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Analysis – Ethiopia’s persistent food insecurity: What went wrong?

Urgessa Tura


On June 11, 2003 Ethiopia’s Prime Minister the late Meles Zenawi convened a joint meeting with major Western donors in Addis Abeba and confided in them that the food crisis Ethiopia was facing at the time had reached unacceptable level; he said he considered the situation to be a matter of national security concern. At the time, 16 million Ethiopians were in need of food aid. Thirteen years later, more than 20 million Ethiopians are facing chronic food shortage. For more than two decades the government in Ethiopia repeatedly claimed that it was so focused on tackling pervasive poverty and acute food deficit in the country. So why are so many Ethiopians still starving? What went wrong?

The government’s standard answer to these questions is usually to point its fingers on external factors; this time the sole culprit is El Niño.

However, the fact is Ethiopia had been, and remains to be, one of the world’s most food-insecure countries where one in four people live below the poverty line, according to the latest human development index on Ethiopia.


Even in years with adequate rainfall and good weather, there have always been millions of Ethiopians vulnerable to the threat of starvation. A case in point is that “more than seven million people are classified as ‘chronically food insecure’ and receive regular support from the cash and food-for-work Productive Safety Net Program”, according to Tom Lavers’, ‘Land grab’ as development strategy? The political economy of agricultural investment in Ethiopia. That is why recurrence of extreme weather events cannot adequately explain Ethiopia’s perennial food crisis. So it is highly imperative to investigate and identify the underlying causes in order to address this troubling problem.

Food insecurity is a structural problem in many parts of rural Ethiopia. 32% of Ethiopians suffered from malnutrition in 2015; and as late as 2014 Ethiopians’ daily food calorie intake stood at 2,100, below the standard 2,200 required to sustain life, according to FAO statistics. The root cause of the problem cannot, therefore, be addressed by short term crisis response measures. It requires moving beyond the immediate triggers such as extreme weather events (drought and erratic rainfall) into the underlying causal factors.


But what are these causal factors?
When trying to answer this question, three outstanding explanations come to mind: perverse political economy, chronic dependence on food-aid and rampant corruption. Ethiopia could be in a much better position to tackle food insecurity by addressing these critical problems.

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Perverse political economy
Perverse political economy is a political economy model developed by Duncan Kennedy, a widely reputed Harvard legal thinker. It rests on the premise that when rules and institutions established to maximize efficiency result in unjust distributive outcomes and cause ‘deep structures of inequality’, the efficiency advantage becomes perverse. When this happens, the better solution is to dismantle these rules and institutions through reform.

In Ethiopia, lack of policy stability over the last few decades has set in motion the perverse political economy which created a fertile ground for breeding conditions of dire poverty and inequality. This in turn has continued causing mass hunger. By lack of policy stability I mean to refer to the unpredictable situation in which Ethiopians underwent three major agrarian changes from semi-feudalism to state socialism and then to a so-called market liberalization in a single generation.


The rural poor were faring well under the subsistence (but self-sufficient) economy from pre-colonial era to the beginning of 1990s. However, with the ascendance of economic globalization the rural poor were squeezed between a rock and a hard place by multinationals owning significant commercial and economic interests in Africa and rentier class of domestic elites. These two groups appropriated most of the surplus the economy generates.


Multinationals repatriated their profits while the domestic rentier elites allocated the surplus they captured to buy political support from the urban population and to beef up partisan security institutions.

For instance, in the aftermath of their electoral defeat in 2005 in many urban areas, the ruling elites of Ethiopia initiated a program of subsidizing wheat, sugar, edible-oil and construction of low-cost condominium apartments to appease the urban population. They freely spent hundreds of millions of dollars in urban infrastructure, not to mention rampant spending wasted on import of luxuries. In a country where 82% of the population live in the rural areas and a quarter of the population can barely survive due to chronic food deficit.

As Duncan Kennedy rightly noted, such perverse political economy “has directed only a small proportion of domestically generated surplus into development-inducing investments that would have made ‘economic sense’ from the point of view of the African poor.” The rural poor’s income is too small to be turned into poverty reducing (food security ensuring) investment. Such investment (e.g. mechanization of agriculture and domestic production of fertilizers and agro-chemicals) would have had high social return.


