Famine takes root when farmers lose their means of production. In Africa, drought and war have forced huge numbers of peasants to sell off their animals and tools and abandon the land on which they depend, thus bringing local economies to a standstill. Grain yields in Africa declined by one-third per hectare over the last decade; food production is down by 15 percent since 1981. One out of every five Africans now depends on food aid. Interest payments on international loans now consume $15 billion per year. The continent’s industrial base is functioning at only one-third of capacity. The incidence of famine among Africa’s rural producers has in turn brought national economies to a halt.

While depleting Africa of more people than at any time since the slave trade era, the African famine of the 1980s continues to open the door to massive amounts of the aid that is serving to reignite local economies and stimulate national economies into the global system. As the provider of 50 percent of all economic and humanitarian assistance to Africa, the United States is setting the terms of “economic development” throughout much of the continent. A 1983 CIA report forecast the recurrence of famine in much of Africa through the 1990s and warned of the continent’s vulnerability to socialist trends in the face of continued starvation. [1] Under the Reagan administration, economic development revolves around policy reforms designed to bolster private sector development. On his January 1987 trip to Africa, Secretary of State George Shultz spoke of a “new partnership between the US and black Africa based on a shared vision of free enterprise as the basis for economic development.” [2] According to the World Bank, 22 of 34 low-income countries in Africa targeted for assistance by the Reagan Administration have initiated US-sponsored economic reforms, including withdrawals of government subsidies, devaluation of local currencies and decreased support to public sector initiatives. [3]

In Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia, US policy aims at establishing some leverage over these countries’ broader political orientation and especially their international alliances. Washington’s approach exhibits three major variations on the Reagan Doctrine. Whether these variations demonstrate the flexibility of the doctrine or its fragility remains to be seen. At one end of the spectrum is Angola, where US policy seems determined to replace the ruling MPLA with the South African-backed UNITA. In Mozambique, Washington couples promises of aid to the Maputo government with indirect support for the contra-type rampages of the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), also sponsored by South Africa.

Once America’s key ally in Africa, Ethiopia is likewise a logical candidate for a Reagan effort at counterrevolution. But in Ethiopia, perhaps because there is no opposition force like RENAMO or UNITA, American attempts to regain access have meant dealing directly with the central government. Between 1977 and 1983, US policy towards Ethiopia was shaped in reaction to the presence of the Soviet Union. This period was marked by dalliances with Ethiopia’s hostile neighbors, Sudan and Somalia. The famine that struck in 1984 provided the opportunity to intervene more directly in Ethiopia’s internal affairs. Although the administration repeatedly assured the media that “a starving child knows no politics,” [4] it set up an Inter-Agency Task Force on the Africa Famine comprising representatives of the Department of Defense, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, AID and the Department of Agriculture. [5] The Task Force, headed by General (ret.) Julius Bectin, would play a critical role in determining who ate and who starved in Africa’s Horn. US economic support for Ethiopia, the temporary convergence of US interests with those of Addis Ababa and Washington’s search for a viable anti-communist opposition force reflect a refining of Reagan Doctrine tactics in this instance.

War and Famine

When the African Sahel’s annual rains dropped off in 1980-81, Ethiopia was still recovering from the 1973-74 famine that triggered the overthrow of Haile Selassie’s imperial regime. The current famine is essentially a consequence of the unresolved armed conflicts that have afflicted much of Ethiopia’s cultivable territory since 1974. Three years after the collapse of Haile Selassie, Swedish expert Lars Bondestam reported to the Disasters Preparedness Planning Programme of the new government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission that “there is an inevitable risk of famine in Ethiopia.” The causes, Bondestam wrote, included the dependence of the armed forces upon the rural peasantry for food, the continued development of a war economy, the loss of manpower to the military, and the disruption of markets and transportation by armed conflict. [6]

War now affects an estimated 43 percent of Ethiopia’s land mass, and the incidence of armed conflict has increased over the last decade. [7] The opposition Eritrean and Tigrayan forces and the central government are today further apart than ever on the key questions of independence and autonomy. Armed conflict will likely continue into the foreseeable future, forcing all parties to operate within the confines of a war economy.

