Is Ethiopia having a famine? As often is the case, there are two forces pulling in opposite directions that make it hard to answer the question. On the one hand, the authoritarian government wants to cover up any famine to mute criticism of its performance. Ethiopia is due for elections next year, and the government is determined not to go the way of previous regimes toppled in part because of anger at famines in the 1970s and 1990s. The government’s solution? Prohibit journalists from entering the worst-off areas, and fight tooth and nail with aid agencies to repress or delay information on humanitarian needs.
Complicating the situation further is that the government army is operating against insurgents in the suspected famine areas in the South and cites security reasons for not allowing outsiders to enter, so nobody really knows what is happening there.
On the other hand, NGOs have a well known tendency to cry wolf and exaggerate—to see famine where there is no famine—perhaps in order to raise more money for their own organization (I am echoing here fierce accusations of exactly this from Ethiopians I talked to during my visit who were NOT allied with the government).
For example, aid organizations and journalists saw signs of famine in Mali in the summer of 2005. Reuters reported that aid and donations were urgently needed in Mali “where the same famine that struck neighboring Niger is intensifying.” In another article, an Oxfam official was quoted saying: “They say there's no famine in Mali, but that's false. People aren't able to eat for three or four days. Forget the political or academic definitions.” While Mali had suffered a series of droughts and an invasion of locusts which exacerbated the chronic food insecurity there, deaths did not approach famine levels. The predicted high numbers of deaths from famine in Niger in 2005 and Malawi in 2002 also thankfully did not materialize. It’s impossible to know how last minute appeals for funds may have affected these outcomes, but the fact remains that desperate pleas to end exaggerated famines are a blunt instrument in addressing the causes of chronic malnutrition and long term food insecurity.
In his classic book “Famine Crimes” Alex De Waal observes that NGOs make “habitual inflation of estimates of expected deaths.” De Waal notes that during the pre-Christmas prime fundraising season, ‘One million dead by Christmas’… has been heard every year since 1968 and has never been remotely close to the truth.”
Put into the current mix a credulous Western media that is happy to check the box "Ethiopia = famine," and is unable to handle subtleties like chronic food insecurity and chronic malnutrition vs. emergency famine. Between unreliable media, NGOs, and government, it is tragically difficult to know when tragedy is happening.