Famine in Ethiopia (1958-1977)

One of the earliest comprehensive works on famine in Ethiopia was "Rural Vulnerability to Famine in Ethiopia, 1958-1977", written by Mesfin Wolde Mariam (published 1986). The author is noteworthy for a career advocating for human rights, for which he was nominated for the Sakharov Prize, and also for which he was imprisoned by the Government of Ethiopia in 2005. While his life is worthy of many more words, in what follows, I focus on his book on famine:

The author shifts attention away from environmental conditions, and toward two others: the mode of production (subsistence agriculture) and oppression along with exploitation.

  • Mode of production: "If we accept the fact that, in general, subsistence producers are essentially and almost exclusively engaged in producing for themselves and their families on a harvest-to-harvest basis without any reserves of food or cash to carry them over a critical period, then we have recognized a system that is falsely self-sufficient and unreasonably reliant on the capricious physical conditions of the environment and the exploitative socio-economic organization of the society. It is precisely the false self-sufficiency and the groundless reliance on the physical conditions, and the persistent exploitation, that render subsistence production basically vulnerable to famine" (p. 24).
  • Exploitation and oppression: "We are now, it seems [following an analysis of the findings], on much better ground to emphasize that the subsistence production system is the root of the famine, and that the persistent oppressions and exploitations of peasants by socio-economic and political forces rather than occasional aberrations of the natural forces are the decisive factors of vulnerability to famine" (p. 173). When "peasants are forced to pay taxes even when their gross production is insufficient to meet their subsistence requirements, taxation turns into a brutal form of legalized exploitation" (p. 186), for which, Wolde Mariam notes, they benefit nothing.

Wolde Mariam also refutes commonly argued causes of famine, including one that places significant blame on colonialism. While accepting the disasters colonialism wrought, the exploitation it created and the harm caused, he also believes such an argument implies the "peoples and governments of the Third World are mere objects that cannot be called upon to account for their own ills. They are only there to be manipulated by this or that master mind. Such implicitly condescending arguments are extremely dangerous, dangerous because they incapacitate the peoples, especially the ruling elite of the Third World, from accepting the responsibility for their own condition, and for their own actions and inactions" (p. 132).

Given the book was written in 1986, there are a number of quotable points Mesfin Wolde Mariam makes:

  • "The slow and grinding action of famine which perhaps originates in one poor harvest starts a process that reduces the harvest of subsequent years. Famine prolongs and intensifies famine" (p. 63).
  • "Bureaucratic capitalism in its primitive form and most ruthless form becomes the instrument of oppression and exploitation, especially of the disorganized and weakest majority of the population" (p. 16)
  • "The undue idealization of the small peasant plots is a retrogressive view comparable to the well-known anthropologists' appeal 'to leave the native alone'… It is idle to believe that agricultural development can take place on miniscule farms where the majority of the population would remain permanently tied to the land" (p. 136-137).

Wolde Mariam draws on Tawney's description of the peasant situation, similar to a person standing permanently up to the neck in water, where ripples can be disastrous. And, yet, no "matter how strongly the peasants feel the injustice, the oppression, and the exploitation, as realists they find it better to rely on their commonsense and almost inexhaustible patience than on rebellion, which, even it is materializes, will almost certainly fail to achieve any purpose" (p. 18). For the solutions, or recommendations for reducing vulnerability to famine, Wolde Mariam suggests:

  • Social services: "We can also state more emphatically the urgent need for a development policy that is committed to welfare of the masses of Ethiopian peasants" (p. 173).
  • Participation: "by allowing the peasant masses to articulate their own problems and priorities, and by restoring to them their self-confidence and self-respect in order to mobilize their energy and resources to improve their own conditions of living" (p. 179). "It is idle to expect the rural people of Ethiopian to cooperate whole-heartedly in a plan or project that they rightly or wrongly believe is outside the realm of their pressing needs. In such instances, they can only become passive spectators, or, at the most, reluctant participants that will forget the whole thing as soon as the pressure it off them. This is why it is necessary for the new administrators to work with the people by allowing them a large measure of involvement in identifying problems, in setting priorities, in allocating resources, and in deciding the course of action" (p. 185).
  • Access to information: "There is no doubt that the detail and accuracy as well as the speed and efficiency of processing and transmitting information are crucial, particularly in an impending famine situation" (p. 104). However, the problem "is not only the lack of data at a lower level of aggregation, there is also the problem of access to available information. Individuals or institutions that wish to do research are constricted by the problem of the quantity and quality of data they have to use" (p. 181).
  • Control and regulation: "by tightly controlling the governmental and market forces through a responsible and responsive administrative structure in which the peasants should actively and decisively participate" (p. 179)
  • Caution with foreign aid: "It is important to bear in mind that foreign aid, as such, is not inconsequential. What makes it inconsequential, or even harmful, is the inability of the recipients to determine their own needs and priorities, and to insist on aid for specific purposes, on one hand, and the desire of the donors to create new needs and to strengthen the dependence of the recipients on them, on the other. It is the fact that most foreign aid is determined not by the needs of the recipient countries but by the needs of the donor countries that makes it ineffective" (p. 113)
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