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Watch Peter Biles put your questions to Rebbeca Hansen
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Friday, 7 April, 2000, 16:23 GMT 17:23 UK
Quiz Peter Biles in Ethiopia
Quiz Peter Biles in Ethiopia
The BBC's Peter Biles is in Ethiopia to report on the worsening famine afflicting the Horn of Africa region.

The Ethiopian government has accused the international community of being slow to respond to its appeals saying that the war with Eritrea was used as a pretext for delaying aid.

Peter Biles put a selection of your questions to Rebbeca Hansen, of the UN World Food Programme.

Highlights of the Forum

Haile Tekle, USA: The Ethiopian government has stated that "it is only 11%" of the population that has been affected and continues to resent those who are labelling it a "crisis". Do you think they are right?

Rebbeca Hansen: I can't say whether it's right or wrong, it's simply an opinion. I can understand that there are sensitivities involved and national pride. Ethiopians are very concerned that everybody just sees their country in terms of famine - everybody's remembering the situation in 1984. So yes they are very sensitive about it and I can understand their sensitivity. And that would may be why they would not like it to be called a crisis, but I certainly can't say whether it's right or wrong.

Daniel Kidane, Sweden: Has Eritrea allowed the use of its ports for aid distribution?

Rebbeca Hansen: We understand that there have been reports in the press that Eritrea has said that this would be possible. However you have to remember that it is a political issue, so as to whether or not that would actually happen has to be resolved at a political level.

Wedi Sila, UK: It has been mentioned repeatedly mentioned on the BBC that an estimated 1 million dollars a day is spent on keeping the army active in the war zone. I would have thought they could have bought enough grain to avert this crisis with half that money. What do the aid agencies have to say about this?

Rebbeca Hansen: Obviously this is a very political issue. As a representative of a humanitarian organisation I can only answer in terms of a humanitarian response. While aid agencies may have those concerns, we have to deal with the problem at hand, we have to keep in our minds the fact that there are these people who very much need assistance and so we have to try and put aside what those political sensitivities are.

Daniel, UK: Was the Ethiopian Prime Minister justified in attacking European countries and the International community for the slow aid response?

Rebbeca Hansen: In the past the Ethiopian Government has always announced its appeal for assistance in December. This year in order for the needs assistance assessment to be more thorough we asked for the appeal to be launched in January instead. The government agreed, but I think that they are frustrated because they thought by respecting the donor request to have the appeal delayed that the responses would then immediately start flowing.

Unfortunately every donor is tied to a certain kind of bureaucracy and it takes time for the paperwork to get done, it takes time for the pledges to come through. Donations are coming through, for example just today we had confirmation of three new pledges. From the Irish Government we had a confirmation of about $60,000, from the Greeks about $20,000, and from the Canadian Government about $4m. These pledges have not been made just because of the media attention, these responses were in the works for several weeks, I think that's important to remember.

Bridget, United Kingdom: Since the last famine in Ethiopia the population has kept growing. Does population growth have anything to do with this crisis?

Rebbeca Hansen: I think it would be a little bit too simple to say that because you have a larger population you're seeing a worse effect of a famine situation. There are so many factors at play, the question of agricultural activity, the question of marketing strategies - there are simply too many other factors.

Ironically, some of the families who are best able to cope with the situation today are in fact families who do have more family members, people who are able to migrate for labour opportunities. So I really wouldn't put the two things together.

Edward Price, UK: Why has it taken this long for the press to start reporting this famine properly?

Rebbeca Hansen: Stories kind of have a "moment" and now happens to be the "moment" for this story. Media attention tends to go where there's something very dramatic, something that happens very suddenly.

The situation that we're seeing today is not something that's all of a sudden appeared, it didn't just happen a couple of weeks ago. This is a slow onset, this is something that has been happening over the last several years. It's an accumulation of several full years of poor harvests, of unreliable weather, of (being very honest) a less than full donor response.

We see people who are really at the end of their coping capabilities, they've sold off their livestock which has severe implications for being able to prepare their land in terms of how much they can produce.

Mahdere Kidane, Eritrea: Is Ethiopia giving more priority to its war effort than to feeding its people?

Rebbeca Hansen: I can't speak on behalf of the government, but I can say that they are a very close working partner with us and with other UN agencies, and with other donor agencies to try and avert the crisis, to try and get food provisions to where it's needed in terms of allocation plans. We're working very closely with the government on this.

One of the big differences between the situation in 1984 and now is that before information was somewhat hidden. The world didn't know there was a crisis in the making, until it was at a stage where even when the assistance arrived it was basically too late. The government is now very transparent, they've very open in saying yes they do need assistance.

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See also:

04 Apr 00 | Africa
Aid to Ethiopia 'too slow'
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