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Location of Ethiopia, as Ethiopian borders were as of the famine, prior to Eritrean independence in 1993.

The 1984–1985 famine in Ethiopia was a widespread famine affecting the inhabitants of today's Eritrea and Ethiopia. Four Ethiopian provinces -- Gojjam, Hararghe, Tigray, and Wollo -- all received record low rainfalls in those years.[1] The effects of this low rainfall were exacerbated by lack of adequate government preparations, as well as the increasing drain on government revenues by various insurgencies. In the north, the insurgency of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front and the government's counterinsurgency was the ultimate cause of the famine, though the failure of the short rains in 1984 was the proximate cause. In the south, a separate and simultaneous cause was the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) insurgency.[2] In 1984, President Mengistu Haile Mariam announced that 46% of the Ethiopian Gross National Product would be allocated to military spending, creating the largest standing army in sub-Saharan Africa; meanwhile, the allocation for health in the government budget fell from 6% in 1973/1974 to 3% in 1990/1991.[3] Although an estimated death toll of over one million from this famine is often quoted, this figure has been challenged due to "scant empirical evidence". Nevertheless, the magnitude has been well documented, and in addition to hundreds of thousands of famine-related deaths, millions of people became destitute.[4]

Media activity in the West, along with the size of the crisis, led to the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" charity single and the July 1985 concert Live Aid (raised $100m) [5], which elevated the international profile of the famine and helped secure international aid. Famine scholar Alex de Waal argues that, "The humanitarian effort prolonged the war, and with it, human suffering."[6]



The economy of Ethiopia is based on agriculture: almost half of GDP, 60% of exports, and 80% of total employment come from agriculture.[7]

In 1973, a famine in Wollo killed an estimated 40,000 to 80,000, mostly of the marginalized Afar herders and Oromo tenant farmers, who suffered from the widespread confiscation of land by the wealthy classes and government of Emperor Haile Selassie. Despite attempts to suppress news of this famine, leaked reports contributed to the undermining of the government's legitimacy and served as a rallying point for dissidents. In 1974, a group of soldiers known as the Derg overthrew Haile Selassie. The Derg addressed the Wollo famine by creating the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) to examine the causes of the famine and prevent its recurrence, and then abolishing feudal tenure on March 1975. The RRC initially enjoyed more independence from the Derg than any other ministry, largely due to its close ties to foreign donors and the quality of some its senior staff. As a result, insurgencies began to spread into the countries administrative regions.[8]

By 1976 insurgencies existed in all of the country's fourteen administrative regions. The Red Terror (1977-1978) marked the beginning of a steady deterioration in the economic state of the nation, coupled with extractive policies targeting rural areas. The reforms of 1975 were revoked and the Agricultural Marketing Corporation (AMC) was tasked with extracting food from rural peasantry at low rates to placate the urban populations. The very low fixed price of grain served as a disincentive to production, and some peasants had to buy grain on the open market in order to meet their AMC quota. Citizens in Wollo, which continued to be stricken with drought, were required to provide a "famine relief tax" to the AMC until 1984. The Derg also imposed a system of travel permits to restrict peasants from engaging in non-agricultural activities, such as petty trading and migrant labor, a major form of income supplementation. However, the collapse of the system of State Farms, a large employer of seasonal laborers, resulted in an estimated 500,000 farmers in northern Ethiopia losing a component of their income. Grain wholesaling was declared illegal in much of the country, resulting in the number of grain dealers falling from between 20,000 to 30,000 to 4,942 in the decade after the revolution.[9]

The nature of the RRC changed as the government became increasingly authoritarian. Immediately after its creation its experienced core of technocrats produced highly regarded analyses of Ethiopian famine and ably carried out famine relief efforts. However, by the 1980s the Derg had compromised its mission. The RRC began with the innocuous scheme of creating village workforces from the unemployed in state farms and government agricultural schemes but, as the counter-insurgency intensified, the RRC was given responsibility for a program of forced resettlement and villagization. As the go-between for international aid organizations and foreign donor governments, the RRC redirected food to government militias, in particular in Eritrea and Tigray. It also encouraged international agencies to set up relief programs in regions with surplus grain production, which allowed the AMC to collect the excess food. Finally, the RRC carried out a disinformation campaign during the 1980s famine, in which it portrayed the famine as being solely the result of drought and overpopulation and tried to deny the existence of the armed conflict that was occurring precisely in the famine-affected regions. The RRC also claimed that the aid being given by it and its international agency partners were reaching all of the famine victims.[10]


In the early to mid 1980s there were famines in two distinct regions of the country, resulting in several studies of one famine that try to extrapolate to the other or less cautious writers referring to a single widespread famine. The famine in the southeast of the country was brought about by the Derg's counterinsurgency efforts against the OLF. However, most media referring to "the Ethiopian famine" of the 1980s refers to the severe famine in 1983-5 centered on Tigray and northern Wollo, which further affected Eritrea, Begemder and northern Shewa.[2]

Average grain prices in Northern Ethiopia
(birr per quintal, 100 kg)[11]
E. Tigray N. Wollo N. Begemder
Nov/Dec 1981 100 50 40
Nov/Dec 1982 165 65 55
Nov/Dec 1983 225 90 45
Nov/Dec 1984 300 160 70
Jun/Jul 1985 380 235 165

