The Return on U.S. Investment in Global Food Security--the Case of Ethiopia
Jun 29, 2017
The devastation of the massive famines currently occurring in four countries--Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria--putting the lives of 20 million people at risk--has not been reported much by U.S. newspapers or cable tv news. Consequently, the humanitarian response to the famines has also lagged; through May 2017, the UN’s World Food Program had only received 24 percent of the $2 billion they have requested to address these emergencies. There is a lot that our world leaders can learn about responding to such situations by looking at what has happened in Ethiopia over the last several decades.
Between 1984-85, an extended drought combined with civil war led to massive crop failures and famine throughout Ethiopia, threatening the food security of more than 8 million people. This disaster, occurring only four years after the launch of the first 24-hours per day cable news channel, CNN, was the first one that played out on television screens around the world. There was a massive international response to this disaster, including the mobilization of the pop music community in the United Kingdom and United States to hold Live Aid concerts and release records-the 'We Are the World' single recorded by an ensemble cast of 37 top artists sold more than 20 million copies, generating $63 million in proceeds. According to data published in a 1990 doctoral thesis from a student at the London School of Economics, an estimated $4.01 billion (in inflation-adjusted terms) worth of food and other supplies was provided in relief assistance to the country, with the United States and the countries of the EU accounting for 71 percent of total donations. Despite all of this assistance, it is estimated that between 400,000 and 1 million people died as a result of this famine.
Fast forward more than 30 years to 2015/16, when Ethiopia was hit with another deep and widespread drought due to a severe El Nino episode in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, one of the strongest in recorded history. This drought put more Ethiopians at risk--an estimated 10 million--than the 1984-85 drought had, although it was only 10 percent of the now 99 million people in the country, as opposed to 25 percent of the Ethiopian population (32 million) in 1984. With assistance from donor countries, the government of Ethiopia had set up its own emergency feeding program, the Productive Safety Net, which was already helping about 8 million chronically hungry people even before the drought. As of August 2016, a document published jointly by the government of Ethiopia and its humanitarian partners estimated that the country had received $850 million in assistance from donor countries to meet emergency needs, including $471 million worth of food. $124 million of that total was from U.S. Title II emergency resources in fiscal year 2015. There are no published estimates of the death toll in Ethiopia from this drought as of yet, but the United Nation's Office for Disaster Risk Reduction reported only 32 deaths worldwide from drought in 2015, out of nearly 23,000 from 346 major reported disasters in that year, primarily due to earthquakes, tsunamis, and heat-waves.
The focus on improving Ethiopia's agricultural sector by both the government of Ethiopia and donor countries in recent years has helped to build resilience among smallholder farmers and mitigate the damage that such a severe drought might otherwise have caused. Since the U.S. Feed the Future initiative was established in 2010, USAID has invested about $40 million per year in agricultural development and research projects in Ethiopia. For example, a USAID project aimed at increasing corn yields (in partnership with DuPont) by encouraging adoption of improved corn seed has helped 250,000 farmers triple their per acre corn yields in less than three years.
While civil conflict has not disappeared from Ethiopia--clashes still persist in the Ogaden region (near the Somali border) between rebels and the Ethiopian army--they no longer permeate the entire country as they did in the 1970's through the 1990’s. While the four countries currently suffering through famines are different in many ways, what they do have in common are heavy, active conflicts in each country, leaving little or no effective governmental control and no confidence on the part of farmers that they’ll be able to harvest any crops they plant. It is no accident that food insecurity is often coincident with political and military instability, and tackling food security by building up a country’s agricultural sector, as has happened in recent decades in Ethiopia, can generate many positive benefits.