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Thirty years on: the valley of death is green pastures

31 October 2014

by a staff reporter


By August 1989, due to return of rainfall and extensive development led by World Vision, the valley was green from end to end and was resistant to future famines

By August 1989, due to return of rainfall and extensive development led by World Vision, the valley was green from end to end and was resistant to f...

A GENERATION on from the Ethiopian famine - a disaster that dramatically changed the nature of public giving to charity - Ethiopia is, on the surface, thriving.

In the capital, Addis Ababa, the city is dominated by new towers and construction work, including the building of a monorail - visible signs of government investment and commitment to urban expansion.

And, in the "death valley" in the north, where thousands died of hunger 30 years ago, a new secondary school and new medical facilities have given children a very different future from that of their parents. The country is now said to be an "African tiger": it has one of the continent's fastest-growing economies.

The famine of 1983-85 seized the world's attention thanks to the reporting of two BBC journalists, Michael Buerk and Mike Woold-ridge. They were able to gain access to the north of the country - the epicentre of the famine - only by hitching a ride in aid-planes run by the charity World Vision.

The two flights a day, carrying emergency supplies, were the only way into the areas where the suffering was at its most acute. The two pilots running the route remember feeling "a little miffed" at having to take two journalists and a cameraman on a flight instead of sacks of food aid.

The devastating famine was well under way by the time the reporters arrived, but it was Mr Buerk's memorable reporting, describing the scene that he found as "a biblical famine in the 20th century", and "the closest thing to hell on earth", that fixed the famine in the global consciousness.

It had been brought about by the combination of civil war in the north, and a terrible drought. The resulting famine killed 400,000 people, official figures suggest, but many believe that the real death toll was far higher.

The reports beamed across the world led to the intervention of the rock musician Sir Bob Geldof, and the creation of the Live Aid concert - establishing a new era of celebrity-backed fund-raising that continues today.

Tesfatsian Dalellow, an Ethiopian national, was working for World Vision in New Zealand at the time. He was flown back to Ethiopia the day after the story broke, to help lead World Vision's response.

Today, he says that he is still haunted by what he found. "All the eyes of the mothers were on you, moving wherever you were going. And the infants, the children - their mouths were gasping. . . And from that, you had to make a choice [about who to feed]".

Peter Simpson, of World Vision, has just returned from visiting the area with Mr Wooldridge, 30 years on. He said: "It was a perfect storm that led to the famine. Going back now, we saw how it had changed so much. There were crops growing on the hillside where Mike remembered a great mass of wailing and death.

"When the famine was declared over, we moved on from delivering bags of wheat and flour and essentials to creating programmes that built resilience in the population. In a way, the past 30 years have shown how faith-based charity works, moving beyond quick handouts to building resilience for the future. Working in partnership with the government, we can be reasonably confident we have a success story."

The charity is on target to pull out of that area of the country by 2016, handing over projects to local people and the government.

The focus of its work in the area in recent years has been in educational and farming projects that modernise practices and improve crops.

"We will still have a presence in the country," Mr Simpson said. "It's not a 100 per cent rosy picture - there are still two million people desperately in need of aid - but, a generation on from the famine, food security is a lot stronger."

Abebe, a farmer, was 20 years old in 1984. He saw his daughter die of hunger, and the drought kill off his crops. He took his family to an emergency feeding station. Now he says: "My experiences during the famine were terrible, horrifying. We didn't have any hope."

"When World Vision moved into the development phase of their work," he says, "I became one of the five model farmers around here. They gave us farm tools and seedlings, and we started growing tomato and cabbage and other foods as they trained us. . . It's really incredible, the change that I've seen from the famine, and I'm really very grateful."

The success story that is Ethiopia has not come without cost, however: Amnesty International's latest report on the country, published on Tuesday, documents the "ruthless targeting" of the Oromo, which is the country's largest ethnic group, by the state.

"The Ethiopian government's relentless crackdown on real or imagined dissent among the Oromo is sweeping in its scale and often shocking in its brutality," Amnesty International's Ethiopia researcher, Claire Beston, says.

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