Twenty years after the devastating famine in 1984, Ethiopia still faces food security crises. In 2003, up to 15 million people were considered food insecure. Despite much research, we still do not know enough about how local people in different settings understand and cope with food shortage. This article reports on research which aimed to explore how people in Ethiopia have experienced famine, related epidemics and food aid. The research, conducted between July and September 2003, was carried out in 20 locations across the four main regions of the country Amhara, Oromia, Southern and Tigray together representing the bulk (86%) of the population.
Only four of the 20 locations escaped the mortality effects of famine. The 1984 famine was perceived to be the worst, affecting 14 locations, compared with four in 1973 and six in 1994. However, without food aid, many more locations would have been affected in 1994, and southern locations were affected for the first time. This suggests that famine, often assumed to be largely in the north and east, is spreading, particularly in the south.
The 20 locations can be classified under three headings:
- never affected by food production failures (four);
- affected, but not regularly (seven); and
- facing chronic food insecurity and food aid dependent (nine).
Differences of opinion and a hesitation to attribute deaths to famine suggest that preoccupation with deaths, both in the media and among researchers, may no longer be useful in understanding famine. Instead, the focus should be on coping strategies, links between food insecurity and poverty, and differences between and within communities.
Between 1991 and 2004, people generally reported a bad year or two, especially between 1999 and 2003, and some reported continuous problems. Given significant variations, there is a need for caution in generalising over the entire country. Nonetheless, 2002 was clearly generally a bad year, while trends for 2003 seemed fairly good at the time of the research.