Written by: Emma Batha (03 Oct 2008)–Ethiopia has downplayed a worsening food crisis to avoid tarnishing the country’s image as it celebrates its millennium, an international aid agency said on Friday. (INTERVIEW: Concern says Ethiopian millennium sidelines food crisis)
The United Nations appealed last week for $460 million to feed an estimated 8 million people hit by drought and high food prices.
Concern Worldwide’s country director Aine Fay said the Ethiopian government had been in denial about the emergency in a year in which it wanted to attract investment.
Ethiopia, which squeezes 13 months into each year, entered the 21st century on Sept. 12, 2007.
Fay also blamed aid groups for not acting fast enough, even when they knew the rains had failed and cattle were getting thin.
“We were all at fault. We were slow on the uptake,” she said. “I think part of it … was the government’s reluctance to admit there was a food crisis of any sort and that was, and is, very tied up with the fact that it was the millennium.”
Concern is helping people in Amhara in the north and the SNNP region in the south of the country.
Fay said people were so desperate that a riot had broken out at one of the agency’s feeding centres, forcing staff to lock themselves inside. Families are selling crops before they are harvested and women are borrowing undernourished children to claim aid.
One major problem was that the government did not put out its usual appeal to donors early in the year to replenish its food stocks, now at their lowest level ever, Fay added.
“There was a huge fear of negative (images) when they were looking for investment in this millennium year which is so special to Ethiopia. I just think they took it a step too far.
“Whether we like it or not, the West does equate Ethiopia with (hunger) and I suppose the government was trying desperately to change that.”
The association with poverty and hunger dates back to 1984 when a famine killed more than one million people.
Fay said the government did not consider it had an emergency on its hands, even though it announced last week that 6.4 million people needed food aid. Aid agencies estimate the figure to be closer to 8.2 million.
Concern said rising food and fuel prices had also seriously affected the government’s ability to respond, and aid agencies had failed to pick up on numerous warning signs.
“We will analyse it to death, I have no doubt,” Fay said. “We were aware that the rains had failed and in some cases that disease had hit the crops. There was no pasture, cattle were getting thinner and the price of cattle was dropping in the market so people could not sell … and still a lot of agencies missed the crisis in the early stages.
“We should have been responding in March and we did not actually respond until May and that two months would have made a huge difference particularly to very young children.”
She said people had nothing left and were resorting to desperate measures to feed their families.
“The politeness, the welcome, the hospitality the Ethiopians have – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so undermined as in this particular crisis.
“We had a riot on our hands in one feeding centre which is almost unheard of. We’ve had families who are receiving food aid having their houses robbed at night for 8 kilos of flour – it’s really not in keeping with their culture.”
Fay said the practice of mothers borrowing other women’s malnourished children to claim aid was dangerous because Concern was also administering medication at feeding centres. Babies and children presented numerous times would end up receiving multiple doses of antibiotics and de-worming medicine.
“The issue is the drugs. We will have to explain that the dangers of (double-dosing) might outweigh the benefits of the extra food,” Fay said.
Concern is giving out packages of 8.3 kg of fortified flour and a litre of oil as supplementary food for malnourished children and pregnant mothers. But Fay said the rations were being used to feed families of five or six.
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