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U.S. Sends $128M Aid For Ethiopia's Worst Drought In 50 Years


Ethiopia hopes to avert another humanitarian crisis that stems from another drought. The United States has just announced one $128 million in humanitarian aid to the country, and that comes on top of more than half a billion that's been given over the last 18 months. NPR's Gregory Warner has been traveling around Ethiopia and joins us now from Addis Ababa. Greg, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: And what's the situation like in the country now?

WARNER: Well, scientists are calling this drought the worst in 50 years, not only because a third of the country's crops have failed but they failed over multiple harvests. So you not only have 20 million people in need of food aid but really a - picture millions more who've sold all they had to eat and are now living hand to mouth. What it's not, though - what this drought is definitely not is that stereotype of African famine - children with distended bellies, starvation. That's certainly the Ethiopia of the past.

Ironically, people tell me that the lack of these truly dire images has posed a kind of fundraising problem. There hasn't been much media attention to this drought, despite the severity. So that's what this U.S. aid money is about, not only providing food and water but also seeds so farmers can start to plant now that the rains have finally started to come. They came about two weeks ago.

SIMON: Greg, I covered that Ethiopian drought and famine and civil war in the 1980s where we remember those stark images of starving babies and the way the world rallied to Ethiopia. How is this one different? Why is it different?

WARNER: I mean, so much about Ethiopia has changed in 30 years certainly. But just as an example, the road system, which wasn't really there in the '80s, right? I mean...

SIMON: There were two roads in the '80s, literally, that went north and south.

WARNER: Yeah, and if you weren't on one of those roads, right, you had to walk to a feed center, maybe for miles. Now, Ethiopians can get the food directly to the villages and people don't have to leave their homes. They can - it's a pretty orderly distribution of food as I observed.

SIMON: Yeah. And Ethiopians used to say, well, you know, drought is just part of who we are. Is climate change a factor now, though, too?

WARNER: Yeah, I know. It's funny because that drought image is definitely part of the Ethiopian identity. Ethiopians actually don't like to complain about drought. They almost wear it as a badge of pride. However, the drought is much more severe and erratic because of climate change, and not only the drought, but now we're in this rainy season that's unprecedented in terms of the number of rain.

People are thinking that the - one of the driest seasons is now going to be followed by one of the wettest, which has led to flooding and more concerns. So this is actually a concern over the whole East Africa region, very vulnerable to climate change because of the reliance on agriculture and rain-fed agriculture.

SIMON: Ethiopia is the largest recipient in Sub-Sarahan African aid, especially from the U.S. But it's also a government that is famously repressive. And I wonder if that complicates U.S. aid or aid from the outside world now.

WARNER: I mean, it certainly leads to a disconnect certainly between the U.N. Human Rights Council and human rights bodies in the U.S., which will be criticizing Ethiopia's record of imprisoning journalists, torturing political opponents. I mean, this is a country that is a democracy but won 100 percent of the seats for the ruling party in the last election, so very authoritarian regime.

However, the U.S. has not recently used aid to pressure the Ethiopian government. Why? Perhaps a soft diplomacy approach is better, as many U.S. officials will say off the record. But maybe it's simpler. Maybe it's just the war on terror. Ethiopia's the key military ally for the U.S. in fighting African Islamists. It's a very important relationship and one the U.S. does not want to disturb.

SIMON: NPR's Gregory Warner in Addis Ababa, thanks so much.

WARNER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.