The militarization of the economy has made the government increasingly dependent upon the urban sector and cash crop producing rural sector. This means primarily the country’s 700,000 or so rich peasants who produce coffee, the source of 60-70 percent of Ethiopia’s export earnings, and fare far better than their subsistence-level compatriots who comprise 90 percent of the total population. Economic assistance has focused upon coffee producers and members of state farms, almost totally excluding the majority of the population which still produces grains on private land. [8] Although state farms account for less than four percent of the country’s arable land, they consume over 80 percent of all agricultural credit available. According to a 1985 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, government-sponsored agricultural development in the plateau areas where 92 percent of the population resides is almost non-existent. [9]

In addition to the constraints of war, development was hampered by the sharp decline in bilateral Western assistance after 1977. Multilateral assistance increased, making Ethiopia the European Economic Community’s number one aid recipient in Africa, and the country is scheduled to receive more World Bank concessional aid by 1990 than any other country. [10] But the United States took serious economic actions against the Ethiopian government following its alliance with the Soviet Union, using government repression of domestic opponents as an excuse. Washington has never provided development assistance to any of the insurgent areas. The Hickenlooper Amendment to the US Foreign Assistance Act prohibited any economic development assistance to the Ethiopian government as the price exacted for unsettled compensation claims. Washington steadily reduced the AID budget for PL 480 food aid to Addis Ababa, intending to phase the program out altogether by the end of 1983.

It now appears that the decrease in food assistance to Ethiopia and the failure to provide relief until the famine had reached catastrophic proportions was primarily a means of positioning the US for what was to follow. “In the coming years,” stated former Secretary of Agriculture John Block upon his inauguration in 1980, “food aid will prove to be the most powerful weapon of the US.” [11] In 1985, the US entered the battle in Ethiopia from a position of strength, and in that year made Ethiopia the largest recipient of AID emergency assistance in Africa.

Zones of Control

By the time famine took root in Ethiopia, distinct operational areas had been carved out as a result of the battles being waged by and against the central government. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) controlled much of the countryside in the northern regions of Eritrea and Tigray, while government forces maintained a significant military presence in the towns dotting the main north-south highway from Asmara to Addis Ababa. [12] Since 1975, the government had mounted an average of one major military offensive each year in this Northern Command.

When the annual rains failed for a fifth year in the summer of 1984, food became a key weapon of war on all sides. The majority of famine victims in Eritrea and Tigray resided in guerrilla-administered areas. [13] The objective of the two fronts was to contain the population within their zones of control, while government strategy revolved around drawing hungry peasants into the urban centers. The Ethiopian government clearly banked on the fact that international donors would follow past precedent and provide aid strictly through government channels. This required ignoring the fact that between three and five million starving people lived on the other side of the battle lines.

When the Ethiopian famine burst on the scene with the BBC’s graphic footage from the Korem camp in Tigray in late 1984, three distinct relief operations existed. One channeled aid from the government-controlled ports of Assab and Massawa south to the government-run feeding centers along the main roads. The second and third operations both began at Port Sudan and entered Eritrea and Tigray at points along the eastern Sudanese border. These were run by the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) and the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), respectively.

The bulk of international assistance entered the first pipeline, despite the late 1984 estimate that less than three percent of all famine victims were located in government camps. [14] Relief agency officials estimated in the fall of 1984 that less than 5 percent of the overall emergency needs in the guerrilla-held areas of Eritrea and Tigray were being met; in Tigray alone, the death rate soared to 1500 per day. At the northern tip of the famine belt, Eritrea was not as severely affected by the famine as were Tigray and Wollo to the south. Employing an extremely efficient infrastructure, ERA was able to maintain numerous temporary feeding camps with limited food rations.

