Issue 43 - Article 3

Humanitarian governance in Ethiopia

July 12, 2009
Sue Lautze, Angela Raven-Roberts and Teshome Erkineh

For decades, Ethiopia has been inextricably linked in the world’s eyes with famine and disaster. The country is often characterised as dependent on foreigners, its people lazy, its government obstructionist. In fact, however, successive Ethiopian governments have actively engaged in disaster risk management (DRM). Political will is not lacking: disasters remain at the heart of Ethiopian politics.

This article sketches out the history of Ethiopian governments’ responses to disasters, charting the complex relationship between a strong state with a long, proud history of sovereignty and increasingly assertive donor and INGO communities. Ethiopia’s assertive sovereignty lies in its historical self-consciousness as an independent state, and one which has often defended itself against external aggression. Successive rulers built relationships with foreign countries whilst outsiders tried to influence domestic politics. Discussions of governance issues, including disaster risk management (DRM), must acknowledge this balance and tension between Ethiopian and foreigner.

Disaster management under the imperial regime

Ethiopia’s first official DRM organisation, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), was established in 1974, six months before the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie. The government failed to prevent the Sahelian famine that affected much of the Sahel in the early 1970s. Although Selassie’s government suppressed news of the desperate conditions in affected areas, assistance poured in from self-help organisations, professional and religious associations and other bodies. Opponents of the government exploited its attempts to block news of the famine to agitate for reform, and the crisis became a powerful agent of political change, ultimately dethroning Selassie and putting an end to his regime.

Disaster management under the Derg

With Selassie’s downfall in 1974, power passed to the Provisional Military Administrative Council (the Derg). The Derg’s leaders believed that Marxism-Leninism was the key to protecting Ethiopia’s people from famine. Ethiopia became a socialist state: radical new policies were introduced, including collectivisation and villagisation, designed to address rural vulnerability. The socialism that followed feudalism was to be a political contract against famine – with a vengeance. Meanwhile, thousands were killed in the so-called ‘red terror’ purges of 1977–78, which crushed the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, killing or imprisoning its leaders and supporters. Others fled, finding refuge abroad to begin lives; now, these refugees from the Derg era are being courted as investors in Ethiopia.

The measures taken by the Derg to reduce rural vulnerability did not prevent another famine in 1983–85. Drought conditions were exacerbated by intensified conflict with opposition groups such as the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), splitting the country. INGOs were similarly divided between those who engaged in solidarity with rebel forces and those who remained neutral in order to work in Derg-controlled areas. The latter were suspected of serving as agents of Western interests, while the former channelled aid through the rebels’ ‘humanitarian wings’, and did so, it was claimed, often with minimal oversight.

The increased role of INGOs in Ethiopia coincided with wider changes in the way government sovereignty was understood, and a growing donor preference for privatised associations for service delivery. Contacts and contracts between donors and INGOs increased, with donors relying on INGOs to channel their resources and gather information about what was happening on the ground. Some INGO directors became self-appointed country experts, escorting emissaries and celebrities on well-publicised tours of famine areas and providing briefings to ambassadors and journalists.

INGO staff were perceived by Ethiopian officials, residents and academics as speaking to the world as if representing Ethiopia, portraying themselves as supplanting an intransigent state. Massive fundraising events for the Ethiopia famine presented INGOs with unprecedented opportunities for expansion. Meanwhile, government officials managed departments with a fraction of the budgets available to INGOs. At the same time, however, these organisations provided an opportunity for patronage and lucrative jobs as select and privileged officials secured temporary releases from government posts, while others sought to gain benefits for their own communities.

The UN supported government institutions and coordinated activities between the growing number of local and international actors and donors in Ethiopia. Its main government counterpart, the RRC, had to juggle the demands of the government, humanitarian organisations and disaster-affected communities, all under the critical eyes of the international media and government security staff. By 1985, the RRC was the largest relief institution of its kind in Africa, with over 17,000 field workers, a fleet of trucks and offices and warehouses throughout government-controlled areas. Through this network it distributed a massive amount of relief assistance. Some in the government felt that the RRC (and its successors, for that matter) was institutionalising a humiliating and permanent dependency on foreign aid, and believed that its relations with INGOs were excessively liberal. Meanwhile, although the RRC – widely recognised as a model for other developing countries – retained its autonomy and capacity, donors increasingly channelled resources through INGOs.

