With the worst drought in 50 years, some 18 million people dependent on emergency food supplies, and aid agencies warning the money and the aid will run out in two months, it seems a strange time for Ethiopia to be marketing itself as an upmarket tourist destination.

By Matthew Tempest in Ethiopia |

But this month, the country of some 100 million is rebranding itself as the land of the “Origins of Life”, hoping to more than triple the number of Western tourists visiting this land-locked state in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on earth – the Horn of Africa.

With it, the desperately poor country intends to raise its revenue to some $3 billion a year by 2020 – not an insignificant amount in a country where the per capita average income is $550, according to the World Bank.

Ethiopia boasts some eight UNESCO world heritage sites, a stable government, a nation proud of being the only uncolonized state in Africa, and tourist-friendly exports such as coffee and Rift Valley wine.

But it also is currently facing a catastrophic drought, exacerbated by El Niño, which has plunged another 10.2 million citizens – largely subsistence farmers in the north and east – into dependency on emergency food aid.

That comes on top of 8 million plus subsistence farmers already dependent on aid – making a total of nearly 20% of the population.

Although they do not like to use the ‘f’ word (Famine), aid agencies have been warning since December that current pledges of help will run out by the end of April, leaving millions at the possible risk of starvation.

This week, Wolfgang Jarmann, head of Care International, warned that “it is like watching a disaster take place in slow motion.

“The impact [of El Niño] has been devastating for vulnerable people…across southern and eastern Africa, but nowhere is the outlook more troubling than in Ethiopia right now.”

Already, hundreds of thousands of cattle have perished, and crops failed, leaving an almost alien landscape of barren, parched red rock and dust across hundreds of square miles of territory in the north and east.

According to CARE, there are already 1.7 million children, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers requiring nutritional support.

The United Nations has launched an international appeal for $1.4bn in emergency funding for Ethiopia. Less than half that amount has so far been met by donors.

The US has stumped up $97 million, whilst the government in Addis Ababa has committed $380 million dollars.

The government has set up a National Drought Resilience and Emergency unit, with some 230 million Ethiopian Birr ($11 million) set aside for increasing school meals, to stop children dropping out of education to assist their parents on the land, or scavenging or begging.

But now, it too is admitting it needs help. Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen has pleaded for “immediate assistance”, adding that the consequences of a humanitarian disaster would hurt not just Ethiopia but the “peace and stability of the region at large.”

The EU has, so far, given €42 million for Ethiopia specifically for the El Niño drought. Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides has promised a further €24 million in humanitarian aid for the country.

A spokeswoman for DEVCO said that “The EU stands by Ethiopia and is helping to provide life-saving assistance right now.”

“We will continue to work relentlessly so that humanitarian aid reaches the most vulnerable populations in Ethiopia,” she added.

Some 80-90 million Ethiopians merely survive as subsistence farmers at the best of times, living in mud huts and corrugated steel shacks mostly without running water or electricity, tending rows of vegetables and whatever cattle the family possess, fetching bundles of wood and plastic canisters of water daily.

Unlike the Communist Derg regime (1974-1991), which mismanaged the famine of 1984-85, Addis Ababa is now a strong government and booming economy with 10% GDP growth a year for more than a decade.

Tourism vs. Drought 

Whilst the central government has appealed to the outside community for additional resources to cope with the drought, it is reluctant to raise the problem during its tourism push.

Outside Lalibela – home to the 12th century rock-hewn Orthodox churches which are the primary attraction of the government’s tourism drive – locals were being handed emergency food rations, as tourists queued up to view the churches in the baking 33 degree heat.

However, at one roadside aid handout, government officials accompanying journalists refused to stop the minibus to allow photographs, or the aid recipients  to be interviewed.

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