Relief and Rehabilitation in Ethiopia

What impressed me most was the indomitable spirit of these people despite all of their sufferings, displacement from their homes, loss of loved ones and possessions and their determination to survive and rebuild their lives.

by Maurice F. Strong was Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Office for Emergency Operations in Africa from late 1984 to mid-1986 and in that capacity was directly responsible for coordination of UN relief operations in Ethiopia and other African countries affected by the drought and famine of 1984/85. This article was written on 9 January 1995 for the Commemorative Journal of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission of Ethiopia.

Having visited Ethiopia a number of time over the years, I was appalled at the scale-of the death. dislocation and suffering that had been afflicted all the Ethiopian people by a combination of internal conflict. compounded by recurrent drought and devastating famine. The international community had been slow to respond until the television cameras revealed the shocking dimensions of the unfolding tragedy.

This led to an unprecedented manifestation of compassion and concern, accompanied by provision of food and relief supplies on a scale that threatened to overwhelm the local capacities to receive and distribute them. Fortunately, Ethiopia possessed in its Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, one of the most effective national organizations of its kind in Africa. With the support of the United Nations and other international agencies, the Commission had been struggling valiantly to stem a mounting tide of human suffering and need with resources and capacities not sufficient to cope with a tragedy on this immense scale. The work of the RRC was also severely handicapped by a military government, more preoccupied with pursuing internal wars and maintaining its own authority than with the plight of its people.

Ethiopia: "No one will ever know how many died far from the television cameras."
photo: UN Photo/John Issac

United Nations Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar appointed one of his most able and experienced people, Kurt Jansson of Finland, as his Special Representative to reinforce the efforts of the RRC to mobilize international support and ensure the shortly followed by the establishment of a special UN Office for Emergency Operations in Africa as the principal focal point for a large scale mobilization of international resources required to meet the needs. of Ethiopia and the some other 20 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa in which some 200 million people were affected by the famine and some 30 million subject to acute suffering and risk to their survival. It was headed by one of the finest and ablest UN leaders, UN Administrator Bradford Morse. He brought to it a passionate devotion to Africa and a rare capacity to inspire confidence and enlist the cooperation of the many other actors whose efforts and contributions needed to be integrated into an international response mechanism that enabled the contributions of each of the actors to be targeted and deployed effectively.

As Executive Coordinator of the UN's Office for Emergency Operations in Africa, I was actively involved with the Ethiopian relief effort which finally stemmed the immediate tide of human tragedy and established the basis for the rehabilitation and long term development measures designed to enable the affected peoples to rebuild their lives under conditions that will help to prevent future tragedies of this nature. My responsibilities brought me into direct and active contact with a broad cross-section of Ethiopians. This included several meetings with the self-appointed military leader, Mengitsu, negotiating, pleading and cajoling him to agree on arrangements that would enable relief supplies to be directed to desperately needy people in Tigray and other areas of the country where conflict and related transport problems impeded access.

A particularly sensitive and contentious issue was the need to obtain firm assurances from the government that it would not divert relief supplies destined to meet the critical needs of the civilian population to support the military during its unrelenting pursuit of the government's civil war objectives, which continued to be its principal priority. These efforts were, unfortunately, not fully successful as it proved to be even more difficult to enforce agreements with the government on this issue than to obtain them.

But my most moving and memorable experiences were my visits with the people who were most severely affected by the famine. Most of them were rural people who from time immemorial have been self-reliant, neither receiving nor expecting help from the outside, They have long been in the habit of maintaining their own food reserves to carry them through the recurrent periods. of drought they had come to expect. But after 17 years of below average rainfall, these reserves were exhausted, they were forced to eat their precious seed grain, slaughter their cattle or watch them die and sell their implements and other possessions just to survive from day to day until the drought broke. But it did not. And millions were forced to move from their traditional homes in a desperate bid for survival. It was a heart-wrenching sight to see them stream in by the thousands to the towns and the camps in which supplies of food and emergency medical care were concentrated. Reduced by starvation to living skeletons, they had experienced unspeakable suffering and the anguish of seeing loved ones perish along the way. And in all too many cases they found to their dismay that supplies had run out and had to wait for them to be replenished.

No one will ever know how many died far from the television cameras, some before they could leave their homes and others along the way in search of help which often involved journeys of several hundred kilometres. Nor can the immensity of the suffering these people experienced be adequately described or even imagined.

What impressed me most was the indomitable spirit of these people despite all of their sufferings, displacement from their homes, loss of loved ones and possessions and their determination to survive and rebuild their lives. This more than all of the outside help they received, was what enabled so many to survive against all odds and has enabled them since, despite continuing difficulties and resource shortages, to progress towards rehabilitation. Sadly, they are having to do this with vastly reduced assistance from the international community which is far less willing to provide the resources required to support the long-term development efforts that are the key to recurrence of such human tragedies than they are to respond to the more dramatic and more immediate needs these tragedies produce.

Despite the decline in external assistance, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, given much greater strength and support by the new transitional government of Ethiopia. is proving to be the most effective ally of these people in support of their efforts for rehabilitation and the revitalization of development which is the key to their future.

As friends of Ethiopia throughout the world join in commemorating this tragic chapter in its history and pay tribute to the people of Ethiopia who are emerging from it into a new era of hope and peaceful development, we must rededicate ourselves to the renewed and sustained assistance they will continue to need and deserve from all of us.