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For many Americans Ethiopia conjures images of hungry children and Live Aid concerts.  Those images stem from a major El Nino in 1984-85, which caused the most severe drought in the country’s recent history and led to 1 million deaths.  At the time, Ethiopia was mired in civil war and the government did not adequately assist its own people.  The world again is experiencing a major El Nino, and this time climate change may be worsening its effects.  We hear often how it is causing drought in California, but it is also bringing drought to Central America, Southern Africa, and again, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is much different from 1984 and for the last several years has maintained its stability in a region wrought by conflict. The civil war is long over and government policies have focused on poverty alleviation.  The country generously hosts the largest refugee population in Africa as people from South Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia turn to Ethiopia to escape conflict.  It has seen strong economic growth and increased foreign investment, and is often referred to as the “African Lion,” akin to the “Asian Tigers” of the 1990’s. 

We know Ethiopia is prone to droughts.  This is why Catholic Relief Services has supported investments in early warning systems and preparedness in that country.  For instance, we have trained community members throughout the country to regularly provide information on 22 food security indicators via text message.  This data is shared widely with development partners, complements and feeds into the Government of Ethiopia’s national food security warning system, and has helped aid implementers monitor conditions and target assistance to those most in need.  We have also supported Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program, a multiyear plan to improve food security.  With developmental resources provided by the U.S. flagship food aid program Food for Peace, we have helped tens of thousands of Ethiopians become more resilient to drought by introducing micro gardening, improving access to water, and helping communities terrace hill sides and build other infrastructure improvements that better capture rain water.  In past droughts, these kinds of interventions have kept many Ethiopians from requiring emergency food assistance, and we expect them to do the same this year. 

It is important to remember though that El Nino droughts are not ordinary in severity or scale, and that Ethiopia will face difficult challenges over the next year or so.  About 80% of Ethiopia’s population are subsistence farmers with an average of less than one hectare of land available to them.  Only about 5% of farm land is irrigated, with the rest being rain dependent.  In a good year, Ethiopia produces about 90% of the food it needs.   However, due to El Nino, drought conditions have reduced yields 60% in some key bread basket regions of the country.  Some places saw no rain this year and are expecting zero crop production.  There have been over 450,000 livestock deaths, and Ethiopia’s pastoralists are quickly selling off their herds while they still have some to sell.  Presently, more than 8 million Ethiopians are in need of emergency food assistance. 

As in 1984, American food aid is playing a critical role in responding to this drought.  Catholic Relief Services is leading a consortium providing U.S. emergency food assistance in the form of cereals, pulses, oil, and corn-soy blend.  Our emergency response is coordinated with the Government of Ethiopia and the United Nations World Food Program, with Catholic Relief Services handling about a third of the overall caseload.  For our part, USAID’s Food for Peace program has provided 270,000 tons of food produced, milled, and prepared in the heartland of the United States.  This food is making its way to remote villages throughout Ethiopia, stamped with the message “from the American people.” It is this partnership between American farmers and aid agencies like Catholic Relief Services that will keep many Ethiopians from dying of hunger this year.

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Ethiopia has endured drought before, but it is in a much better position to cope even with an El Nino drought now.  Using innovations to understand who needs help, development resources to further resilience and prevent hunger in the first place, and renewing longstanding partnerships with American farmers to provide much needed food at a critical time, together will help Ethiopia face this challenge in what has otherwise been an important success story in Africa.

Dr. Carolyn Y. Woo is President & CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. She came to CRS in January 2012 after a distinguished academic career. Dr. Woo served from 1997 to 2011 as dean of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Prior to the University of Notre Dame, Dr. Woo served as associate executive vice president for academic affairs at Purdue University where she received her B.S., M.S. in industrial administration and Ph.D. degrees.