International donors are warning that the number of Ethiopians surviving on food assistance could double to 16m next month as some aid agencies criticise the government for downplaying the severity of the crisis.
The UN has said that food for 7.8m people already receiving help will run out next month as the country grapples with its worst drought in years. This is partly because Ethiopia has received insufficient foreign aid, but also because Addis Ababa has so far this year contributed only 16 per cent of $735m it provided for food assistance in 2016.
“There is the making of a real potential disaster here . . . because the government will simply not acknowledge the number of people needing help,” an aid worker said.
Relief efforts in some areas have also been hampered by a state of emergency, which was imposed in October as it sought to crush a wave of anti-government protests, aid workers say.
“The situation is bad and it will get worse,” said Ahmed al-Meraikhi, the UN secretary-general’s chief humanitarian envoy, after visiting the country.
Most of the additional people who will need help are among the 8m beneficiaries of a six-month social safety net programme that expires at the end of June.
“We’ve got 8m people who are chronically food insecure, who in any other country would be relief food beneficiaries and would be counted with the 7.8m,” said a diplomat in Addis Ababa. “A large share of those people have been as affected by this drought as those identified as having acute needs at the start of the year.”
Mitiku Kassa, the government’s humanitarian relief commissioner, said the number of people needing help will “of course rise”. He said the government intended to extend the social safety net programme, but only to “some people” because of limited resources.
The new number of people needing emergency help will be known early next month after international agencies and government officials complete a nationwide assessment, he added.
The aid worker said Ethiopia, which has been one of Africa’s star economic performers in recent years, was “tired of being this poster child for famine and drought”.
“When it comes to the trade-off between pride and self-sufficiency versus putting on one’s best suit and going begging, government opinion is on the side of looking to be self-sufficient,” the aid worker said.
Drought is afflicting much of east Africa. But unlike neighbouring Somalia and South Sudan, Ethiopia has not been identified as being at risk of famine because the government has effective systems in place to respond to chronic climatic conditions.
It also had $250m worth of foreign food assistance left over from last year’s drought, which affected 10.2m people. But the latest rains have been poor and international humanitarian priorities are elsewhere. The government’s finances are also more strained than in 2016 when it benefited from falling oil prices.
Mr Meraikhi, the UN envoy, said that “in July the food pipeline will break if immediate relief measures are not taken.”
“This will affect nearly 8m people who will have empty stomachs in one month and that number is expected to increase in the second half of this year given the poor performance of spring rains,” he added.
Mr Kassa rejected the UN’s claim and criticism that the government was downplaying the crisis. He said only 1.7m people will see their food supplies end. But diplomats say that the resources the government has committed to feeding nearly 5m of those in need of assistance will run out next month.
Mr Kassa said the international community should do more to help Ethiopia because of the country’s “critical role in the Horn of Africa”.
“It maintains peace in a difficult region and hosts 830,000 refugees,” he said. “In order to maintain these two roles we should not have to allocate development funds to humanitarian assistance. Economic growth must continue.”