Despite RRC claims to have predicted the famine, there was little data as late as early 1984 indicating an unusually severe food shortage. Following two major droughts in the late 1970s, 1980 and 1981 were rated by the RRC as "normal" and "above normal". The 1982 harvest was the largest ever, with the exception of central and eastern Tigray. RRC estimates for people "at risk" of famine rose to 3.9 million in 1983 from 2.8 million in 1982, which was less than the 1981 estimate of 4.5 million. In February and March 1983, the first signs of famine were recognized as poverty-stricken farmers began to appear at feeding centers, prompting international aid agencies to appeal for aid and the RRC to revise its famine assessment. The harvest after the main (meher) harvest in 1983 was the third largest on record, with the only serious shortfall again being recorded in Tigray. In response, grain prices in the two northern regions of Begemder and Gojjam fell. However, famine recurred in Tigray. The RRC claimed in May 1984 that the failure of the short rains (belg) constituted a catastrophic drought, while neglecting to state that the belg crops form a fourth of crop yields where the belg falls, but none at all in the majority of Tigray. A quantitative measure of the famine are grain prices, which show high prices in eastern and central Tigray, spreading outward after the 1984 crop failure.[12]

A major drain on Ethiopia's economy was the ongoing civil war, which pitched rebel movements backed by the United States against the Soviet backed Derg government. This crippled the country's economy further and contributed to the governments lack of ability to handle the crisis to come.

By mid-1984 it was evident that another drought and resulting famine of major proportions had begun to affect large parts of northern Ethiopia. Just as evident was the government's inability to provide relief. The almost total failure of crops in the north was compounded by fighting in and around Eritrea, which hindered the passage of relief supplies. Although international relief organizations made a major effort to provide food to the affected areas, the persistence of drought and poor security conditions in the north resulted in continuing need as well as hazards for famine relief workers. In late 1985, another year of drought was forecast, and by early 1986 the famine had spread to parts of the southern highlands, with an estimated 5.8 million people dependent on relief food. Exacerbating the problem in 1986 were locust plagues.

Global dimming, the blocking of sunlight by man-made particulates, has been identified as one culprit for a decades-long drought across sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia.[13]

Response to the famine

The Ethiopian government's inability or unwillingness to deal with the 1984-85 famine provoked universal condemnation by the international community. Even many supporters of the Ethiopian regime opposed its policy of withholding food shipments to rebel areas. The combined effects of famine and internal war had by then put the nation's economy into a state of collapse.

The primary government response to the drought and famine was the decision to uproot large numbers of peasants who lived in the affected areas in the north and to resettle them in the southern part of the country. In 1985 and 1986, about 600,000 people were moved, many forcibly, from their home villages and farms by the military and transported to various regions in the south. Many peasants fled rather than allow themselves to be resettled; many of those who were resettled sought later to return to their native regions. Several human rights organizations claimed that tens of thousands of peasants died as a result of forced resettlement.

Another government plan involved villagization, which was a response not only to the famine but also to the poor security situation. Beginning in 1985, peasants were forced to move their homesteads into planned villages, which were clustered around water, schools, medical services, and utility supply points to facilitate distribution of those services. Many peasants fled rather than acquiesce in relocation, which in general proved highly unpopular. Additionally, the government in most cases failed to provide the promised services. Far from benefiting agricultural productivity, the program caused a decline in food production. Although temporarily suspended in 1986, villagization was subsequently resumed.


International view

RAF C-130 airdropping food during 1985 famine

Close to 8 million people became famine victims during the drought of 1984, and over 1 million died. In the same year, a BBC news crew was the first to document the famine, with Michael Buerk describing "a biblical famine in the 20th Century" and "the closest thing to hell on Earth". The report shocked Britain, motivating its citizens to bring world attention to the crisis in Ethiopia. In January 1985 the RAF carried out the first airdrops from Hercules C-130s delivering food to the starving people. Other countries including Germany, Poland, Canada, USA and the Soviet Union were also involved in the international response.

Live Aid

Live Aid, a 1985 fund-raising effort headed by Bob Geldof (who had also organized the charity group Band Aid the previous year), induced millions of people in the West to donate money and to urge their governments to participate in the relief effort in Ethiopia. Some of the proceeds also went to the famine hit areas of Eritrea.[14] The event was one of the most widely-viewed television broadcasts in history, with over 400 million viewers worldwide.

See also


  1. ^ Patrick Webb and Joachim von Braun, Famine and Food Security in Ethiopia: Lessons for Africa (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 1994), p. 25
  2. ^ a b Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, African Rights and the International African Institute, 1997, ISBN 0253211581, p. 112
  3. ^ Patrick Webb and Joachim von Braun, Famine and Food Security, p. 35
  4. ^ Patrick Webb and Joachim von Braun, Famine and Food Security, p. 29
  5. ^ BBC-h2g2-A447266 "Band Aid and Live Aid", BBC - h2g2, 2000
  6. ^ de Waal, p. 127
  7. ^ Ethiopia: Economy, CIA World Factbook, 2009
  8. ^ de Waal, pp. 106-109
  9. ^ de Waal, pp. 110-111
  10. ^ de Waal, pp. 111-112
  11. ^ de Waal, p. 115
  12. ^ de Waal, pp. 113-114
  13. ^ Transcript of the program "Dimming the Sun" from NOVA, Public Broadcasting Service airdate: April 18, 2006
  14. ^ "In 1984 Eritrea was part of Ethiopia, where some of the song's proceeds were spent". Archived from the original on 2009-05-11. Retrieved 2009-05-08.  

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