Inter Africa Group: "Famine in Ethiopia"

Inter Africa Group: "Famine in Ethiopia"

Frank discussion on the Famine: "Ten Years After" meeting.

As part of the national commemoration of the famine a decade ago, IAG with the Economic Commission for Africa and the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission organised a meeting of Ethiopian and international experts to look at past experiences and discuss possible future strategies for dealing with famine. Below is the text of the statement from the meeting which outlines the form and substance of the discussions. (NNS has bolded sections for emphasis).

Papers presented at the conference are available from NNS as follows: Keynote Address, Prime Minister Tamrat Leyne; Reflections on the 1984-85 famine, Dr Solomon Inquai (for REST); Post famine challenges and the role of the international community, Reginald Herbold Green (Institute of Development Studies, UK); Better late than never, Oxfam's experience in working in famine situations, Odhiambo Anacleti (OXFAM UK); Do we see famine as it is? The experience of people living in TPLF controlled areas during the 1985 famine, Barbara Hendrie (University College, London); Food Security and Response to Famine: the role of the International Community, Melaku Ayelew (RRC); Humanitarianism Unbound (basis for speech), Alex de Waal (African Rights), Causes and Nature of Famine, Berhane Gizaw (former RRC).


The Addis Ababa Statement on Famine in Ethiopia:

Learning from the Past to Prepare for the Future

18 March 1995

The Symposium "Famine in Ethiopia: Learning from the Past to Prepare for the Future" was organized by the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, the Economic Commission for Africa and the InterAfrica Group in honor of the ten year commemoration of the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia. The Symposium brought together a wide range of actors including government officials, donors, UN, NGOs, human rights organizations and researchers.

The 1984-85 famine was in fact a political crisis characterized more appropriately by war than by drought. It was a crisis which also brought about operational and political division within the international community. The Symposium marks the first time that what emerged as "two sides" of the aid community have come together to reflect on the crisis. The Symposium was a bold attempt to bring together representatives of all the groups mentioned, and in fact was a reflection of the TGE's policy to promote education and debate as means of enhancing prevention and preparedness. A major challenge was simply for the different groups to begin to recognize the viewpoints of others.

It took ten years to reflect on the 1984-85 famine because the issues are contentious. The discussion was thus heated at times, reflecting divergence of opinion between those wishing to explore theory and those wanting to focus on practice; those who see their actions as neutral and those who believe them to be inherently political; and those who wished to re-examine the past and others who wished to focus on the present. All were in agreement in emphasizing the importance of looking to the future, expressed in terms of moving beyond famine to food security and sustainable agriculture.

Consensus was achieved in some areas. Movement towards consensus was achieved in others. Concerning some issues sharply diverging opinions and complimentary views were forwarded and remain. It was strongly felt that it is the least we can do, in honoring the victims of the 1984-85 disaster, to have frank and open debate about how and why they died.

There was strong agreement that the perceptions and priorities of rural people should take prevalence and that relief and development assistance should reflect consultation with and the full participation of rural people rather than be imposed on them. There was further consensus that indigenous knowledge and culture should be built upon and that local coping mechanisms should be strengthened.

It was noted that there were no representatives of the rural people who actually experienced the famine at the Symposium. One researcher stated, however, that the rural people in one region focused on three things when they considered lessons for the future, including; building up social networks that could be called upon in future emergencies; upgrading the environment; and, most importantly, strengthening local organisations that can press development needs, call attention to the build up of famine in the early stages, and control the implementation of relief operations when famine does occur.

It was also noted that gender was conspicuously absent from the agenda or the discussion, and that there were only two women presenters. It was pointed out that while disasters were spoken of as having 'man-made' causes, women were mentioned only in their identification as members of "vulnerable groups". The absence of discussion of the critical role of women as producers, managers and strategists in household survival, was noted.

The centrality of smallholder agriculture to famine prevention and food security was stressed. However, it was pointed out that in addition to production, emphasis must be given to equitable access and distribution. Several participants noted the need for famine prevention and response to recognize both the vulnerability, importance and potential of livestock to rural producers and pastoralists. The need to reduce pre-and post-harvest losses was also highlighted.

Concerning technical and managerial aspects of famine prevention and preparedness, there has been immense progress in ten years. This is proven by the relatively rapid and effective response to the threat of famine in 1994. Components of technical progress include:

The TGE has explicitly incorporated experiences and lessons learned from 1984-85 in its National Policy Disaster Prevention and Management. Although the policy as such was not discussed in the Symposium, its major components, such as a decentralized early warning system, the role of local communities and bottom-up approach in planning and implementation, the need to build local institutions and logistical capacity, the creation of food security reserves, coordination and linking relief to development were all addressed. Importantly, the approaches that participants identified as integral to famine prevention and preparedness were the same as those incorporated in the Government policy.

