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Thursday, 6 April, 2000, 21:33 GMT 22:33 UK
Flashback 1984: Portrait of a famine
Korem, Ethiopia, 0ctober 1984
TV pictures prompted huge public donations in the West
By BBC News Online's Kate Milner

Television pictures of starving Ethiopian children are once again on Western television screens, 15 years after famine claimed the lives of nearly one million people.
Ethiopean child, Korem, Ethiopia, 0ctober 1984
The Ethiopian Government was accused of neglecting its people
As aid workers estimate eight million people are at risk from starvation, there are inevitable parallels with the crisis of 1984-85. Aid workers have called on the West to react immediately with food and aid, to avoid the same massive death toll.

Many mistakes were made in the 1980s, both by the West and by the Ethiopian Government. The West was criticised for not reacting to the crisis in time; the Ethiopian Government for its spending on civil war.

Warning signals should have been sounding from 1981, when a drought in Ethiopia wiped out harvests. But Western governments were slow to get involved and aid to Ethiopia was lower than to most other developing countries.

Western reluctance

In 1984 the harvest looked likely to be very poor. There had not been the usual spring rains and disease had destroyed crops in Sidamo, Ethiopia's traditional breadbasket region.

In March the Ethiopian Government warned that five million people were at risk from starvation because the country could produce only 6.2 million tonnes of grain a year, one million less than needed.
Countdown to crisis 1984
Mar: Ethiopian Government appeals for international aid
Aug: Thousands dying; six million people at risk
Sep: Europe's bumper harvest - but food stockpiled
Oct: TV pictures shock the world
Nov: Western aid efforts stepped up
Dec: Band Aid single raises 8m
By the summer tens of thousands were dying of starvation and related disease. Aid agencies said six million people were at risk.

But Western governments were reluctant to get involved.

Ethiopia had been a Marxist state since the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in September 1974. The West feared it would bear the cost of drought aid while the military government of Mengistu Haile Mariam spent money buying weapons and cementing a Marxist-Leninist regime.

But if the West did not help, hundreds of thousands of people would die.

The dilemma was complicated by Ethiopia's 20-year civil war in the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigre.

Ethiopian wars

Aid agencies blamed Western governments for not doing more. In September Oxfam tried to shame governments by giving 500,000, the single largest donation in its 40-year history.

But private relief agencies and diplomats also started saying the Ethiopian Government had not given high enough priority to the famine. There were criticisms that socialist policies were holding back the economy.
Ethiopian man too weak to brush flies from his face, October 1984
By October 1984, eight million people were at risk of starvation
Another problem concerned the delivery of aid supplies across the country. Later Ethiopia would send in military aircraft, but by September, no army vehicles had been deployed. And there were reports that EEC food was being diverted from civilian famine victims to feed troops.

Meanwhile Europe had record harvests, with huge stockpiles of surplus grain. But the food was not being redirected.

The UK public gave 5m in three days.

Relief organisations appealed for 60,000 tonnes per month until the end of the 1985, but governments said they had already allocated that year's aid supplies. Aid agencies had to buy grain on the open market.

But under pressure from aid agencies, the West finally pledged extra money.

By October, eight million people were in danger of starvation.

But increased television and newspaper coverage throughout Western Europe led to an increase in public donations - the UK public gave 5m in three days.

Even then, government response was low-key. In the UK there were plans to provide RAF transport to drop food, but there were delays and diplomatic arguments with the Ethiopian Government. The first Hercules aircraft went to Ethiopia in November.

Public donations

In October 1984 the death toll in Ethiopia was estimated at 200,000. Western diplomats said 900,000 people would die by the end of the year whatever the level of aid.

In November the first British relief plane arrived in the capital Addis Ababa, sponsored by UK newspaper the Daily Mirror. But it was more a publicity stunt for proprietor Robert Maxwell, who arrived personally to deliver just 20 tonnes of supplies. As BBC Correspondent Michael Buerk reported it was enough to last 12 minutes.

By December the Western public had donated more than 100m, but the Ethiopian government was stepping up its internal war and continuing to divert aid supplies to its troops. Heavy storms flattened the few crops that had been planted.
Rush for food at Korem, Ethiopia, 0ctober 1984
Rumours of a food delivery would set off panic
Thousands of refugees were fleeing war and famine and heading into neighbouring Sudan; an estimated 2,000 people a day by December.

But Western awareness was now high, helped by the Band Aid single, "Do they know its Christmas?", which raised 8m for charity.

Foreign aid was flown into Ethiopia throughout 1985, and two Live Aid charity concerts raised millions of pounds.

Ethiopia's fortunes gradually improved, or at least, the worst was over. But drought and famine are recurrent problems and once again Ethiopia is desperate for humanitarian aid.

Ethiopia's government has changed and international response to crises is quicker and more organised - or at least that is the hope of aid agencies. With Ethiopia fighting a two-year border war with Eritrea, the old problems could yet re-surface.

The BBC's Michael Buerk in Ethiopia, 23 October 1984
"A biblical famine"
See also:

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