The pictures are heart-wrenching, as always. The crisis has been highlighted by television, as usual. But the famine which has started to ravage parts of Ethiopia is not as before. Luckily. This time, unlike the great famine of 1984/5 when up to a million people died, the alarm has sounded early and the world has a chance to prevent a disaster turning into a catastrophe provided donor governments quickly improve their act.
Ethiopia's farmers are more dependent on rain than those of almost any other country in Africa. They live in areas which are unbelievably remote with most of them more than a day's walk from the nearest dirt road, so that aid is very hard to distribute. Fifteen years ago tens of thousands died unseen, and those still able to walk barely managed to trek to rural towns and "feeding centres" before they too succumbed.
At that time, too, a war was going on across much of the famine-affected areas, making it even harder for food aid to reach people. Ethiopia was ruled by a dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who took a long time to admit there was a problem. When he did, he exploited it to cram famine refugees from the rebel region of Tigray into aircraft and buses by force and dump them hundreds of miles from their homes.
Yet even within this harsh context, as I and other journalists were able to report at the time, the United Nations aid agencies and foreign charities achieved a great deal. The image, still occasionally trotted out by armchair critics, that the west kowtowed to the government in Addis Ababa and refused to mention the war was wrong. Around 70% of the aid was delivered independently of the government and direct to the starving. Western governments constantly criticised the use of force in the resettlement programme and refused to support it. Thanks to Michael Priestley, who took over as the UN's special representative in Ethiopia in October 1985, they eventually managed to get it stopped. When Mengistu refused to let food reach the starving through the lines of war, charities and governments found ways to deliver it "round the back" by going to rebel areas direct. No relief operation is perfect and there was overlap, lack of coordination, and delay, but in 1985 the aid may have saved as many as seven million lives.
This time the ground is more favourable. A low-level hit-and-run guerrilla war plus dangerous banditry is having an effect in the pastoral areas of the Ogaden, where scores of people are already dying. This has made it hard for agencies to assess needs or get lorries of aid past marauders. The main war is hundreds of miles away in the highlands but even there, where potentially eight million people are at risk, the region is nothing like as war-ravaged as in 1985.
Ethiopia's conflict with Eritrea is confined to the border strip. The fact that the highlands' closest port, Assab, is part of Eritrea now is not a major obstacle since Djibouti's docks have been improved. The country has more lorries than before, and fewer have been taken over by the army to move men and material as the war currently is static. There has been no fighting for two months. The war's worst effect is that 350,000 displaced people are living in overcrowded villages which do not have the resources to feed newcomers, let alone themselves.
A second change from 1985 is that the new government, which overthrew Mengistu in 1991, set up a system of emergency grain stocks to cover the threat of famine. This meant, for example, that when the current three-year drought began in 1998 it was able to draw on well-positioned reserves to feed people until international aid arrived. The problem it now faces is that the European Union has been woefully slow in replenishing the stocks even though the Ethiopian government warned of impending problems in December last year, and again early this year. Britain is one of four European countries which provides grain in addition to the EU's contribution and Clare Short's Department for International Development insists it replenished the stocks that were drawn down last year. But the EU's total is much greater in size and Britain shares a measure of blame, along with other EU governments, in not having pressed the commission in Brussels to act sooner and faster.
Famines are complex things since parts of Ethiopia produce a grain surplus. This is not a countrywide disaster. The Ethiopian government is buying around 100,000 tonnes of grain from local traders but, market forces being what they are even in famine conditions, it has asked the EU and western charities not to submit tenders at the moment for fear of the price being driven up. What Europe must do is speed up its promised deliveries of foreign-grown grain in the next two months before the threat of famine becomes real.
Governments also need to look to the long term. One of Ethiopia's difficulties since 1985 is that its population has doubled. Rural overcrowding and a lack of urban jobs mean that more and more families are getting poorer daily. With foreign help the Ethiopian government has been constructing small earth dams to catch the country's limited rainwater, building rural roads, and setting up local credit schemes. Sadly, larger-scale projects are not moving forward partly because foreign governments, including Britain's, have been cutting back on development aid because of the war with Eritrea. Ethiopia has been thrown out of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries' debt reduction scheme for the same reason. Last year this poorest of countries paid £60m in debt service.
Herein lies the cruellest of the current ironies. While thousands of ordinary citizens in the west give generously to help the hunger-ravaged children of the Ogaden, our governments and banks take millions back in interest. War is relevant, but the government in Addis Ababa has justice on its side when it says it did not start it, and has tried hard to negotiate its end. That does not mean its record is entirely clear. When the war broke out, it brutally expelled thousands of Eritrean civilians living in Ethiopia, many of them for decades. But it cannot be described as the aggressor in the current war, nor are its tactics as brutal as those of the Mengistu regime.
So Britain and other foreign countries need to be more flexible. The distinction between emergency and development aid for countries at war - "we give the one, but not the other" - is often too facile. So too is the policy of "no long-term help until you make peace". Otherwise we may scrape by in averting real famine this time, but not prevent a new one coming along again.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000