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1984 famine.

The situation in Ethiopia is bad. Around the countryside, the drizzle of rain turned shrubbery green, but it came too little, too late. Drought has caused most crops to fail. Nearly 85 percent of families in this country of 80 million people depend on seasonal rains to grow food on half-acre-sized plots of land ’” the primary source of nourishment for their children. It seems that larger families are feeling the pain of hunger and malnutrition first.

At one health clinic I visited in West Hararghe ’” about a 6-hour drive from Addis Ababa, the capital ’” parents told me that they simply don”t have enough food to feed everyone. As I spoke with them, a CARE nurse was inside, preparing milk formula to feed to children who arrived to the center severely malnourished. There weren”t just younger kids at the health center. One 11-year-old was half the weight she should be. The nurse said the girl is starting to recover but her younger sister wasn”t so fortunate. She died that day in her mother”s arms

Poor farming families that invested every penny they had, to buy seeds that never grew, have also been hit with a double whammy. The cost to buy food has increased and they can”t afford it. In West Hararghe, for example, a sack of corn has increased from 100 to 800 Birr (around $80) in just two years. And the cost of Injera, which is a local gray-colored spongy bread made of sorghum, has increased from 1.75 to 2.25 Birr. The families I spoke to said all they eat is Injera. They might also split a tomato every other day.

Right now, the situation has left an estimated eight million people in need of emergency food aid. The families I spoke to said what little they were able to salvage from the December harvest ’” often a little bit of sorghum ’” will run out entirely in the next three months. So it”s likely that the number of people facing hunger will rise again.

The good news is that food distributions have begun in the most affected parts of the country. More food aid will help prevent another mass famine in Ethiopia in the short term. But if that system slows down any little bit until the next anticipated harvest this spring, history could repeat itself. It seems that current U.S. emergency food aid programs could better respond to crises like Ethiopia by reforming the way food aid is delivered. It costs a lot to ship food from the U.S. and because distances are often far away, it take a long time to arrive. Focusing on local or regional purchase of food when available would save time, money and lives.

Mothers receive food at a CARE distribution point in West Hararghe.
©2008 Allen Clinton/CARE

In the long-run, it seems Ethiopians require drought-resistant seeds and technical support to incorporate soil conservation and soil improvements on their small plots of land. Also, more family planning services are needed so the population doesn”t double again in another 25 years. Right now, CARE currently reaches 2.2 million people in 1,250 villages across central and southern Ethiopia with family planning, maternal health, HIV and other health care services. The problem is funding for that program runs out in 2009.

I guess that”s all I have to say for now, as I”ve got to start packing. Tomorrow, I”ll be back home in Atlanta with my wife and kids for the holidays. I”ve never been one to pray before, but after seeing what I saw in Ethiopia, I might start. I encourage everyone reading this to do what they can to support Ethiopia, as well as other countries in the Horn of Africa that have also suffered drought. If the roles were reversed, we would hope dearly that others would do the same.

Posted by webmaster on Dec 24, 2008 11:52 AM America/New_York

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