Thus, while humanitarian action mitigated some of the worst impacts of the famine, the 1980s saw a sharp increase in INGOs’ efforts to reduce Ethiopian government oversight and supervision of their activities. While the government used registration procedures, project agreements and bureaucratic inaccessibility to retain control over reluctant organisations, INGOs themselves used their growing influence with donors to circumvent this supervision.

The imbalance in power and resources between the government and aid agencies was reflected in attitudes towards the media, which many (in the government and in Ethiopian society more widely) felt portrayed the country unfairly. The narrative of Ethiopian famines returning every ten years, only for the country to be ‘salvaged’ by international aid, began with the 1983–85 crisis. The international media paid little attention to Ethiopian efforts to raise funds for famine response, insinuating instead that neither the government nor the Ethiopian people had done enough to prevent the recurrence of famine ten years after the Sahelian crisis of the 1970s. The portrayal of Ethiopians as heartless and uncaring inhabitants of a country of emaciated children, with no history, culture or dignity, was galling in the extreme. The unintended irony of Band Aid’s song ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was not lost on a people who followed one of the world’s oldest forms of Christianity. The simplified construct – bad government, helpless people, gallant humanitarians – angered many. Local concerns over media depictions of the famine and the role of INGOs in generating these depictions was not directed against INGO services in themselves, but rather against the media road shows that served these organisations’ budgets. Echoing the sentiments of many in Ethiopia, Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, a leading Ethiopian academic and human rights activist and one of the earliest writers on the history of famine in Ethiopia, asserted in 1988: ‘We must pledge as a people never again to use the skeletal bodies of famine victims to elicit charity from Europe and America’.

Disaster management under the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE)

After defeating the Derg, the rebels established a transitional government in Addis Ababa. The Derg’s economic policies had fared no better than the imperial regime’s in overcoming Ethiopia’s seemingly perpetual crises of poverty, economic underperformance and disaster. In response, the new Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) produced an array of policies designed to address the causes of disasters, including a National Policy on Disaster Prevention and Management (NPDPM), unveiled in 1993. The government also reformed the RRC, which was renamed the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC). The NPDPM was, and remains, an inspiring read. Its first principle – ‘no human life shall perish for want of relief assistance in times of disaster’ – substantially predates the Sphere Standards’ declaration of the humanitarian imperative. Relations between the government and humanitarian actors improved after the policy was adopted because there was now a policy framework in place to guide humanitarian action, but the status of INGOs remained problematic. Within the government, these organisations were seen as inefficient, perpetuating an unhealthy dependence on relief and undermining efforts to break the cycle of famine. The NPDPM contained 41 pages on NGO registration, financial reports and project authorisation. The TGE wanted to know what NGOs were up to, and how much money they were raising in Ethiopia’s name.

Disaster management under the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

Elections in 1995 brought the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) to power, and a new constitution established the current system of federalism. Due to generally favourable rains in the years between 1992 and 1998, harvests were good and many in the democratically-elected government believed that famine had been defeated, prompting calls for the DPPC to be abolished. Optimism was, however, short-lived as widespread floods and localised droughts returned in 1997. A two-year war with Eritrea made donors reluctant to respond to appeals for help, and the government was unable to contain the drought. The result was a major crisis in 1999–2000.

The government issued the largest appeal in Ethiopia’s history in January 2003. At the same time, it organised a coalition of governmental ministries, donors, UN agencies, expert advisors and INGOs to reform assistance to the five million or so Ethiopians who regularly received ‘emergency’ food aid. This led to another reorganisation of DRM institutions. The Food Security Coordination Bureau was established to oversee the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP), a primary strategy for linking relief and development that placed those in perpetual need of food assistance in a multi-year programme (as opposed to annual emergency aid), and the DPPC was downgraded to the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency (DPPA), its responsibilities reduced, its access to the highest level of government constrained and the membership of its supervisory ministerial committee diluted.

In August 2008, the government disbanded the DPPA, and transferred its ‘rights and obligations’ to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, leaving 400 of 700 DPPA staff unemployed. Once an admired, studied and internationally acclaimed body, it faded without a whimper, its long-serving director ungraciously removed after clashing with senior officials over the role of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia. Ministry officials now charged with DRM anticipate the increased decentralisation of DRM responsibilities. Commitment to a revised national DRM policy has been renewed, an initiative started by the DPPA. The policy, which mandates that disaster risk management be mainstreamed throughout government, calls for a greatly strengthened DRM management capacity at the highest levels of government. Debates continue within the government regarding the policy. It is unclear if or when it will be adopted.


