El Niño and Ethiopia: Beyond a Humanitarian Crisis

El Niño, the pattern of oceanic warming in the Pacific that brings with it tumultuous, destabilising weather systems, has struck once more. Unprecedented flooding in the United Kingdom, persistent forest fires in Australia, and severe droughts in Central America have all been linked to this year’s El Niño system. Operating roughly on an eight-year cycle, El Niño constrains supply in ‘rain-driven agricultural commodities’, reducing crop output, construction, and other service activities, according to the University of Cambridge. Across the globe local economies have been compromised by food insecurity and consequently, general inflation, requiring international intervention to cope.

Image courtesy of Ji-Elle © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Ji-Elle © 2014, some rights reserved.

Historically, El Niño has brought with it some of the most destructive international crises; the Ethiopian famine of 1984 left an estimated one million dead from food shortages and human rights abuses that lasted for almost two years. This year, agricultural conditions are worse. Ethiopia is facing its worst drought in 50 years, an estimated 75 per cent of harvests have succumbed to the drought with water shortages further claiming the lives of as many as ‘one million livestock’.

In the years since 1984 however, Ethiopia has experienced a period of incredible change, annual economic growth has notably averaged at 10 per cent over the past decade, new investment in road systems, railways, and dams are set to boost electricity production and improve transportation throughout the nation. This time around, Ethiopia may be better equipped to weather the storm.

However, as with both the developing and the developed world, in times of crisis, international assistance is required. Reluctant to compromise a national narrative of development, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn only appealed for international aid when figures placed the number of those in need at over eight million. Prior to this appeal, Ethiopian ministers argued that with disaster planning and food surpluses, the nation was prepared to cope independently. Ethiopia’s hesitance to call for international assistance can arguably be attributed to its desire to maintain its identity as a state, not to be portrayed as a victim. The government’s fears were realised after a BBC report called for aid. The in-depth report on the conditions in Ethiopia depicted large amounts of suffering in the northern regions, almost exclusively depicting scenes of despair and misery, effectively describing a helpless nation in need of assistance.

The Ethiopian Embassy in London was quick to respond to the report, challenging the BBC narrative: ‘The sensational news broadcast by BBC TV, regarding children dying on a daily basis, does not reflect the current broad reality on the ground and the full preparation that has gone into overcoming the problem.’

Ethiopia’s record is broadly overlooked in Western appeals for humanitarian aid and current funds reportedly only meet a third of the UN estimated $1.2 billion required by the region. While it is admittedly difficult to balance the urgency of the situation with Ethiopia’s narrative of development, it is the job of the media to present an accurate picture of the crisis rather than simplifying and distancing a complex and diverse nation. From the Syrian crisis to conflict in neighbouring Somalia, nations around the world are suffering, creating a competitive market for international aid. The charge for humanitarian organizations is to make a case for Ethiopia’s need in such a market, a difficult task to balance with recognition of Ethiopian progress. Too often countries in need of aid are victimized as innocents suffering, reducing complex economies and political systems to victims in need of aid.

The media, as well as the NGO’s appeals for international aid on behalf of struggling communities are tasked with painting an accurate picture of those in need that is complex and rich, yet still just as worthy of funding. Depicting Ethiopia as a foreign land characterized by misery and suffering only distances the nation’s struggles. Parallels aren’t drawn between the various political, environmental, economic, and social actors at play. Ethiopia is a state in need of support to implement its relief programs, not a series of crying children in need of a Western saviour.

The UN has quantified the funding required at $1.2 billion and Ethiopia has said itself what it requires to tackle this issue. Instead of taking snapshots and packaging them for the western world, let us listen to them. Those appealing for aid on behalf of Ethiopia should give the global community more credit. There is more than one way to cover a crisis, a more nuanced approach in the 21st century has the potential to recast the Western collective imaginary, bridging gaps rather than creating them.