The development of the 1983-85 famine in northern Ethiopia

Cutler, Peter Vincent; (1988) The development of the 1983-85 famine in northern Ethiopia. PhD thesis, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. DOI:

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In this thesis it is argued that famine is a concatenation process caused by a severe shock to the economy which in turn leads to a series of socio-economic adjustments by the affected population. If the economic shock is sufficiently prolonged, then fallback strategies fail for vulnerable sections of the population. Unless the state intervenes to prevent mass migration and mass starvation, famine ensues. It is shown that in northern Ethiopia, severe shocks to the economy, in the form of rain failures, pest attacks and warfare have frequently disrupted agricultural production, often leading to famine in an economy and society overwhelmingly dependent upon agriculture for subsistence. The failure of Ethiopian society to adapt sufficiently to changing agricultural production conditions is explained historically. Excess extraction of surplus from the peasantry was undertaken by a ruling class which largely failed to reinvest its wealth in agriculture and industry, and these conditions still generally hold true under the present regime. The famine of 1983-85 is analysed in terms of a general socio-economic model of famine. It is shown that crop failures were severe and prolonged, leading to exceptional inflation of grain prices and erosion of fallback strategies of highland peasants. These strategies included livestock sales, wage labour, trading, access to credit, consumption of famine foods, and migration out of the famine zone. The failure of the Ethiopian state to respond sufficiently to the famine reflected its prioritisation of other aimst which included warfare and agricultural collectivisation. Western governments were in turn unwilling to provide relief aid to a hostile regime. The result was a lack of substantive action by international relief agencies, many of whose staff sought to avoid responsibility for providing sufficient famine relief. Television exposure of the famine eventually forced an expansion of the international relief effort.

Item Type: Thesis
Thesis Type: Doctoral
Thesis Name: PhD
Contributors: Harriss, B (Thesis advisor);
Additional Information: The Department of Human Nutrition (1988)
Faculty and Department: Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health > Dept of Population Health (2012- ) > Dept of Nutrition and Public Health Interventions Research (2003-2012)


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