Ethiopia: Population, Famine and Fate

1 September 2009

Ethiopia: Population, Famine and Fate

By Gwynne Dyer

A quarter-century after a million Ethiopians died in the great hunger of 1984-85, the country is heading into another famine. The spring rains failed entirely, and the summer rains were three weeks late. But why is famine is stalking Ethiopia again?

The Ethiopian government is authoritarian, but it isn’t incompetent. It gives fertilizer to farmers and teaches best practices. By the late 90s the country was self-sufficient in food in good years, and the government had created a strategic food reserve for the bad years.

So why are we back here again? Infant deaths are already over two per 10,000 per day in Somali, the worst-hit region of Ethiopia. (Four per day counts as full-scale famine.) Country-wide, 20 percent of the population already depends on the dwindling flow of foreign food aid, and it will get worse for many months yet. What have the Ethiopians done wrong?

The real answer (which everybody carefully avoids) is that they have had too many babies. Ethiopia’s population at the time of the last famine was 40 million. Twenty-five years later, it is 80 million. You can do everything else right – give your farmers new tools and skills, fight erosion, create food reserves – and if you don’t control the population, you are just spitting into the wind.

It is so obvious that this should be the start of every conversation about the country. Even if the coming famine in Ethiopia kills a million people, the population will keep growing. So the next famine, ten or fifteen years from now, will hit a country of a hundred million people, trying to make a living from farming on land where only 40 million faced starvation in the 1980s. It is going to get much uglier in Ethiopia.

Yet it’s practically taboo to say that. The whole question of population, instead of being central to the debate about development, about food, about climate change, has been put on ice. The reason, I think, is that the rich countries are secretly embarrassed, and the poor countries are deeply resentful.

Suppose that Ethiopia had been the first country to industrialise. Suppose some mechanical genius in Tigray invented the world’s first steam engine in 1710. The first railways were spreading across the country by the 1830s, and at the same time Ethiopian entrepreneurs and imperialists spread all over Africa. By the end of the 19th century, they controlled half of Europe too.

Never mind the improbabilities. The point is that an Ethiopia with such a history would easily be rich enough to support 80 million people now – and if it could not grow enough food for them all, it would just import it. Just like Britain (where the industrial revolution actually started) imports food. Money makes everything easy.

In 1710, when Thomas Newcomen devised the first practical steam engine in Devonshire, the population of Britain was just 7 million. It is now 61 million, but they do not live in fear of famine. In fact, they eat very well, even though they currently import over a third of their food. They got in first, so although they never worried in the slightest about population growth, they got away with it.

Ethiopia has more than four times the land surface of Britain. The rain is less reliable, but a rich Ethiopia would have no trouble feeding its people. The problem is that it got the population growth without the wealth. Stopping the population growth now would be very hard, but otherwise famine will be a permanent resident in another twenty years.

The problem is well understood. The population of the rich countries has grown about tenfold since the earliest days of the industrial revolution, but for the first half of that period it grew quite slowly. Many babies died, and there were no cures for most epidemic diseases. Later the death rate dropped, but by then, with people feeling more secure in their lives, the birth rate was dropping too.

Whereas in most of the poor countries the population hardly grew at all until the start of the 20th century . But once the population did start to grow, thanks to basic public health measures that cut the death rate, it grew faster than it ever did in the rich countries.

Unfortunately, economies don’t grow that fast, so these countries never achieved the level of comfort and security where most people will start to reduce their family size spontaneously. At the current rate of growth, Ethiopia’s population will double again, to 160 million people, in just 32 years.

You’re thinking: that will never happen. Famine will become normal in Ethiopia well before that. No combination of wise domestic policies, and no amount of foreign aid, can stop it. And you are right.

What applies to Ethiopia applies to many other African countries, including some that do not currently have famines. Uganda, for example, had five million people at independence in 1960. It now has 32 million, and at the current growth rate it will have 130 million by 2050. Uganda is only the size of Oregon (New Zealand, Ecuador, Romania, Laos).

History is unfair. Conversations between those who got lucky and those left holding the other end of the stick are awkward. But we cannot go on ignoring the elephant in the room. We have to start talking about population again.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 15. (“Ethiopia…years”; 20and “What…Laos”)