Ethiopia hunger crisis can be averted: UK’s Ashdown

By Barry Malone, Thursday, 29 October 2009

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – The international community can avert a crisis in Ethiopia by quickly giving the African country the emergency aid it says it needs to feed 6.2 million people, one of Britain’s top diplomats said on Thursday.

The Ethiopian government says poor rains this year have left many rural communities struggling to feed themselves. It has appealed for nearly 160,000 tonnes of emergency food aid.

“This is serious but not yet catastrophic and that is why we need to act now,” Paddy Ashdown, who became president of Britain’s branch of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF in July, told Reuters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. “That means we need to fund aid for those 6.2 million people quickly and we can prevent this situation getting to much worse proportions.”

Aid workers say a five-year drought is afflicting more than 23 million people in seven east African nations, with Ethiopia the worst affected. The government’s appeal came on the 25th anniversary of a 1984 famine that killed more than 1 million.

Media reports last week likened the unfolding situation in sub Saharan Africa’s second most populous country to the 1984 disaster, but Ashdown dismissed the comparison.

“Is this situation like 1984/85? My answer is no,” he said. “A number of factors are not in place that were in place then. There was a civil war, we didn’t have the institutions we have now to deal with problems, and we reacted late.”

Humanitarian workers say a scheme that gives 7 million Ethiopians food in exchange for work should ensure deaths on the scale of 1984 are not repeated.

But international aid agency Oxfam says food aid has trapped Ethiopia in a cycle of dependency and that more money should be spent on long-term solutions.

Ashdown said spending money on improving education, reducing population growth and encouraging urbanization could help Africans cope with drought. “Crisis-chasing is not how we should be solving these problems,” he said.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who will represent Africa at December’s Copenhagen climate change talks, says European carbon emissions caused the 1984 famine and has demanded compensation for the continent.

Ashdown, once the international community’s representative in Bosnia, said the rich world should strike a fair deal with Africa at the Copenhagen talks.

“We cannot ask countries that are not yet developed to halt their development in order to pay for problems that we have in large measure created,” he said. “There has to be a deal and that deal has to be a fair one.”