According to Stephen Devereux, who presented a paper on Food insecurity in Ethiopia for a DFID Ethiopia Seminar in 2000, in Ethiopia “farmers’ access to fertilizers was undermined by sharp increases in prices during the 1990s, firstly following the devaluation of the Birr in 1993, then by the elimination of fertilizer subsidies and pan-territorial pricing in 1996, and the decontrol of input prices and marketing in 1997.” Even worse, the domestic rentier elites extended credits to farmers to buy fertilizers and improved seeds through the state bank they control, and when farmers fail to make repayments on time due to droughts they force them to sell their produce at low post-harvest prices.

Moreover, the current government in Ethiopia maintains, through the technicalities of the constitution, a rural political economy arrangement in which land is under state ownership while assigning a mere usufruct right to farmers and pastoralists. According to Tom Lavers’ Food security and social protection in highland Ethiopia: linking the Productive Safety Net to the land question, such “land policy prevents land consolidation and the emergence of powerful economic actors who might threaten the ruling party, while ensuring the dependence of the rural population on the state for land access.”


Nonetheless, the Government in Ethiopia claims that the land policy is a form of social protection because it protects farmers against distress sales, land concentration in the hands of the wealthy and subsequent exploitation of the poor farmers. In reality, in the last few years the government has been evicting farmers at will to undertake urban expansion and large-scale private commercial agriculture, prompting some to call it ‘development by dispossession’. The recent Oromo protest is a social movement in the making in opposition to such massive eviction of farmers from their land by the state in the name of development and urban expansion. As a result of such dispossession and rapid population growth, rural landlessness has become a salient feature of the Ethiopian agrarian economy.

Beyond the emerging landlessness problem, Ethiopia’s rural political economy had historically been characterized by extractive institutions. This captivating topic is widely discussed in Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson’s, Why nations fail: the origins of power, prosperity and poverty. In the imperial era, for example, the political class (landed-nobility) appropriated tribute from the peasants prompting the latter to respond by not producing more than subsistence because they cannot be forced to pay tributes over what they did not produce.


During the socialist era (from 1974-1991) the state extracted produce of grains from the farmers under the quota regulation which requires farmers to sell certain quantity of their production to the state Agricultural Marketing Corporation for less than a market value.

Now under the current regime, which professes to adhere to state capitalism, tenure insecurity as a result of demographic pressure or eviction by the state has locked the smallholder agriculture in downward spiral of low productivity, and income insecurity has become more prevalent due to dramatic rise of rent seeking among the political elites.
Chronic dependence on food aid
Ethiopia’s food sector had long fallen prey to what Lord Curzon (the British colonial official of India) once dubbed ‘prodigal philanthropy’, which weakens the moral fiber of a society and dampens self-reliance of the population. As a testament to this, it suffices to mention a popular saying in Ethiopia which goes, ‘it doesn’t matter if it rains here if it is raining in Canada’.


Experts, who extensively studied Ethiopia’s food policy, observed that ‘Ethiopia is the world’s most food aid dependent country’, and since the 1980s it had annually received between 200,000 to 1.2 million metric tons. In 2016 alone, it is estimated that Ethiopia needs two million metric tons of food aid to feed its starving people. Thus, maximizing food aid has become a standard policy response for food emergency situation in the country. However, this is a very dangerous approach as it distracts the government from addressing structural problems that perpetuate this vicious cycle of food insecurity in the first place.

In August 2008, reporting on the acute food crisis in the Horn of Africa at that time, Alex Perry of Time Magazine aptly described the long term danger of reliance on food aid:


Over time, sustained food aid creates dependence on handouts and shifts focus away from improving agricultural practices to increase local food supplies. Ethiopia exemplifies the consequences of giving a starving man a fish instead of teaching him to catch his own. This year the U.S. will give more than $800 million to Ethiopia: $460 million for food, $350 million for HIV/AIDS treatment and just $7 million for agricultural development. Western governments are loath to halt programs that create a market for their farm surpluses, but for countries receiving their charity, long-term food aid can become addictive. Why bother with development when shortfalls are met by aid? Ethiopian farmers can’t compete with free food, so they stop trying. Over time, there’s a loss of key skills, and a country that doesn’t have to feed itself soon becomes a country that can’t. All too often, its rulers use resources elsewhere – Ethiopia has one of Africa’s largest armies.

Not much has changed at present. The government still relies heavily on food aid to resolve the current emergency situation. According to the 2016 humanitarian requirement document issued jointly by the government and donors, the government in Ethiopia allocated only US$97 million from the total outlay of US$1.4 billion required to feed those in dire need.