The patterns of vulnerability are humbling to all who work in Ethiopia. The potential for catastrophic disasters is all too real, their realisation all too frequent. Even more radical approaches are needed to address vulnerable livelihood systems. The impetus for reform has come from an unexpected source: the state. An international community that appears to favour the status quo often greets such innovations cautiously, seeing the government as rash, disregarding lives at stake today in favour of uncertain outcomes in the future.

Managing famine and other disasters has been central to the ways in which Ethiopian regimes have seen their relations with their citizens, and continues to feature strongly in political discourse; external assistance and international aid organisations are frequently portrayed as reflecting a failure by the state to provide for its citizens. There is resistance to the persistent narrative that many INGOs present about their role in ‘saving’ Ethiopia. Within Africa, Ethiopia has one of the longest relationships of engagement with external actors for disaster management. In an attempt to drive famine from Ethiopia, successive regimes – imperial, dictatorial and democratic – have tried feudalism, socialism and capitalism, yet in every crisis the INGO calculus for generating foreign humanitarian aid resources appears to many as static and self-serving (‘bad government, helpless people, gallant humanitarians’). In some circles in Ethiopia, it is believed that INGOs benefit from recurrent crises. Many INGOs are the size of major corporations. Their best-paid governmental counterparts, by contrast, earn less than $200 a month.

References and further reading

Donald Donham, Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution(Oxford: James Currey Press, 1999).

DPPC, General Guidelines for the Implementation of the National Policy on Disaster Prevention and management(NPDPM) (Addis Ababa: Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission, 1995).

Kurt Jansson, ‘Section 1: The Emergency Relief Operation – An Inside View’, in Kurt Jansson, Michael Harris and Angela Penrose (eds), The Ethiopian Famine: The Story of the Emergency Relief Operation(London: Zed Books, 1987).

Mark Duffield and John Predergast, Without Troops and Tanks: Humanitarian Intervention in Ethiopia and Eritrea(Lawrenceville, GA: Red Sea Press, 2004).

RRC, The Challenges of Drought: Ethiopia’s Decade of Struggle in Relief and Rehabilitation(London: H&L Communications Ltd., 1985).

Dessalegn Rahmato, ‘Civil Society Organisations in Ethiopia’, in Bahru Zewdu and Siegfried Pausewang (eds), Ethiopia, the Challenge of Democracy from Below(Addis Ababa: Forum for Social Studies, 2002).

S. Villumstad and B. Hendrie, ‘New Policy Directions in Disaster Preparedness and Response in Ethiopia’, Disasters, 17(2), 1993.

Dawit Wolde-Giorgis, Red Tears: War, Famine, and Revolution in Ethiopia(Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1999).


The government has dismantled the old RRC/DPPC structure and is building anew. This is in keeping with the practice of every modern Ethiopian government: forging ahead, often in the midst of major disasters, while disregarding the potential value of incremental adjustments to bureaucracies. This approach is grounded in a belief that the state will continue to function regardless, which it has proven able to do throughout every major regime transition and substantial policy shift to date. The national DRM policy is also being revised. Over the past two years, the international humanitarian community has been invited to participate in this process, but as yet no agency has put forward an alternative vision for DRM in Ethiopia. This would appear to be an opportunity best not missed. It seems clear that reform is needed in the relationships between external actors and the Ethiopian state and its citizens. A first step, we would suggest, would be for the humanitarian community to try to see its own aid policies, practices and institutions from the perspective of Ethiopia’s government and people, through the prism of Ethiopian politics, culture and history.

Sue Lautze is the founder of the Livelihoods Program, a firm providing technical support for the revision of Ethiopia’s national disaster policy. Angela Raven-Roberts has a long history of engagement with Ethiopia, including serving as head of INGOs in the country in the 1980s. Teshome Erkineh, a former RRC/DPPC/DPPA official, is Policy Advisor for the Livelihoods Program.

This article summarises the findings of research undertaken for a Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) project exploring the role of the affected state in disaster response. Much of the nuance and detail in the original case study has been sacrificed here for the sake of brevity. Please see the full case study.

Some may find the arguments in this article controversial, or protest that it inadequately portrays the challenges that many humanitarians encounter in Ethiopia. The study reflects largely Ethiopian perspectives as expressed in interviews, publications and national debates (for instance on the development of a new national DRM policy), as well as the authors’ collective experience of international and national disaster institutions in-country.


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