The next meal, the next famine
“People didn’t know where their next meal might come from, or if they would have one at all,” says Sr Maura O’Donohue, recalling her time as an aid worker in Ethiopia’s 1984 famine.
Ethiopian farmer Eshete Eneyew threshes maize in Abay, north of Addis Ababa, October 21, 2009. More than a million died during the 1984 famine, and the suffering provoked the biggest outpouring of charity the world has ever seen.
Twenty-five years after Ethiopia’s devastating famine in which one million people died, over six million people, according to official figures, are hungry and need help getting food after harvests failed.
Sr Maura has seen the impact of a massive food crisis during her work on Caritas healthcare and famine relief programmes.
“Adults and children were starving. Some were only able to walk with the aid of a stick. Others just lay on the ground and did not even have the energy to reach out for food beside them,” says Sr Maura.
Despite the chronic hunger and desperation that faced large swathes of Ethiopia’s population in this period, Sr Maura said that people reacted to the crisis with amazing dignity. She visited many hungry families while conducting food assessments. One man whose house she had visited in the morning came looking for her a few hours later.
“When you visited our house we had nothing to offer you. But since you left our hen has laid this egg,” he said. “We want you to have it. Thank you for staying with us this morning.”
As the true extent of the crisis became clear, images of emaciated babies lying lifeless in their mothers’ arms were beamed across the world. Drought and an ongoing civil war which was draining government resources left Ethiopians hungry and desperate to search for food.
“Hundreds of thousands of people moved, hoping to get some food, when they heard supplies were available,” says Sr Maura.“Some sold all they had and arrived at camps with as little as a plastic bag containing all their belongings. I remember one woman selling the Ethiopian cross from around her neck. It was her last remaining treasure. She sold it to buy food for her family.”
Following a survey of one famine-hit area, the authorities gave Sr Maura six 50kg bags of powdered milk and asked her to initiate a famine relief programme for 7,500 people. She contacted Cafod (a UK member of the Caritas confederation) and they told her they would support her.
“Cafod did a fantastic job by way of quick response,” she says. “They cabled funds for food and medical supplies and air-lifted a Land Rover to help distributions,” she said.
Ethiopia has suffered other hunger crises since 1984. Countries such as Ethiopia are vulnerable to frequent food shortages; it raises the question of why these countries aren’t more prepared and why so many people are still being affected so dramatically by a lack of food?
Climate change, land degradation, failure of governments to act quickly enough and a lack of investment in farming techniques which can help them withstand the impact of droughts are some of the reasons. Sr Maura says economic issues are also a deciding factor.
“We need fairer trade deals between economically rich and poor countries if countries like Ethiopia are ever going to be self-sufficient,” she says.
RESOURCESAnnual Report 2011Emergency GuidelinesEmergency Response Tool KitEmergency Appeals 2012Emergency Appeals 2011Emergency Appeals 2010Emergencies on Caritas BlogBridging the Gap between Policy and Practice