The Factors That Influenced Ethiopian Famine

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Famine refers to a long-term decline in the availability of food in a region. The impact of the famine depends on physical factors, but also governmental policies and the amount of aid received. When examining the 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia we can investigate whether physical factors were the main reason for the famine and its horrible impact, or if there is something more relevant.

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The 1983-85 famine in Ethiopia resulted in deaths ranging from 400 000 (as estimated by famine scholar Alex de Waal) to 1 million (number issued by the United Nations). Physical factors such as droughts and crop-destroying insects were influential in the graveness of the famine. Average yearly rainfall at the beginning of the 1980s was very low and the 800mm of rainfall per year in 1983 was a record-low for the region. That resulted in a widespread drought which meant that fewer crops were grown and food scarcity became an issue, especially in the north-east of the country, the most affected regions. Moreover, armyworms and other insects greatly contributed in the destruction of the already limited crops. The process was also really fast, and a whole harvest could be destroyed overnight.

It can also be argued that political factors had a huge influence on the famine. 46% of the Gross National Product was issued to military spending, at the cost of the money spent on health, which dropped from 6% to 3% since the beginning of the Derg. The ruling Marxist-Leninist Derg regime and the Oromo Liberation Front (which had the greatest support in the northeast) were caught up in Civil War, which increased governmental hostility towards the regions infested with nationalist insurgency. They issued resettlement programmes which removed the people from the north-eastern regions and exchanged them with people from the southern regions. This was done in order to break up the anti-governmental movement and crush opposition. Other Military policies were known to be leading factors in spreading the famine. For example, the burning of crops in the fields and harvested grains in villages as a policy of counter-insurgency was detrimental towards the villagers, which were forced to seek refuge elsewhere. Moreover, the army was ordered to steal farm equipment and cattle from the farmers. That was done in order to make the population dependent on state-issued food and get them used to collectivised farming. There is evidence to suggest that the 1982 harvest was very good and the people at risk of famine was lower in 1983 (3.9mln) than 1981 (4.5mln). That shows that famine by physical factors was not as widespread and that the military policies were the ones that had the biggest impact on the famine.

In conclusion, we can say that physical factors like little rainfall and insects were responsible for the famine, yet the impact would most certainly not have been as pronounced long lasting if it had not been for the military policies implemented by the Derg government. Crop burning and forced resettlement dragged the famine for at least another year and even impacted regions that did not suffer as much from lack of rainfall.

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