Issue 27 - Article 1

Hunger and poverty in Ethiopia: local perceptions of famine and famine response

August 3, 2004
Alula Pankhurst, Addis Ababa University, and Philippa Bevan, University of Bath

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.

Famine experiences

Hunger, poverty and death

‘It is difficult to say that an individual has died due to famine, although there were deaths [in 1994]’

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:

  1. never affected by food production failures (four);
  2. affected, but not regularly (seven); and
  3. 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.

‘People suffered from poverty, yet I know of no one who died’

Food security

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.

Historical perspective

Comparing food security across three political regimes – the Imperial reign of Haile Selassie (up to 1973), the communist Derg regime under Mengistu (1974–91) and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF – 1991 onwards) – food production was generally perceived to have continually declined. However, a respondent in Haresaw noted that food security under the EPRDF was better than during the Derg era, even if food production was worse. Food security is not limited to production alone since taxation and market policies are also critical:

‘In the Imperial period, there was excess product but it was taken by the Balabat (landlord); during the Derg, there was sufficient produce, but it was taken by the Agricultural Market Corporation; under the EPRDF, there is increased production, and we hear about famine in faraway areas’

Causes of food insecurity

The general view of increasing food insecurity was explained mainly by the weather (12 locations). Other natural factors included a decrease in land size and quality, animal and plant diseases and a reduction of trees and wild products. Human factors included population increase, governance issues related to development policies and indebtedness, conflict, and a loss of work values. In contrast, better food security was explained by food aid, an increase in productivity and in land cultivated, improved seeds, irrigation and knowledge and NGO assistance.

Coping with hunger

Selling assets

‘The livestock became thin and bony. Just at the beginning of the famine, they were sold with less price. However, in the middle of the famine, who would buy them?’

The main strategy for asset sales was selling livestock. However, in famine conditions prices of cattle fall dramatically, while grain prices escalate rapidly. This means that the sale of livestock does not provide food for long. People also sold household assets, gold and ‘even land’. Trees, firewood and charcoal were also sold, mainly by women:

‘Almost everybody started to cut trees for charcoal and firewood. Especially the women became involved in carrying the firewood to the nearest cities for sale. They became the backbone of their families’


‘During bella [lack of food for a short time], people work for others. During shantu [lack of food for a long time, such as a year], people migrate to other areas, particularly urban areas’

Migration was reported as the main work-related strategy, including rural and urban migration, seasonal and daily wage labour, work on state or private farms, and hiring out children as herders or domestic servants. Wage labour for richer households within communities was reported as limited to shorter crises; as conditions worsen, people go further, notably to towns. Seasonal labour migration for harvesting and coffee picking is a normal strategy and only intensifies under famine conditions. Irrigation is new and limited to a few locations; there is insufficient water to go round.


‘Ask help from relatives in and outside the area/country? Not often, since only a few people have relatives with enough resources. No more borrowing but free gifts expecting reciprocity’

Borrowing food was reportedly common, especially from relatives but also from neighbours and the rich. But relatives may not be able to lend, and the rich may be less willing. Children are sometimes sent away to relatives. People borrowed money from the community, town traders and government agencies; but interest was high and credit limited during famines.

Begging and stealing

‘Although people used to steal in the night before, during the famine people used to steal in the day-time’

Begging was mentioned both locally and in nearby or distant towns, especially by the old and the disabled. Theft of livestock and crops was also reported, though in Gelcha, in the Southern Region, both begging and stealing were considered to be shameful. Theft was said to take place at night and on the way to market:

‘Unemployed armed individuals have robbed houses during the night time and when people are on the way home from the markets’

Food and diet

They rarely or do not eat injera [a local staple pancake], but bread, beles [fruit of wild cactus], and meals were reduced from twice to once a day

Reduced consumption and meal frequency and changes in diet were common. In cereal cropping areas, this meant a change to vegetables and pulses, notably cabbage and potatoes, as well as low-status foods. In areas where enset (false-banana) is the staple food, people ate the root not usually consumed, and in pastoralist areas, a move from milk to cereals and blood was mentioned. Wild foods were also consumed, though rarely in some locations, and only by the poorest.

