Opinion: Why Ethiopia still faces crisis

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

Some 20 years ago this month, the British people responded with huge humanity to reports from Michael Buerk on the BBC about the needs of 8 million starving people in Ethiopia. Bob Geldof launched Band Aid.

It led to the biggest single peace-time mobilisation of the international community in the 20th century. Two decades on, most of us assume that Ethiopia is now fine.

We haven't heard about it on the news, so that drought in 1984 can't have been repeated.

Yet even during 'good' years, some 4 million Ethiopians need food aid to prevent them from starving. In 2003, it was 13 million. It is a country that can't feed itself. In Darfur, where our attention is now focused, there are 2-3 million at risk.

There are more practical reasons. In 1984, starving people had to walk many miles to reach feeding stations. Those are the images that haunt us still. Since 1992, though, thanks to Save the Children, Ethiopia has an early-warning system so that it is ready for crop failure. Emergency food stocks are in place around the country with trucks to take it to where it is needed, when it is needed. There will be no mass migration, no camps to film, just misery in Ethiopian homes.

The biggest failure over the 20 years, however, has been to communicate effectively what Ethiopia really needs. Since I got back from the country two weeks ago, nine out of 10 people whom I've told about its current plight still don't understand the difference between emergency aid - supplies to stop people starving - and long-term development aid to help build a better, sustainable future.

Because the emergency food stores exist in Ethiopia, many assume that western donors are doing their bit. Yet Ethiopia has been the lowest recipient of development aid in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years. We stave off crisis, but do little to stop that crisis threatening again every year.

Until we can alert public opinion to this scandal, Ethiopia's agony continues.

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