REST was hampered by Tigray’s rugged terrain and a grossly inadequate transportation system, which left it unable to regularly stock stationary feeding centers. While the government organized a campaign to resettle Tigrayans (and other northern Ethiopians) forcibly to the south, REST organized an exodus of over 200,000 farmers to emergency border camps in Sudan between October 1984 and April 1985. Despite ERA’s camps and the REST migration, mass starvation occurred within the EPLF and TPLF zones. Hundreds of thousands were trapped on the densely-populated plateaus that characterize the northern famine belt. Shortages of supplies, hostile terrain and government refusal to allow airdrops of food aid into rural areas controlled by the guerrillas ensured that no assistance ever reached them.

Support for ERA and REST came mainly from European and Canadian sources, totaling about $70 million in the peak year of 1985, although two US-based agencies also channeled aid, including about $5 million in US AID funding, in 1985. [15] A February 1985 report in The Times (London) cited a “confidential Ethiopian government report” confirming “that more than three-quarters of the people in the famine-stricken province of Tigray are failing to receive food aid.” [16] The little aid that was directed through the “back door” to the EPLF and TPLF areas was at constant risk of attack. While celebrities visited the urban centers of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, the Ethiopian military regularly bombed truck convoys moving into the EPLF and TPLF zones from Sudan. Nine of REST’s feeding centers were bombed in early 1985. In January 1985, Ethiopian authorities seized the relief ship Golden Venture, and its contents — wheat from the Australian government for ERA and REST and a drilling rig desperately needed to bore water holes in rural Tigray. This was the third such seizure in less than six months.

The Sunday Times (London) estimated that because of the wars five million people were going without aid in the midst of the most massive relief effort in history. [17] The UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Western governments and the independent Brandt Commission made efforts to secure a safe passage agreement, whereby relief aid could be distributed in contested areas without obstruction by any of the contending armies. The EPLF and TPLF endorsed such an agreement as early as 1983, but the Ethiopian government claimed that there was no need for such an agreement since the government controlled every square inch of the country. [18]

Political Silence

For the progressive American relief agencies and media, the famine posed a dilemma: in the face of the Reagan administration’s moves to equate “humanitarian” and “non-lethal” aid in its anti-communist crusade, aid to ERA and REST might serve as a potentially dangerous precedent for greater US assistance to Savimbi’s UNITA and the contras in Nicaragua. Still others stated that support for ERA and REST would threaten relief programs on the government side. A number of agencies were lost in the political confusion and simply followed Washington’s path to the government-controlled side of the battle lines.

The media and the relief agencies generally confronted the complexities of the disaster with public silence. The wars that caused the famine went unmentioned, as did the “back door” efforts to reach an estimated five million people via the Sudan. Media attention in the US focused almost exclusively on the Ethiopian government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission when discussing the international relief effort. [19] The practical effect of the silence was devastating: while an estimated 50 percent or more of the total famine victims resided in guerrilla-held territory, ten times more aid was provided for those in the government-held zones.

A secret White House report of May 1984 shows that the US government was well aware then that a massive disaster was in the works in both guerrilla and government-held territory. The National Security Council?which maintained the right of final approval on all allocations of relief aid to Ethiopia — did not see US assistance as opportune until some five months later, in November 1984, by which time both the Ethiopian government and its opposition were in desperate need. [20] US assistance, channelled through the World Food Programme (WFP) and private US charities, began flowing into Ethiopia.

In early 1985, Vice-President George Bush flew to the Sudanese capital accompanied by AID Administrator Peter MacPherson and officials of the American-based Christian Broadcasting Network and Americares Foundation, both key players in the “private aid” network supporting the contra rebels in Nicaragua. Before his visit to Sudan, Bush had publicly threatened to expand US support for the cross-border operations into Eritrea and Tigray, provoking outrage from Addis Ababa. Bush and MacPherson held private discussions with Sudanese officials and proposed to CARE, a major implementor of AID-funded programs in Africa, that it build roads into the rebel-held hinterland and beef up ERA and REST’s transport capacity by as many as 500 trucks. [21] All signs indicated that the EPLF and/or the TPLF might be tapped to serve as Reagan’s contras in the Horn of Africa. In keeping with precedent, however, the administration went ahead and provided most of its aid through the Ethiopian government. US assistance to the guerrilla-held areas increased only slightly, and not in sufficient quantities to stem the flow of migrants or to reduce the death rate significantly. [22]