Furthermore, one of the strategic interventions envisaged under Ethiopia’s food security policy, a targeted assistance to chronically food insecure households – otherwise known as Productive Safety Net Program – is entirely financed by aid money. Since the government views food insecurity as fundamentally emanating from production failure attributed to natural forces of disorder, it intends to continue addressing the persistent food insecurity problem bedeviling Ethiopia through targeted social protection programs. Yet, no serious policy proposal to mechanize Ethiopia’s agriculture has been heard in the corridors of power in Addis Abeba.


Rampant corruption queue
To state the obvious, rampant corruption is another underlying cause that perpetuates the brutal condition of mass hunger in Ethiopia. A government incapacitated by corruption cannot put in place effective policy interventions to ensure food security of households. Ethiopia ranked 111th out of 173 countries in 2013, according to Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Again, a public opinion survey conducted by Transparency International in 2013 showed “44% of respondents in Ethiopia who had come into contact with one of eight public services reported having paid a bribe.” The high incidence of bribery could be attributed to Ethiopians’ ethical ambivalence in explaining corruption as demonstrated in the popular saying ‘sishom yalbela sishar yiqochewal’, loosely translated as ‘eat when you hold office for you shall regret later when you have it no more.’


It is not only high incidence of bribery that is problematic in Ethiopia: illicit capital outflow is also egregious. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2011 (citing a report by Global Financial Integrity) that Ethiopia lost $11.7 billion to ‘out-flows of ill-gotten gains’ between 2000 and 2009. Lamenting how poor Ethiopians lost all this money to corruption one of the authors aptly described the scandal saying: “[t]he people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.”

Now, the danger of corruption does not stop at diverting resources from the needy, it also distorts delivery of food aid to the hungry. A study of food-aid targeting carried out in Ethiopia in 1999 revealed that ruling elites provided more food-aid than is actually required for their political base of Tigray whereas Somali region, which was struck hard by famine, received less, according to Stephen Devereux. This situation remained more or less the same.


Breaking the cycle
The challenge of breaking the cycle of persistent food insecurity is as much political as it is technical. The government in Ethiopia endeavored to improve agricultural performance in the north while neglecting the south and south-east, says Peter Gill in his Famine & Foreigners: Ethiopia Since Live Aid, thereby effectively shifting the political geography of chronic food shortage. It is the historically marginalized and socially excluded groups that are taking the toll of the current food crisis. As USAID’s Food Assistance Fact Sheet on Ethiopia demonstrates, the pastoral communities in Southern Afar and Northern Somali regions ‘have moved into Emergency IPC stage 4 levels of food insecurity, with the lowlands of east and west Hararghe zones also at risk of moving from crisis IPC stage 3 levels to emergency in early 2016.

Addressing such pervasive structural food insecurity and destitution of the peasantry requires radical structural transformation in which the political economy is rearranged in a just and inclusive manner. Transformative social development coupled with inclusive economic and political institutions would be effective in putting a substantial dent on poverty and food insecurity.

At political level, deepening of the democracy culture, accountability and social inclusion of marginalized, drought-prone lowland communities at the precipice of starvation is vital. Inclusion of the lowland communities could be effected through making the right to food provisions enforceable. We have to move from discretionary assistance to compulsory social insurance during times of economic, political and environmental shocks. India’s experience in which the right to food was made enforceable through legislation that guarantees 100 days of paid work to every rural household from their local government is an experiment from which Ethiopia can learn.

At technical level, addressing the decline of food availability by boosting agricultural production must be prioritized. A disciplined focus on agricultural mechanization as well as subsidizing agricultural inputs (fertilizers and improved seeds, among others.) must be at the fore-front of the development agenda of the government. The agricultural mechanization program’s goal should be nothing less than structural transformation of the economy – a move away from agrarian to industrial economy. Diversifying the livelihoods of the rural poor through creating and expanding off-farm employment opportunities should also be given a priority.


ED’s Note: The writer is former Head of the Department of Research and Studies at the Oromiya Supreme Court. He can be reached at


Photo Caption: Hawa Girash a mother of two accompanied by her children walks in to temporary emergency rub hall tent by UNICEF to receive recovery assistance after the failure of spring belg and poor summer kiremt rains caused by the climatic phenomenon known as El Niño/ UNICEF Ethiopia 2015/Tesfaye, creative commons on flickr Sept 2015

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