A Closer Look at the Famine in Ethiopia 1984-1985

The famine in Ethiopia 1984-1985 is considered one of the most devastating famines in the history of mankind. There were actually two famines, both of which were equally destructive, during this period – one in the northern region and one in the southern region. The famine in the north was mainly due to the government’s callous carelessness and the famine in the south was mainly due to the failure of short rains at that time.


The reign of the Derg is widely considered the most important cause of the famine in Ethiopia 1984. When the Derg was in control, there were insurgencies in as many as fourteen of the country’s administrative regions. A lot of local groups were competing against each other to take control of the country during this period. So, in order to put an end to all these insurgencies, the Derg started to kill the ‘suspected’ enemies of the government. This period (1977 to 1978) is called the Red Terror during which hundreds of thousands of people were killed systematically by the Derg.

It won’t be farfetched to say that the seeds of the famine in Ethiopia 1984 were deliberately sown during the Red Terror. During this period, the AMC (Agricultural Marketing Corporation), a corporation set up by the Derg, started extracting food from the peasants in the rural areas to feed the urban population.


This move was a direct result of the nationwide unrest among the urban population thanks to the insurgencies. The Derg tried to pacify the urban population by giving food grains at very cheap prices. However, this turned out to be a disaster for the rural population, especially the peasantry.


The Derg fixed a very low price for food grains and this turned out to be a disincentive to production in the rural areas. The farmers, who were supposed to give their share of food grains to the AMC, bought grains in the open market amassing a lot of debts. One of the most heinous moves of the Derg was the restriction of non-agricultural activities. Thanks to this shocking move, the farmers were not able to engage in non-agricultural activities such as migrant labor and petty trading.


As a result, they were not able to supplement their poor income. During this period, nearly 500,000 farmers lost a significant part of their income which led to a collapse in state run commercial farms. All these things led to the famine in Ethiopia 1984 in the northern part of the country.


In the mid eighties, things were chaotic in Ethiopia. The local insurgencies, the total failure of crops, and the Derg’s reckless attitude led to a major humanitarian crisis during the aftermath of the famine in Ethiopia 1984. Nearly six million people were dependant on relief food and waterborne diseases and hunger deaths were rampant. During this time, the international community severely criticized the government and a lot of relief organizations offered food to the affected people. The people who lived in the famine-hit part of the country were moved to the southern part.


The famine in Ethiopia 1984 affected nearly eight million people. The estimated death toll is over one million. A lot of historians called it a ‘Biblical famine in the 20th century’. A lot of countries including the U.S., the Soviet Union, Germany, Poland, Canada, and Switzerland were involved in the humanitarian response to the famine.