Ethiopia running out of food aid money, magnifying regional threat

A farmer shows his failed crops and farmland in the Megenta area of Afar, Ethiopia. The farmer said he has lost 100 percent of his crops. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Food aid for millions of Ethiopians will run out by the end of June, according to the United Nations.

The UN says if nothing is done, the country’s food crisis could expand and destabilize a region with two neighboring countries already facing famine.

The Ethiopian government has spent $381 million In the past three years to help its citizens deal with the effects of the ongoing drought. This indicates the government can and does respond to domestic problems, but some say it may not have enough money and resources to keep up with the current crisis. Ethiopia’s government says it needs more than $1 billion in emergency assistance.

An estimated 8 million Ethiopian people are in need of food assistance due to drought and crop failures, the U.N.’s World Food Program says, and are at risk of losing a vital lifeline. The Ethiopian government disputes the WFP claim, saying that fewer people are in need and that it is up to the challenge.

“It’s true that in some areas food will run out by the end of the month but this will only affect around 1.7 million people,” Ethiopia’s commissioner for disaster risk management Mitiku Kassa said to the press.

“We expect the donor community to step in to fill that gap and we are hopeful. But if they fail to do that, we will have to use some of our development budget to provide emergency assistance to our people.”

The difference in scale matters because some say the country may need more foreign assistance than it is requesting. The Ethiopian government has been alleged to have covered up crises before. Humanitarian groups are right now responding to a cholera outbreak that the government claims is just acute watery diarrhea.

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But the dispute is not just the main problem. The fact that Ethiopia needs more foreign assistance adds stress to an already underfunded regional hunger crisis in East Africa.

WFP spokesperson John Aylieff warned the country is in a “dire situation.” Ethiopia is under increased pressure due to hosting some 730,000 refugees who have fled conflict and crisis in their nations. Poor rainfall need for agriculture, an overstretched government, the spread of the crop-destroying fall army worm and an inflow of refugees have all amplified the problem.

As a result, the number of people in need of food aid rose by 2 million within just two months. The situation in Ethiopia is critical because it “plays a major role in terms of regional stability” according to an official with the U.N. Development Program.

Millions of people in the Horn of Africa are today at risk of dying from starvation, warns the U.N.

Parts of South Sudan already experience famine, a declaration that comes after people start dying, and there are concerns Somalia will soon follow. South Sudan’s famine affects more than 100,000 people and up to 5 million are at risk of starvation. Continued fighting makes it difficult for aid groups to help people in need and for farmers to resume planting crops as the rain returns.

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Ethiopia is frequently held up as a development success story. A 1984 drought and famine that left more than 400,000 people dead ended up galvanizing the international community, most notably with a Live Aid concert that kicked off the decades-long use of celebrities to raise money for humanitarian causes.

The country’s economy improved in the ensuing decades, helping it avert famine during the drought in 2010 that killed more than 260,000 people in neighboring Somalia.

Somalia and South Sudan lack the capability to provide the kind of support the Ethiopian government can deliver. It leaves millions of people dependent on international humanitarian support. The humanitarian appeals for both countries are not fully funded – as is often the case for emergency situations.

“Although the impressive efforts from communities, governments and international actors have so far managed to prevent the current drought escalating to famine, we are still in the midst of a major life-saving intervention and there is need for sustained funding and international support to mitigate what could still deteriorate,” Jeffrey Labovitz, the regional director for the International Organization on Migration, said.

“In the coming months, we are likely to see many more needing humanitarian aid and being displaced, due to the poor rains.”

The fact that Kenya and Ethiopia are able to help themselves takes off some of the financial pressure on the regional response. However, that appears to be changing.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.