The experiences of women, older people and babies

‘If there is shortage of food at home, the one who suffers is the woman. They give priority to their children. A man will go and get some food for himself’

Generally, men thought that women were more affected: they fed their family first and needed good food while pregnant, giving birth and breast-feeding. Others suggested that they are weak but work harder then men, and support the family while men look for work locally or migrate. In two locations, women reportedly walked long distances to get food or off-farm income.

‘During the drought, women are engaged in off-farm work like collecting and selling firewood and charcoal. The whole family depends on the women for food’

Most respondents thought that older people were particularly affected, mainly because they could not move around looking for food or work, and could not participate in food for work programmes. Others said that they lacked teeth to chew food; they needed food more frequently, and young men ate served food faster.

‘There were cases where people committed suicide as they could not bear to see their starving children’

All respondents recognised that babies were worst affected due to their regular need for milk, problems of milk supply from hungry mothers, their inability to eat famine foods and food aid, and their lack of resistance to diseases. Other factors were lack of care when mothers search for food, and an inability to afford medical fees.

‘Babies are highly affected because of disease and having nothing to eat. Their mothers also cannot breastfeed their children since the breast has no milk’

Food allocation within households

Informants generally agreed that reductions in food were not equally distributed. Most mentioned adults, but in half the locations women and children were also mentioned and the elderly were said to be affected in five of the villages. In only three locations was it suggested that food reduction is equally distributed.

‘Our tradition is to share the available food during both good and bad times’

Famine, poverty and the rich

‘In times of drought there is famine, which finishes all resources leading to poverty. This in turn creates vulnerability to famine’

The connection between famine and poverty was generally recognised. Most picked up on the progression from drought to famine to poverty; a few identified a causal link from poverty to famine:

‘In our community, agriculture is the sole important means of livelihood. Agriculture is fundamentally rainfed. For a long time, there has been a shortage of rain; rain has been unreliable and irregular. These events were the basic factors that have a lot to do with poverty’

In 13 locations, respondents said that people got richer during famine. Some said that the rich lost more stock, but it was also noted that the rich better resisted famine’s effects:

‘Rich farmers who have oxen cultivate more; they manage to produce drought-resistant crops including sweet potato, cassava, yam. Thus, they benefit more and could resist survive in the period of drought and famine’

Moreover, in the post-famine period, the rich may capitalise on having survived better:

‘Those who were rich can survive the famine and buy livestock and property at cheaper prices from the hungry’

The potential for food aid as a source of enrichment was mentioned. Individuals bought property at low prices and lent food and money at high interest rates; traders, local officials, and militia manipulated food aid through corruption, nepotism and theft.

‘During famines, there has always been food aid. There are some people who manipulate the aid through corruption and nepotism. Some get a lot of aid for their own personal benefit. This is true for village officials and administrators. They and others become richer during famines in a short cut way’

Famine and conflict

‘Yes, there will be conflict between people who have and who have not. Those who do not have they steal from the “haves”, and when they protect it for themselves, there would be disappointment and people kill each other’

In more than half of the 20 locations, conflict was reported as a result of theft of livestock and food, competition for water and firewood, reduced tolerance owing to hunger and disputes over food. Seven locations reported no conflict. Famine was also reported as potentially leading to conflict within households:

‘Yes, if a person does not get food, after working hours in the family he becomes angy and quarrels with this wife, children and cattle. He lacks patience’


Food aid

Even in seasons where food is relatively secure, the community receives food aid’

Regular dependence on food aid was reported from nine communities, in one case going back many years, in others beginning around 2000. Patterns vary between and even within locations. In Oda Haro, Oromia Region, food aid in 1983–84 was too late; in 1994, it was insufficient to go round and was looted; in 2003, it was targeted towards the most needy. In nine locations suffering from chronic food insecurity, food aid saved people from death, reduced indebtedness, and prevented livestock sales, wage labour and out-migration.

‘If there was no food aid, we would all have been dead or we would have become labourers’

The negative effects of food aid included long-term dependency, laziness and reduced reliance on oneself and God.

