Ideas & Debate

How Ethiopia can tackle famine


Ethiopian farmers in a wheat field: Forcing people to remain smallholder farmers and denying them opportunities in cities are bad policies. Photo/REUTERS

A familiar story of looming famine is filtering out of East Africa.

Again, a World Summit on Food Security this week is addressing the symptoms but not the causes.

Part of the cause is years of poor rains: few African farmers have irrigation and in Ethiopia 90 per cent of agriculture is rain-dependent. But farmers in other parts of the world routinely face droughts yet avoid famine.

Before 1800, however, famine was a common cause of death around the world.

Most people everywhere were subsistence farmers.

When conditions were good, they produced enough to eat and a little more.

When conditions were bad, they consumed their savings.

If bad conditions persisted, they died.

This cycle changed slowly in Western Europe as urbanisation increased and people specialised in making certain goods that they traded with others.

Output increased and competition drove innovation, further increasing output.

Two European famines of the nineteenth century stand out as exceptions: Ireland from 1845 to 1852 and Finland from 1866 to 1868.

Both were caused by oppressive governments restricting the rights of individuals to own land and to trade.

Since the 1920s, global deaths from drought-related famines have fallen by 99.9 per cent.

The reason? Continued specialisation and trade, which have multiplied the amount of food produced per capita and have enabled people in drought-prone regions to diversify and become less vulnerable.

But where governments in Africa prevent the free movement of goods and people and where land rights are limited or insecure, people have few opportunities other than eke out a meagre living.

Ethiopia is a prime example: government is mainly responsible for the repeating disasters.

In 1975, the socialist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam nationalised all rural land in Ethiopia, disrupting complex and troubled imperial tenure as well as evolved customary land tenure.

The stated aim was to seize land from exploitative owners, provide farmers with rights to use land, create agricultural cooperatives to feed the country, and keep people out of cities.

It failed. Exploitation was traded for oppression.

Without incentives to improve the land, output fell sharply and trade was outlawed.

Under Mengistu, farmers were not allowed to put crops aside for the bad times, nor money from their sales.

Entrepreneurs were not allowed to move food to areas where it was most needed.

These were all considered anti-social capitalist practices.

When drought struck in 1983, as it does periodically, millions were unable to get enough food and many died.

Has the government of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister since 1991, learnt the lessons of 1983?

Meles’s government has hardly changed the Mengistu policy of government ownership of land.

Under the 1995 Constitution, farmers continue to have use rights but not ownership rights.

They cannot, therefore, mortgage their land, so they cannot securitise loans for inputs to raise yields (seed, fertiliser, pesticides, irrigation....), hence the interest they are charged is much higher.

A host of ill consequences follow: families must deplete their limited savings or sell other property to survive; continuous subdivision leads directly to environmental degradation and lower crop yields which, of course, worsen hunger.

And, finally, efficient farmers are not allowed to buy property and build larger and more productive farms.

Urban growth

Worse, the government purposely limits migration to cities, claiming it is concerned about “chaotic” urban growth.

When country people are prohibited from moving to towns they are also prohibited from seeking economic opportunities and using their entrepreneurial talents — the very thing people need when they can no longer support themselves and their families by farming.

Forcing people to remain smallholder farmers, denying them opportunities in cities, compelling them to migrate  and making them ruin the land through subdivision are bad government policies, not bad weather.

Mr Morris is Executive Director of International Policy Network ( and Ms Boudreaux is Senior Research Fellow and lead researcher of the Enterprise Africa! Project at the Mercatus Centre at George Mason University (