'Face of famine' has evolved to hope 20 years on

She became the face of famine, yet no one knew her name. Barely alive Birhan Weldu’s emaciated face became the despairing image of Ethiopia in 1984 and was beamed to TV screens all over the world. Now Birhan, who miraculously survived the 1984 disaster that claimed the lives of one million Ethiopians, has become a symbol of hope for her country.

“Sometimes I can’t believe I survived because hundreds of thousands of children like me lost their lives,” Birhan, who lost her mother and elder sister to the famine, said. “I was lucky,” added the 23 year-old, whose country, one of the world’s poorest, is still gripped by food shortages, with millions dependent on foreign food aid.

It is 20 years this month since the first TV bulletins galvanised Bob Geldof to form Band Aid, bringing together pop stars to release the song, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?' That year Birhan’s father, Weldu Menameno, joined thousands of others to trek to Mekele through the Ethiopian highlands, some 800 km north of the capital, Addis Ababa. He went seeking food after his crops failed from successive droughts. His oldest daughter, Azmara, died on the journey and Birhan was terribly ill.

“The nuns who were helping feed people said she would die within 15 minutes,” recalls 57-year-old Weldu. “She was dying in my hands.”

The terrible scene was captured by renowned Canadian TV reporter Brian Stewart and relayed around the world. The footage became the backdrop to the 1985 Live Aid concerts broadcast simultaneously in the US and in Britain.

“I wrapped her in a shroud and prepared to bury her, but I didn’t have a shovel to dig a grave,” added the farmer. “A lot of people were dead - laying on the ground like leaves and I didn’t want that for my daughter. Eventually some people helped dig a grave.”

As Weldu prepared to lay his daughter in the grave he noticed a slight pulse. After intensive care by nurses his daughter survived. Earlier this month, Birhan, who is in her first year of agricultural college, finally met Geldof, who raised US $14 million from Band Aid. She was also introduced to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The pair arrived in Addis Ababa for the second meeting of the Commission for Africa to help try and bring an end to the poverty, conflict and disease that ravage the continent. Blair said afterwards that Birhan had become a symbol of hope amid the suffering.

“Despite all the problems Ethiopia has, they have still made progress,” Blair said.

However, 20 years after the famine, Ethiopia still remains on the edge. In December the government is expected to appeal for food aid for as many as 12 million people. Last year, 14 million faced starvation without foreign handouts. The population has almost doubled from 40 million to 70 million. Per-capita income has dropped from $190 to under $100 now.

The government says the blame lies with unfair western trade and debt policies. Aid levels at $1.9 billion a year are still one of the lowest in Africa. Ethiopia is strapped by massive debt whose interest alone is more than the entire health budget of the country, costing $149 million in 2003. A slump in global coffee prices has also cost the country $167 million in the last three years.

Aid organisations and western governments complain about the lack of land ownership, government red tape and restrictions on private businesses and foreign investment.

A recent report conducted by the Ethiopian government, the UN and non-governmental organisations found that if changes are not made in areas like population growth, environmental degradation could significantly impact existing land policies, thus creating the potential for future crises to spiral out of control.

“A failure to address these issues will only guarantee the continued need to respond to future droughts and crises in an emergency mode with ever increasing resource requirement,” it said. “There is no guarantee that the high level of donor assistance will be repeated in future crises.”

Fortunately, the awful scenes of 1984 have not been repeated thanks to the country’s highly sophisticated relief network, set up after the famine. Key institutions now play an integral role in aid effectiveness, which was lacking 20 years ago. One of the best organisations set up during that time period, the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC), keeps track of crucial food reserves and serves as the government’s emergency and relief arm.

The government also has crucial food reserves in place, which now can hold up to 400,000 mt. Early warning systems at the local level feed into a national database that means officials maintain an accurate picture of the food status in the country. The government has already launched the much-heralded $3.2 billion, five-year New Coalition for Food Security strategy that aims to end hunger for up to 15 million people.

Within the coalition is a new approach to using food aid to boost development by encouraging people to work rather than just rely on handouts. Called productive safety nets, the government plans to launch the scheme for five million people in January. Tigray, the northern province of Ethiopia that was the epicentre of the 1984 famine and was, at that time, ravaged by a civil war, is home to Birhan. A quarter of its 4 million people still need food aid to survive. Birhan fears that without real help the dependency and quick fix solutions will continue.

“I pray this never happens again and I am thankful for all the help we have received,” Birhan said from the stone house she shares with her father, stepmother, and six brothers and sisters. “But what we need is schools to educate ourselves, dams for farmers so they are not dependent on the rains.

"We need health centres and industries for people to have jobs. We need to be able to stand on our own and not always be reliant on aid.”