‘For those lazy fellows who depend on the food aid it has a negative aspect. Hard-working farmers want a permanent aid to pull them from this type of life for ever’

Four occasionally food-aid dependent locations reported that some people sold aid to buy cigarettes, and that low grain prices may affect merchants. In most chronically food-insecure locations, distribution was perceived as unfair because of corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, delays or incorrect reporting. Other reasons mentioned included discrimination against the ‘rich’, older or poorer people; people ‘cheating’ through double registration; and high NGO salaries.

‘They say the rich must not get aid. But even those who are called rich have nothing to eat’

Food for work

‘The community is engaged in food for work programmes whenever there is food aid distribution’

Food aid was generally reported as linked to ‘food for work’ programmes. Benefits were that people could work locally rather than migrating, that some work was useful (soil conservation, ponds, forestry) and encouraged a work spirit, and that people participated in their own development. Major constraints were conflicts with other labour needs and people’s own priorities at peak times, low payments and the late arrival of food. Not everyone is involved, and the work was often compulsory.

‘Negative aspects arise when people seek for an incentive (food) before they involve in development programmes that benefit the community. It is bad for people to wait for an incentive before they work for their own wellbeing. They could have done it out of self-initiation’

The work may also be shoddy or even dangerous:

‘The wells are not constructed well. They have no cover and children have died by climbing inside the well’

Employment generation

‘Airport construction and irrigation schemes were some of the employment generation schemes [EGSs]. Now there are no EGSs in the community’

Employment generation schemes reported in four regularly food-aid dependent locations include road and other construction, terracing, irrigation, tree nurseries and a coffee-processing machine. Advantages were cash incomes, environmental rehabilitation and a reduction in migration. Negative aspects were that the airport and irrigation schemes took over people’s land, and the coffee-processing machine poisoned the water.

Policy conclusions

This research raises five key findings with policy implications:

  • We should be talking about hunger and poverty rather than ‘famine’, moving away from a preoccupation in the media and academia with famine deaths to take a broader view of how food security relates to poverty.
  • People and communities affected by hunger and poverty have a considerable understanding of the processes involved, and individuals and households are actively engaged in struggles to survive and prosper. Given options, people are able to make appropriate choices, and should be involved more in decision-making on types and modalities of assistance.
  • Food aid is an important cushion, but there are problems in the way it is delivered. Issues of timely delivery, the effects on local production and exchange, variation and nutrition of food aid-based diets, especially for pregnant and lactating women and babies, unfair distribution and misuse should be given more attention, and innovative ways of ensuring food security, in which local people have more say, should be explored.
  • Food for work and employment generation schemes should not conflict with local labour needs and priorities at peak times, the work should be considered useful by local people, must be voluntary and should not alienate or damage resources, or undermine individual and community initiatives.
  • Given significant variations in ecology, livelihoods, social status and individual potential, interventions should be fine-tuned to suit local conditions, and defined and managed by local people, rather than simply following international, national or even regional blueprints.


Alula Pankhurst is a member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. His email address is Philippa Bevan works in the Wellbeing in Developing Countries ESRC Research Group at the University of Bath, UK. Her email address is

The research described in this article was part of the Wellbeing in Developing Countries ESRC-funded project at the University of Bath, with collaborators from Bangladesh, Peru, Thailand and Ethiopia. The full paper and a summary briefing is available at web-site; further details on the comparative research in the four countries can be found at


References and further reading

Yared Amare (ed.), Food Security and Sustainable Livelihoods in Ethiopia (Addis Ababa: Forum for Social Studies, 2001).

Dessalegn Rahmato, Famine and Survival Strategies: A Case Study from Northeast Ethiopia, Food and Famine Monograph 1 (Addis Ababa: Institute of Development Research, 1987).

Kay Sharp, Stephen Devereaux and Yared Amare, Destitution in Ethiopia’s Northeastern Highlands (Amhara National Regional State) (Brighton and Addis Ababa: Institute for Development Studies/Save the Children UK, 2003).

Patrick Webb and Joachim von Braun, Famine and Food Security in Ethiopia: Lessons for Africa (New York: Wiley, 1994).


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