From the Field

1980s Ethiopia famine: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

The 1980s Ethiopia famine and hunger crisis was one of the worst humanitarian events of the 20th century, prompting a global response to bring food assistance and save lives. Ethiopia’s food shortages and hunger crisis from 1983 to 1985 led to an estimated 1 million famine deaths, according to the United Nations. Millions more were displaced and left destitute, without resources to rebuild their lives.

The worst effects of drought and deprivation were in northern Ethiopia, where there was also a border conflict. Aid organizations, including World Vision, engaged in valiant efforts to bring relief to starving children and families, but much more help was needed. When BBC reporter Michael Buerk, traveling with World Vision, brought stories and images from a feeding site to home television sets in October 1984, masses were moved to donate to the relief effort.

The Ethiopia famine marked a change not only in disaster response fundraising — out of it also came new collaborations and methods for detecting the environmental and societal factors that lead to food insecurity so future famines can be avoided. Relief and development organizations like World Vision helped families and communities rebuild their livelihoods so they could better withstand future environmental shocks.

History of the Ethiopia famine

The 1980s famine in Ethiopia caught the world’s attention and prompted generous aid and decades of long-term recovery.

1981 to 1984: Drought and conflict

  • Civil war and periodic shortfalls of rain lead to poor harvests, especially in drought-prone northern Ethiopia.
  • Some contested areas are inaccessible to aid organizations. The conflict also damages the economy.

1984: Hunger crisis

  • March: The Ethiopian government appeals for international food aid.
  • Summer: Aid agencies struggle to meet the needs of the hungry. Thousands are dying, and 6 million people are at risk of starvation.
  • October: Now, 8 million people risk starvation. Michael Buerk’s BBC news footage shocks the world with images of “a biblical famine in the 20th century.”
  • November: Aid support to Ethiopia increases because of public donations and interest.
  • December: Band Aid, a charity supergroup featuring mainly British and Irish musicians and recording artists, forms to raise money for relief efforts.

1985 to 1986: Relief and aftermath

  • March 1985: “We are the World,” USA for Africa’s single is released, followed by a Live Aid fundraising concert in July.
  • In the wake of the Live Aid concert, U2 lead singer, Bono, and his wife, Ali, volunteer at a World Vision feeding center.
  • In 1985 and 1986, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced — about 600,000 people are moved in an effort designed to cluster the population where services are provided.

FAQs: What you need to know about the 1980s Ethiopia famine

Explore frequently asked questions about the hunger crisis and famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and learn how you can help people who are hungry.

What is a famine?

A food crisis becomes a famine when there’s so little food in the region that it causes large-scale malnutrition, starvation, and death.

Not all food crises become famines. To declare famine:

  • At least 20 percent of households in a given area face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope.
  • More than 30 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition.
  • Hunger causes more than two deaths each day for every 10,000 people.

When a food crisis no longer meets these technical criteria, a famine is no longer in effect. 

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What caused the 1980s Ethiopia famine?

A perfect storm of adverse events led to the Ethiopia famine: recurring drought, failed harvests, food scarcity, conflict that kept aid from reaching people in occupied territory, and government policies that relocated families and routed relief to certain areas.

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Why are famines less likely to occur now?

Famines are happening less often now because warning systems are better at giving governments and relief agencies time to respond and prevent hunger and malnutrition from reaching famine levels.

Unfortunately, extreme hunger is still prevalent. Though farmers around the world produce enough food to feed everyone, 815 million people — 1 in 9 — go to bed hungry every night.

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In what parts of the world are people most likely to be hungry?

People in Africa are the most likely to experience hunger; 1 in 4 sub-Saharan Africans doesn’t have enough nutritious food. However, the greatest number of hungry people live in southern Asia, including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Find out more about the world’s five worst places for hunger.

People are more often hungry in countries that lack a strong social safety net, are environmentally fragile, and are prone to natural disasters. By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s poor will live in fragile, often conflict-ridden countries. World Vision is prioritizing its work in fragile contexts so children and families thrive without the threat of life diminished — or lost — to hunger and malnutrition.

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How can I help the hungry?

Pray: In the developing world, 1 in 9 people don’t have enough to eat. Please pray for children and families to be sustained.

Give: No child should have to worry about a basic need like food. Donate to World Vision’s hunger relief fund.

Sponsor a child: Show God’s love to a child in need and join the fight against hunger.

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World Vision’s work in Ethiopia

World Vision began working in Ethiopia in 1971. Responding to the historic famine, World Vision airdropped food into drought-plagued communities three years before the famine hit television screens. In fact, the BBC journalists traveled in a World Vision Twin Otter plane to witness the scenes of famine they filmed for the news report in October 1984.

In the decades since, Ethiopia has required periodic international food aid due to erratic rainfall, high population growth, deforestation, and a host of other factors. Periods of recurring drought and hunger continue into the 21st century, but the Ethiopian government, developed nations’ governments, and international humanitarian organizations are working together to provide a safety net for families and communities.

Ethiopia’s Antsokia Valley has transformed from a drought-stricken landscape into a lush, productive farming area.

World Vision continues to fight hunger in Ethiopia:

  • 2011 to 2012: Horn of Africa hunger crisis follows three years of drought. World Vision aid includes food and nutrition, water and sanitation, health, economic empowerment, and education.
  • 2015 to 2016: An El Niño-drought is exacerbated by extensive flooding, and disease outbreaks have a devastating impact on the lives and livelihoods of 9.7 million Ethiopians. World Vision responds with immediate aid and long-term assistance for food security and agricultural production, nutrition, health, water and sanitation, and education.
  • 2017: The East Africa hunger crisis affects more than 8 million people in Ethiopia, as well as others in Kenya, South Sudan, and Somalia. Consecutive droughts have worsened the stressed food and nutrition situation. World Vision assists approximately 1 million people in East Africa each month with food, water, livelihoods, health, and child protection

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