Ethiopian need ‘under-estimated’

By Martin Plaut BBC News

Aid agencies are warning that Ethiopian authorities are under-estimating the scale of the country’s drought.

Official estimates of the number of people facing hunger and hardship stand at 4.6m but agencies warn the real figure could be more than 8m.

There is also confusion over the amount of money needed to meet the crisis, with the Oxfam agency estimating it at about $500m.

However, the United Nations reports that $772m has already been pledged.

Proud people

Ethiopia is in the grip of severe food shortages after rains failed across a large swathe of the east and south of the country.

But attempts to deal with the crisis have been hindered by disputes over the number of people affected.

In April the first government appeal spoke of more than 2m in need of food aid. By June that figure had risen to well over 4m.

Aid agencies now say the official estimate has reached 6.4m – but has not yet been released.

But, say the agencies, even this underestimates the scale of the problem.

Ethiopians are a proud people, who hate the image of their country forever extending a begging bowl. And they are suspicious of the motives of the aid community.

In an interview with Time magazine in August, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said there were pockets of severe malnutrition but that the situation was manageable.

He questioned the way some agencies operated, saying they tended to use “hyperbole” to get the aid they needed.

“That can convey the message that the situation is hopeless when in fact it is not,” said the prime minister.

Yet if the 8m figure is correct, and if this is added to the approximately 7m who are chronically short of food, then as many as 20% of all Ethiopians could need food aid this year.

Oxfam has just released a fresh appeal. It says the aid required is $260m short of its target.

But figures produced by the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs show that $772m has already been pledged, the vast majority from the US, which has nearly trebled its aid to Ethiopia this year.

The current crisis in Ethiopia is being lost in a swirling mist of competing figures.