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Ethiopia Faces Famine Again

New America Media, News Feature, Words//Photo: Shane Bauer Posted: Aug 12, 2008

Editor's Note: As Ethiopians struggle to feed themselves amid a high food prices, fuel costs and the worst famine in 25 years the government in Addis Adiba raised the military budget by $50 million. Shane Bauer is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East and Africa.

HARAR, Ethiopia -- As I eat my breakfast of lentils, eggs, and a small cup of strong coffee in a caf in Ethiopia's eastern town of Harar, old men and children linger at the entrance, trying to catch the gaze of the mostly clean cut, well-dressed patrons. When their eyes meet, the beggars extend a hand or put their fingers to their mouths to communicate their hunger.

As soon as I lean back in my chair after eating, two boys of about eight years old rush to my table and point to the half-eaten baguette on my plate. I tell them to take it and one snatches it away. Immediately, the two are entangled in struggle, swinging punches at each other over a piece of bread. As the two scuffle, a waiter rushes them out onto the street. The breadless child shouts "faranji, faranji," or "white man" in the direction of our table in a plea for justice, but the other child escapes with the bread, leaving him in tears.

When I last came to Ethiopia three years ago, people were shocked and insulted when I told them that most Americans associate Ethiopia with starvation and hunger. To them, their country's reputation should rest on the fact that it defeated the would-be colonizers of Mussolini's Italy or the fact that their kingdom of Aksum, which started in the first millennium A.D., was one of the most powerful kingdoms in the ancient world. A famine that occurred over 20 years ago in one part of the country hardly deserved to be remembered.

But things have changed. Now, people often talk about the looming threat of hunger in Ethiopiathe food security in their country is the worst it's been in 25 years. The global rise in food and fuel prices has pushed Ethiopia into a downward spiral of rising food costs and the extremely poor are finding it harder and harder to eat.

According to the Ethiopian English language weekly The Reporter, the United Nations food agency recently announced that it needed $222 million to avert a major food crisis in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government and aid agencies estimate that 4.6 million people in the country need around 510,000 tons of cereals to meet emergency food assistance needs until November 2008 and another 8 million people are chronically food insecure. So far, only 30 percent of the required food aid is available or has been pledged.

In Awadia, in the eastern Oromia state, my friend Ibsa, a 23-year-old law student, tells me apologetically that his family can no longer afford meat when he invites me over for lunch. The cost of a goat, he says, has gone from $15 to $45-$50 in the past year. Their staple food, sorghum, has tripled in price, going from 25 cents per kilogram to 80 cents per kilogram. The cost of a piece of breadwhich I regularly see people eating with nothing but teahas doubled.

"People are spending all of their money on food now," Ibsa tells me as we eat their usual meal of pasta and potatoes. "We used to be able to save a little bit, but now we use it all to feed ourselves."

"People in rural areas are moving to the city because they can't eat," he says. "People who were farmers are cleaning roads and hauling waste to make money."

As I sit and talk with him and his friends, everyone is in agreement that the main cause of the food crisis has little to do with Ethiopia and more to do with rising fuel prices around the world. In Ethiopia, a bus ride costs around three times what it did one year ago and more gas stations seem to have no fuel than those that do.

"The government is spending its money on the military to fight wars in Somalia and Eritrea," said a 19-year-old student of rural development named Mohammed. Just a week after appealing for international aid, Ethiopia increased its military budget by $50 million, bringing it to a total of $400 million.

Mohammed adds that the problem has been impacted by the impoverishment of small farmers, which are the majority of the country: 85 percent of Ethiopians make their money from agriculture. "The government should be spending its money assisting people and giving farmers subsidies so they can continue to produce." He says that the country's free market policies have made it harder for small farmers to survivethe average ox-plowing farmer can't compete on the global market. "The rural peasant can't harvest his own land anymore because of lack of income," he says. "So many farmers moved close to the cities to work other people's land for $1 a day." He added that since food prices began to rise a year ago, their wages have gone up to $2 to $2.50 a day.

He also blamed the government for not intervening when middlemen horde food crops to create false surpluses and raise food costs, a strategy that many say contributed to Ethiopia's last famine.

Mohammed's brother Nabil argues that the Ethiopian government is taking positive steps to avoid a more extreme crisis. To avoid what many analysts point to as a major cause for the current rise in food and fuel pricesthe large-scale use of crops like corn for the production of fuel instead of foodhe says the Ethiopian government has prohibited the use of food crops for fuel.

The government has also taken short-term measures to soften the impact of the food crisis. According to The Reporter, the government has spent $38 million to subsidize wheat and $366 million to subsidize fuel.

But these measures seem unlikely to avert what might become a more serious disaster. As I walk with Ibsa's father to his fielddown a stony road that winds all the way to Mogadishuhe tells me that, God willing, he'll come back with something to sell today. He left his house without eating breakfast and when we get to his field he fills his mouth with khat, a stimulant leaf that raises spirits and reduces hunger. As we slink between stalks of corn, he laments the fact that there isn't enough rain and grumbles on about his economic woes. All he can bring back is a small sack of beans for his family to eat, but nothing to sell.

He's being hit by the double curse that is hitting Ethiopia this harvest season: not only is the world in a food crisis, but also large parts of Ethiopia are suffering a drought. This means that people who rely on subsistence agriculturetypically the poorest of the poorare stuck between two dangerous realities: food costs that are rising beyond their means and little or none of their own crops to carry them through the season.

Last names were withheld to protect the sources identity.

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