During 1985-86, Ethiopia received over one billion dollars in famine-related assistance. The US was the largest contributor. Of this assistance, over 80 percent was allocated to the government, despite the fact that it had physical access to less than half of the famine’s victims. Only the most doctrinaire rightwing elements in the US opposed this. A Rand Corporation study commissioned by the White House and issued in December 1985 came out strongly against US support to the movements. “Catering to separatist delusions,” or “tactical support of Marxist dissident movements on the argument that they are anti-Soviet…serves no purpose,” wrote consultant Paul Henze. [23] Regional allies also encouraged US moves towards Addis Ababa. Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir advised a visiting US Congressional delegation that “Ethiopia [was] not lost to the West…pro-Soviet hard liners [are] present in the government but [are] not in control.” [24]

Ethiopian officials reportedly informed the Congressmen that “Ethiopia is the only country strategically positioned in the region that operates independent of the Arab line, which creates a commonality of interests with the US.” Egypt’s Husni Mubarak voiced his desire for improved relations with Addis Ababa and pointed to his own curtailment of Sadat’s program of support to the Eritreans. [25]

“Food for the North”

Still holding out promises of relief to insurgent areas, Bush departed Sudan for a UN meeting on the Africa famine in Geneva. There he negotiated a Food for the North Initiative with former Ethiopian Foreign Minister Goshu Wolde, with the blessings of General Bectin’s Task Force in Washington. The US-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and World Vision International simultaneously ratified the agreement with the US embassy in Addis Ababa. It called for the delivery of aid to contested areas under Ethiopian government auspices. Stocked by the US State Department’s Food for Peace program, six feeding centers were established in the heart of the northern war zones, three in Tigray and three in Eritrea. Each one was a key military garrison for the government.

The famine’s demography did not appear to be central to their siting. Millions of starving farmers in the north were on the move.The objective of both sides was to “catch” or contain mobile populations in secured areas. The Food for the North Initiative goal was to distribute some $27 million in aid to 350,000 recipients in government camps. The program did satisfy the public demand for increased food aid to the contested region, but the result was an overall increase in displacement and a subsequent long-term decline in production. Peasants who fled to Sudan say they chose to make a 3-6 week journey to that country’s refugee camps rather than to risk the danger of entering distribution centers manned by the Ethiopian army.

In Tigray the government set up feeding centers in two Ethiopian military garrisons and at Endeselassie in western Tigray, the area where the famine was least severe and where, due to its proximity to the Sudan, REST’s relief operations were most successful. Here peasants were not given extra rations and encouraged to return to their villages; instead, they were maintained in enormous feeding centers and eventually resettled to the southern part of the country. The majority of those farmers who entered the government towns for food were lost to the movement. And Tigrayans continued to migrate into Sudan despite the relative proximity of food aid within Ethiopia.

The CRS feeding centers in Eritrea allowed farmers to enter government-held territory, receive food, and return to their villages in EPLF territory. The government evidently wanted to demonstrate some tolerance for Eritrean nationalism in advance of the formation of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, under which the present-day borders of Eritrea would be eliminated. [26] Eritrean peasants were relatively well-treated as they crossed the battle lines. More than this, the government “saved” them at a time when the EPLF had far less to offer. Almost 250,000 Eritreans nevertheless sought refuge in Sudan instead while ERA camps in the north and east ultimately fed more people than did the government’s Food for the North sites. [27]

Barentu, one of the first CRS feeding sites in Eritrea, illustrates the close coordination of feeding programs with military objectives. Although nomads and local Kunama peoples in the area needed assistance, Barentu sits in one of the most thinly-populated sections of Eritrea. It is, however, a main road junction. In the summer of 1985, the EPLF captured Barentu in a surprise attack; as Ethiopian military forces withdrew, CRS withdrew along with them. When the government re-took the town some weeks later, CRS personnel reestablished the feeding program within hours.

