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A Look at Humanitarian History – Famine in 1980s Africa

The concept of humanitarian work seems simple: helping people in need. In practice, it turns out that humanitarians must struggle with many complex political, economic and moral challenges. This proved to be the case in Ethiopia in the 1980s.

Learning from humanitarian history

The difficulties in offering humanitarian aid already became apparent during the campaign launched in response to the Great Famine of 1876–78 in India, which was one of the first organized humanitarian efforts. Although the authorities have been criticized for their ‘live and let live’ attitude during the famine, relief measures were introduced towards the end. A Famine Relief Fund was set up in the United Kingdom and had raised £426,000 within the first few months.

About 100 years later, a widespread famine affected Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985. It’s one of the worst cases of famine known to man. Aid agencies blamed wealthy Western governments for not doing more, and the Ethiopian Government for not giving high enough priority to the famine. More than half of the mortality rate can be attributed to human rights abuses that caused the famine to come earlier, strike harder and extend further than would otherwise have been the case. Which was partly caused by the Ethiopian government’s inability to provide relief and stability. This proves the necessity of stable regions, which agreements like the Sustainable Development Goals aim to achieve entirely.

Gojjam, Hararghe, Tigray, and Wollo were the four Ethiopian provinces which received record low rainfalls in the mid-1980s. By 1984, it was evident that another drought and resulting famine of enormous proportions had begun to affect large parts of Ethiopia. Just as evident was the government's inability to provide relief. The almost total failure of crops in the north and fighting in and around Eritrea caused the need for relief supplies, while access was being hindered by the prevalent conflict and violence.

In 1984, Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam announced that 46% of the Ethiopian Gross National Product would be allocated to military spending due to instability in nearby regions. This decision created the largest standing army in sub-Saharan Africa; unfortunately, those who needed help most became the victims, because the allocation for health in the government budget kept declining, day by day.

Media activity in the West, along with the size of the crisis, led to the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" charity single and the world famous Live Aid concerts. This caught the attention of the public regarding the famine and helped to collect much-needed funds towards a noble cause: alleviate suffering. The event was held simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in London and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia and proved to be one of the greatest fundraising efforts in humanitarian history. It is estimated that around £150 million had been raised for famine relief as a direct result of the concerts.

History seems to repeat itself in Ethiopia because the country is yet struck again by a terrible drought in 2017. This is caused in part by the El Niño warming phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean, a cyclical phenomenon that many scientists say has intensified in recent years because of global climate change.

We take keen interest in stories everyone can learn from; stories about humanitarian history that inspire us to help those in need and make the world a better place. With our daily articles, we try to facilitate that, to keep you informed, every step of the way. Follow our blog should you want to read more articles regarding humanitarian history.