WASHINGTON - Famine-racked Ethiopia might be facing the "greatest humanitarian crisis" of any nation, with more than 12 million people relying on food aid for survival, relief organizations say, a crisis likely to repeat itself every few years without a major infusion of outside assistance.
But even though tens of thousands of young children are acutely malnourished, the United States and other donor nations must recognize that food alone won't solve the problem, the aid groups say.
At least $1 billion a year, they insist, should be spent developing Ethiopia's shattered and chronically impoverished and backward agricultural and education systems.
Eight organizations - including Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief and International Orthodox Christian Charities, all Baltimore-based - will use a news conference here today to appeal for a new approach toward Ethiopia and other nations, particularly in Africa, that confront repeated food shortages.
"As soon as they get through the most visible crisis, all donors back away and don't put money into the rehabilitation phase and long-term development," CRS President Ken Hackett said yesterday.
A fact sheet prepared by CRS described the famine as "the greatest humanitarian crisis facing any single nation in the world today." During the 1984 and 1985 famine, it said, 5 million people were at risk. Now, three times that number face starvation unless they receive outside help.
Aid groups complain that Ethiopia's current famine, worse than one in 1984 and 1985 that killed nearly a million people, has drawn little world attention amid a preoccupation with Iraq and Liberia and was virtually ignored during President Bush's trip to Africa early this month.
Bush stopped in Senegal, Botswana, South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria on a visit that focused on regional conflicts, the AIDS crisis and encouraging trade and economic development. Ethiopia "did not come up on the screen," Hackett said.
Ellen Yount, spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which supervises overseas assistance programs, said the agency will send a team to Ethiopia shortly and will prepare recommendations on how the United States, other donor nations and private groups can improve the country's development prospects.
"Long-term development continues to be an issue of the utmost importance to AID," Yount said. Andrew Natsios, AID director, "raised those exact issues" in a letter earlier this year to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, she said.
But the aid groups say that while the United States has spent more than $500 million on food aid for Ethiopia this year, making it the world's leader in emergency aid to that country, only $6 million has gone for agricultural assistance - too little to dent the chronic poverty that has brought a quickening cycle of ever greater famines.
The famine is compounded by the AIDS pandemic ravaging the continent. The combination of hunger and low rates of immunization leaves children particularly vulnerable to death from childhood diseases that elsewhere are preventable. In addition, parts of the country can't be farmed because of land mines left from the war with neighboring Eritrea, which ended with a cease-fire in 2000.
"Ethiopia's got it all - AIDS, population growth, environmental degradation, chronic poverty," said Kathryn Wolford, president of Lutheran World Relief, although her agency demurs from describing the famine as the single worst humanitarian crisis. "We tend to try and stay away from those absolutes."
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that half the children in the nation of 70 million are chronically underfed and 450,000 are "acutely malnourished," meaning they are in "urgent need of supplementary feeding," according to an agency spokesman in Addis Ababa, Shantha Bloemen.
Many Ethiopians are subsistence farmers. Aid organizations say that each drought tends to leave them worse off. They harvest food before it is fully grown to stave off hunger, sell off farm animals and tools, and are unable to afford fertilizer and seeds for a decent yield from the next growing cycle, aid groups say.
Immediately needed are tools, seeds and fertilizer to help farmers resume production, CRS says. But preventing future crises requires shifting the farmers away from subsistence to market agriculture, the group says.
This will require seed-voucher programs; veterinary medicines; construction of wells, reservoirs and small dams; improved transport and storage.
Wolford said, "If we really can come up with a way to break the back of this vicious cycle of poverty and famine, we could come up with models that are applicable to other countries."
She favors putting more U.S. government money into development programs even if it means shifting aid dollars away from emergency food supplies. But she said she recognizes that direct food aid, which the United States distributes through the World Food Program and private groups, is more politically popular with Congress because it bolsters farm-state economies.
The aid groups' proposal for $1 billion more per year for Ethiopia might be a low estimate of what is needed, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, a U.N. special adviser, said in an interview published yesterday on a U.N. Internet site. "I think a country like Ethiopia needs probably something on the order of $5 billion a year to have a real go at things."
Other organizations joining in today's appeal are CARE, Save the Children, World Vision, Africare and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.