The World Vision program in Tigray was halted in the spring of 1986, when a TPLF attack on a government military installation at Alamata resulted in the deaths of two Ethiopian nationals employed by World Vision. The attack earned the TPLF recognition as “terrorists” by the State Department, which claimed that this was an intentional TPLF move to rid the area of Western relief workers. [28] The TPLF responded by pointing to Alamata’s military role and affirmed that Western relief workers were welcome in Ethiopia.

The US government portrayed the FFNI as a program feeding famine victims in contested areas, although each of the feeding centers was based in a government-controlled garrison. Neither the United Nations nor most American private agencies criticized the program. The UN issued a report in August 1985, endorsed by AID’s MacPherson, stating that 75 percent of those people in need of food in Eritrea and Tigray were getting assistance. This observation was based on a three-day trip to four government-held cities; the delegation had no access to most of the contested provinces. [29] A move in Congress to apply economic sanctions against Ethiopia was thwarted by the UN report and ultimately defeated by a presidential decree.

“We Are the World”

At the onset of famine, the US government came under vocal attack for its miserly behavior towards Africa’s starving and in particular for stalling aid to Ethiopia. By the time the famine had been declared over by the international agencies, the public mood became one of self-congratulation, reflected in the lyrics of “We Are the World” and the words of a Congressional report: “The message from Makelle [capital of Tigray] and from other areas of Ethiopia is that a major human catastrophe was avoided.” [30] In fact, an estimated one million people starved to death in the guerrilla-held areas of Tigray and Eritrea due to a lack of assistance, with millions more forced off their land by migration and resettlement. [31] Death and migration have reduced the numbers in support of the two opposition movements. Food was the weapon and Washington was the quartermaster. The Ethiopian government was able to force hundreds of thousands of peasants out of guerrilla-held areas and into either government zones or neighboring countries, with considerable assistance from the West. (By March 1987, the great majority of Tigrayan famine migrants in Sudan had returned to the TPLF-held areas.)

US emergency aid to Ethiopia totaled $282 million and 432,000 metric tons of grain for 1985. This represented over half of all relief aid to Ethiopia. US aid to ERA and REST was less than $5 million in 1985. US aid to the government for 1986 dropped to $156 million. In 1987 Ethiopia still needs to import 450,000 metric tons of food. [32] According to Congressional findings, the relief effort has thus far produced a number of useful results: Ethiopian officials have acknowledged US generosity; Western media and agencies have gained entry into the country, with the result that “direct American operations and observations in Ethiopia have increased”; US Information Service and the American Embassy are again functioning in Addis Ababa; and Ethiopia has agreed to settle outstanding compensation issues stemming from nationalizations of the 1970s. [33]

The US has been able, and continues, to play all sides of the fence in Ethiopia. The leverage that Washington is now able to buy with food aid comes at a critical time for the EPLF and TPLF, which recently broke off years of cooperation and have entered into heated and divisive debates regarding, among other topics, the roles of the US and Soviet Union in the Horn and the most appropriate ideological path for the future. As long as famine prevails, the US will be able to maintain some leverage over all parties to the conflicts. Far from being simply a crisis requiring a humanitarian response, the African famine which began in 1982 bears grave political consequences for the Horn and for the entire continent.