Both the TGE and some donors are emphasizing the need to set priorities according to locally-perceived needs and to move away from the provision of free food aid as an emergency measure.

Many international agencies have improved technical response, including in the areas of improved early warning and pre-pledging of assistance.

It was strongly felt by some that the technical and managerial aspects of famine response should not be allowed to obscure or indeed replace a frank analysis of the political dimensions of famine disasters, especially in the contexts of warfare, genocide and/or ethnic conflict, and that the international community needs to frankly and openly engage in a dialogue on these dimensions. and specifically its own role, in political/military realities on the ground. It was also noted that in the last ten years, relief assistance has increasingly become a component of war, and that donors and operational agencies alike should bear this new reality in mind.

Moving to the wider regional experience of complex political emergencies, controversies emerged. It was observed that the famine disaster of the 1980s was revolved ultimately by the defeat of the former government. Political change since 1991 has created an enabling environment which is necessary for the prevention of disasters. While humanitarian assistance is important, it is not a substitute for self-reliant economic development. Lessons of the political dimensions of the 1984-85 famine need to be learned and to be applied elsewhere. Participants referred to the importance of the linkage between good governance, human rights and famine prevention. The need for dialogue was emphasized, in particular the fact that two different styles of relief work developed on the two sides of the battlelines has yet to be properly assimilated.

A number of key points were made concerning information flow and the role of the media. With regard to the latter, it was noted that reporting on disasters has become condensed into short segments in broadcast format that increasingly provide a too simplistic and often distorted analysis of events. With regard to information flow, it was noted that information was never coordinated between the two relief operations on either side of the conflict in 1984-85, and that this led to a lack of awareness about the extent to which assistance was-or was not- reaching civilians on the unofficial side of the lines, and ignorance of how foreign assistance was being manipulated as a weapon of war by the former government.

In a more general sense, it was said that quality information essential to policymakers should not be stored and discussed only by the international community in Europe and North America, but should also be stored and available, at the national, regional and local levels. Building capacity at these levels to generate information was seen as essential, as was the need to fill major gaps in understanding through dedicated research.

Important issues of ethics, human rights and accountability were raised an debated. The role of the international humanitarian organizations was discussed. Dramatic changes have occurred in the international political and economic order since the end of the Cold War, which have resulted in a decrease in resource flows and an increase in conditionality.

There is also today a greater inclination on the part of the donor community to fund relief programs and humanitarian interventions than genuine long-term development. It was understood that while the 1984-85 crisis provided an important opening for expanded NGO operations and mandates, it was also recognized as true that humanitarian agencies have since filled a growing international vacuum. While their good intentions were noted, their capacity to resolve the problems at hand was questioned. Indeed, methods to manage and contain the symptoms of protracted crisis appear to be emerging; what is needed is methods of preventing or resolving them.

There were strong calls for greater accountability. One proposal was for stricter financial reporting and greater flexibility on the terms and conditions of international relief, because experience has shown that the prevailing rigidity constrains willingness to ask and eagerness to give. A second more radical proposal was for an International Disaster Relief Commissioner empowered to investigate, independently and in public, all aspects of and actors in emergency prevention, preparedness and response. It was further suggested that there be created a Commission of Inquiry to ensure full public accountability.

Relating to the question of accountability is that of public sector. Speakers also stressed the need to create a strong and effective public service. Free market mechanisms have their place and usefulness. As a universal prescription, however, there was a strong feeling that they are increasing vulnerability and poverty. In relation to the need to mobilize internal resources, speakers pointed out that Ethiopia's capital is not limited only to financial resources but also includes its people, its culture, its land, its livestock and its physical environment. This emphasis also throws into question the role and impact of the international humanitarian agencies in relation to the public sector in Ethiopia.

Much of the discussion during the Symposium related to the situation in Ethiopia. However, there was also significant discussion of regional questions, including the relationship between lessons learned in Ethiopia and parallel disasters in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda, and also with regard to continental and sub-regional cooperation. The Symposium made a strong call for collective self-reliance.

The Symposium raised some essential questions, some of which were not fully resolved and remain to be further debated and explored. The fact that they were identified and discussed, however, was something positive in itself.

On one fundamental point, the majority of participants were firm in their conviction. While a humanitarian, technocratic approach, based on improved procedures and largely funded by foreign aid could facilitate the prevention of famine in Ethiopia, it is at the same time necessary to move beyond this approach to a strategy of empowering the people to prevent famine through political accountability of all actors to the people of Ethiopia in recognition of their fundamental political, economic and human rights.

From: (Ben Parker)
Date: 12 Apr 95 09:48:48 +0300
Subject: Addis Ababa Statement on Famine
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