ETHIOPIA: Separating Humanitarian Needs and Political Issues [19990720]

ETHIOPIA: Separating Humanitarian Needs and Political Issues [19990720]

ETHIOPIA: Separating humanitarian needs and political issues

[This IRIN report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

ADDIS ABABA, 20 July (IRIN) - While the nature and timing of deciding on humanitarian crises is fraught with difficulty and political implications, not least in a country at war, the UN Country Team (UNCT) has warned that without help, Ethopia's modest development gains achieved this decade will be erased.

Though there is currently no famine to galvanise action, the UNCT has warned that without additional food aid and targeted non-food interventions, the counter-intuitive notion of a "green famine" may become dreadfully familiar - with food crops growing in the fields as an ironic backdrop to the large-scale migrations and displacements, massive camps and widespread deaths for which Ethiopia, sadly, has become a byword.

A poor response to successive government appeals reflects a measure of donor impatience with the Ethiopian authorities. A diplomatic source told IRIN that, while donors are well aware of the humanitarian crisis developing, they have had difficulty reconciling Ethiopia's appeals for aid with the continuing border war with Eritrea, estimated to be costing at least US $1 million a day. "There are certainly people considering how to respond to a government which can find somewhere around US $150 million off the books to finance this war," the source said.

The opportunity costs of the war - apart entirely from those killed and maimed in fighting - became clearer last week when the annual 'Human Development Report' published by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) revealed that Ethiopia had slipped further in its human welfare rating and now stood third from bottom of 174 countries.

Given Ethiopia's social needs - the report revealing, for instance, a per capita calorie intake of 1,845, compared to a recommended minimum daily intake of 2,000 calories, and that 42.3 percent of the population will not reach 40 years of age - donors have been dismayed at Addis Ababa's recent reversal of its policy of cutting military spending. This has jumped from 1.8 percent of government expenditure in 1997 to an estimated 12 percent in 1998 and what could account for anything from 15 to 20 percent of budgeted spending this year, media sources in the country told IRIN.

Ethiopia's position, outlined to journalists last week by Deputy Commissioner of the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) Gizaw Birhane, is that it has been "confronted by two disasters not of its own making", drought and war. While it had "no alternative but to fight aggression", the war had never drawn its attention from the food security crisis. Gizaw said he had come across no linkage by donors between Ethiopia receiving humanitarian assistance and making peace with Eritrea. What he had been told by donors, he added, was that the Kosovo crisis had exhausted a big part of their emergency budgets.

There have also been claims, virtually impossible to substantiate, that food is being diverted to feed troops fighting Ethiopia's war with Eritrea. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) country director, Judith Lewis, said food distribution was being closely monitored to ensure that this would not happen. The war has also displaced an estimated 380,000 people from their homes along the border with Eritrea and seen Ethiopia mobilise a large standing army, which have both disrupted agriculture and created additional food aid requirements. Humanitarian sources in Ethiopia told IRIN peasant farmers in the north of the country were signing up for the front, enticed by wages reported to be 250 to 400 Birr (about US $30 to $50) a month.

The UNCT has said it considers the war "a most unfortunate thing" but not a crucial factor in the current crisis. "Regardless of the war, this year we would have an emergency operation to address this drought," said Emergency Coordinator Jim Borton.

There is also a school of thought among donors that, with Ethiopia having had a good harvest last year and a surplus in western parts of the country this year, the weakness of the internal market is a crucial issue and only by strengthening it can the phenomenon of cyclical food shortages in particular regions be addressed. "Parts of the country will just never be food secure," said one source. "The argument is that instead of people calling crisis year after year, the market should ensure distribution of food from surplus areas to those that are short."

Meanwhile, however, as a humanitarian crisis unfolds for over five million people at risk, the UN Country Team "is trying to separate the humanitarian needs from the political issues", according to WFP country director, Judith Lewis. "If we don't have assistance, immediate assistance, then that's when people will die", she warned.


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Item: irin-english-1260

[This item is delivered in the "irin-english" service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information or free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: or fax: +254 2 622129 or Web: . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer.]

Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999

Editor: Dr. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D

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