[1] Washington Post, November 14,1985.
[2] Washington Post, January 9, 1987.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Press Briefing by Peter MacPherson on Aid to Ethiopia, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, November 16, 1984.
[5] Announcement by USAID to voluntary agencies at meeting of INTERACTION, New York, September 9, 1984.
[6] Lars Bondestam, “Expected Famine in Ethiopia,” Disaster Preparedness Planning Programme, Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Addis Ababa, October 19, 1977.
[7] From Robin Luckham and Dawit Bekele, “Foreign Powers and Militarism in the Horn of Africa,” Review of African Political Economy 30 (September 1984).
[8] Paul Keleman, “The Politics of the Famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Occasional Paper No. 17, University of Manchester, March 1985.
[9] Special Report, Indian Ocean Newsletter, February 16,1985.
[10] Africa Economic Digest, April 15, 1983.
[11] Background notes, Oxfam America, 1981.
[12] At the time, the fronts claimed to control approximately 85 percent of the Northern Command comprising Eritrea and Tigray. Relief agency officials confirmed that it was not possible to travel outside of the government-held towns on the main roads. See The Eritrea Durrah Odyssey and Counting Quintals published by Dutch Interchurch Aid, The Netherlands, 1983.
[13] Testimony of Christian Aid to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK Parliament, November 28, 1984.
[14] Keleman, “The Politics of the Famine…”
[15] The two were Lutheran World Relief and Mercy Corps International.
[16] The Times, February 25,1985.
[17] The Times, May 5, 1985.
[18] As stated to the author by (former) Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner Dawit Woldegiorgis in 1983 and confirmed to agency officials in private negotiations during 1984 and 1985. EPLF and TPLF endorsements of the various agreements were published.
[19] The Conrad Grebel Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Waterloo, Canada, indexed 572 articles from the major media on the Horn of Africa between January 1984 and June 1986. Of these, 59 percent dealt with food or famine-related issues without mentioning the conflicts; articles mentioning the relief programs of ERA, REST or the Oromo Relief Assocition comprised less than 1 percent of the total.
[20] The Times, June 4, 1985.
[21] A divided Board of Directors at CARE eventually turned down the USAID proposal.
[22] By the end of 1986, USAID assistance to ERA and REST included the provision of food aid and only 60 trucks as compared to the 500 proposed for delivery through CARE.
[23] Rebels and Separatists in Ethiopia — Regional Resistance to a Marxist Regime, Rand Corporation, December 1985. Henze is former CIA station chief in Ethiopia and Turkey, and author of The Plot to Kill the Pope (New York, 1985).
[24] “Report of a Congressional Study Mission to Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, August 2-20,1985, to the Committee on Foreign Affiars of the US House of Representatives,” December 27, 1985.
[25] Ibid.
[26] The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed in Addis Ababa in early 1987. The original plan for the PDRE divided Eritrea into three and combined it with regions to the south to form new administrative units. The recent announcement of the PDRE has not thus far included public documents regarding this redivision.
[27] Annual reports from the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) for 1985 and 1986, and interviews with agency representatives (Norwegian Church Aid, Lutheran World Relief, War on Want).
[28] Washington Post, March 29,1986, and “US Terms Tigray-an Attack Indefensible,” US Embassy, Addis Ababa, March 27, 1986.
[29] New York Times, August 4, 1985.
[30] “Ethiopia and Sudan One Year Later: Refugee and Famine Recovery Needs, A Minority Staff Report Prepared for the Use of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy to the Committee on the Judiciary of the US Senate,” May 1986.
[31] It is impossible to calculate the number of deaths by starvation in the areas of Eritrea and Tigray not held by the government. On the basis of generally accepted totals of 1.5 to 2 million deaths in Ethiopia during the famine, the accepted numbers in need in Eritrea and Tigray from 1984-1986, and the amount of emergency aid delivered, the figure of one million appears realistic if not conservative. Due to a higher population density and the greater severity of the famine, death rates were higher in Tigray than in Eritrea.
[32] “Ethiopia and Sudan One Year Later.…” Senate Judiciary Committee Report, May 1986; Annual Report 1985, Eritrean Relief Association; Annual Report 1985, Relief Society of Tigray; “Ethiopia Revisited,” Africa Recovery Newsletter, No. 1, February-April 1987.
[33] “Ethiopia and Sudan One Year Later…”

How to cite this article:

Gayle Smith "Ethiopia and the Politics of Famine Relief," Middle East Report 145 (March/April 1987).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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