Nearly a year after the peak of the famine crisis in Ethiopia, church and relief workers here are concerned that the West is losing interest just at the time when help is most needed to prevent a recurrence.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a prime conduit of western church assistance, held a seminar this week to weigh just what kind of role churches should be playing in the long term. That will be followed in January and February with a government conference in which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, relief agencies, churches and experts from around the world will tackle root causes of the drought and famine.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church plays an important role here because it has 20,000 parishes throughout a country comparable in size to Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico combined. Also, most of the church's quarter of a million priests have a background in tenant farming.
The relief effort is not over, although people no longer are starving to death, according to relief specialists. Assembly lines at feeding stations daily continue to pile 90 pounds of wheat in two sacks -- the monthly ration per family -- onto the backs of peasant women who barely weigh that much themselves. The sacks are clearly labeled as gifts from the American people.
"The need is reduced, but if we left, the people would die," says Boston nurse Eileen Mullaney, who administers the Church World Service camp in Gewha, 150 miles north of Addis Ababa. The service is an arm of the National Council of Churches in the United States. The government Relief and Rehabilitation Commission calls the Gewha operation the model among the 255 camps run by relief agencies from around the world.
"We were having four or five deaths at least a week," she said. "Now we're down to maybe one or two every two weeks. And besides that, our children, after being discharged from intensive feed, after two or three months of intensive feeding, they've gone from an apathetic, unable-to-stand state to running, walking, smiling -- beautiful."
The Gewha camp, which at its peak fed l8,000 people, is now down to about 8,000 and is devoting much of its attention to a community latrine project, the digging of wells and training of health agents among the people -- all steps designed to ease the rampant malaria, acute diarrhea and other diseases related to malnutrition or sanitation and drought conditions.
"They are not dying," said Irish nurse Mary Coyne, adding in an almost inaudible knock-on-wood whisper, "not now." She and others at the Kara Kelo feeding center are teaching subsistence gardening to the people, including separation of one crop from another.
In the desert northwest of Asmara, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (supported by Church World Service), the Roman Catholics and the Ethiopian government are united in a project at Haggaz to bring preventive medicine, wells and improved agriculture to a community quadrupled in size by a ring of huts inhabited by famine victims.
The cooperation is so marked that even the subdistrict governor is storing grain sacks in a spare room in his office. But the development needs of the country will have to be met with much more massive efforts than that.
Brother Augustine O'Keeffe, an Irishman who heads the Christian Relief and Development Association coordinating the work of 43 relief agencies in Ethiopia, said he feels that the church can provide only pilot programs and that government-to-government aid will be critical to bring about massive change.
"People are not dying now," O'Keeffe said. "But if the level of aid decreases, we're going to see a serious problem." He said the government predicts a grain aid need of 1.2 million tons in 1986, only 300,000 tons below the 1985 level.
A Relief and Rehabilitation Commission report released in September showed that 5.8 million people still will be depending on relief food in 1986. That includes 45 percent of the rural population in Tigrai province, 38 percent of Wello, north of Addis Ababa, 31 percent in the desert of Harerghe, bordering Somalia in the east and 29 percent in far northern Eritrea.
Though rains in most places this past summer were not bad, O'Keeffe said, inadequate acreage was planted because seed was in short supply, many oxen had died, and people affected by the famine were too weak to plant.
Abibaw Yigzaw, general secretary of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, said the world's churches have made a tremendous response to the mortal danger to 8 million of Ethiopia's 42 million citizens, but that the church cannot abandon Ethiopia until the root problems are corrected.
United Nations Undersecretary Kurt Janson, winding up his tour of coordinating governmental drought relief aid for Ethiopia in late October, told the press in Addis Ababa that donor countries and international organizations must not quit. Agricultural implements and medicine are needed beyond food, he said.
Ethiopians concede that during the height of the crisis there was a tie-up in ports and in food distribution, but relief workers say the food got through with minimal loss.
"Unless we can continue through rehabilitation into the development phase," O'Keefe said, "and it has to be a fairly major development program . . . mainly agriculture, irrigation, water projects . . . . Everybody is going to be back here in five, 10 years looking at the next famine."