Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute (HVRI)


The 1983 - 1985 Ethiopian Famine

From 1983 to 1985, Ethiopia suffered a famine that ranks as one of the deadliest disasters of the 20th century.  In the mid 1980s, northern regions of Ethiopia received well below-average rainfall, with five provinces setting all-time lows for precipitation in 1984.  Signs of the famine were evident as early as the spring of 1983, but the impact of the disaster was not fully realized until crop failures in 1984 caused severe food shortages and resulted in an over 300% increase in grain prices in the country.

The famine was exacerbated by Ethiopia’s on-going civil war. An earlier, less-severe famine in 1974 left the Ethiopian government weak.  This allowed a group of Marxist soldiers an opening to overthrow the government.   The new government instituted many reforms designed to prevent future famines.  However, the reforms were short lived, and soon farmers were given quotas and restricted from other business activities.  As a result, by 1976 an insurgency had spread throughout the country.  The continuing insurgency resulted in a government that was either unable to effectively handle - or in some cases willingly avoided handling - an extensive famine.  Worse, the government held a monopoly over international aid, and withheld food shipments to rebel held areas during the later famine, aggravating already poor conditions.

The famine came to international attention in October of 1984, when British Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Michael Buerk began reporting on the extent of the disaster.  Buerk’s reports drove Britain’s citizens – and soon after those of many other countries – to donate heavily for famine relief.  Efforts such as Band Aid, Live Aid, and USA for Africa brought the famine into the public eye and spurred additional aid.  Before the famine ended, almost 6 million people depended on food aid to survive.

Estimates of the number of deaths from the famine vary.  By October of 1984, 200,000 people were thought to have died from famine related causes, and later figures put the final death toll closer to a million people. In repose to the disaster, the Ethiopian government tried to relocate people from drought-prone areas in the north of the county to the south.  It also encouraged its citizens to live in planned communities which would ostensibly have better access to services and sustenance.  Both measures were largely unpopular and ineffective.  From an international perspective, the Ethiopian government’s use of international aid to wage a counterinsurgency also brought many changes to the way aid is distributed to states with on-going conflicts.



British Broadcasting Corporation




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