Eritrea + 1 more

U.S. has donated $200 million in food for East Africa famine

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By Charles W. Corey, Washington File Staff Writer
Washington - The United States has committed to provide more than 500,000 metric tons of food to help feed famine victims in Ethiopia and Eritrea, with almost half of that food having already been delivered and more food pledges pending, says Andrew Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, he stressed, adequate money for agricultural development would obviate much of the need for food aid in the future.

Natsios, who briefed diplomats, journalists and Africanists at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) January 27 on his return to Washington from the region, said the United States is spending more than $200 million for emergency food shipments but, sadly, only four million dollars on agricultural development in Ethiopia.

"The focus in this city, and in capitals in Europe, is based far too much on media pressure and on efforts to get food aid when the emergency starts," he told his audience. "Ethiopia can feed itself," he said, but warned, "Ethiopian farmers are very shrewd and are not going to take risks on new technology unless they have a little bit of security...."

Natsios was referring to new drought resistant seeds and new, deeper plowing techniques, which, he said, can greatly increase protection against future drought. For that reason, he stressed, "We must invest in agricultural development in Africa if we are going to end this cycle of famine. There is no reason for this to continue. It is an embarrassment to Africa. It gives the wrong impression, and if you keep having these crises, the economies in these countries will never, in the long-term, develop....

"If we do not have money for agricultural development," he warned, "we are going to have a drought take place in the next few years, where there will not be enough food in the world or enough logistical systems to respond to it....We will have a terrible tragedy on our hands. The time to deal with this is now and it requires development assistance money for agriculture and trade capacity building that will allow economies to grow."

The current famine now afflicting Ethiopia and Eritrea, Natsios told his audience, is in fact "more severe" in terms of immediate requirements than the ongoing one in southern Africa.

Natsios sought to put the east Africa famine, which has been caused by a number of key factors, in context.

A drought, which is the main culprit, now grips eastern Ethiopia, he told his audience. The Ethiopian highlands area and the western part of the country are also experiencing reduced rainfall but not massive crop failure, he added. The rains have failed for three years in eastern Ethiopia, he said, which has drawn the people into a "cycle of famine."

Citing the historic book by Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam, "Cultures of Hunger, Spaces of Death," which chronicled drought cycles in Ethiopia from 1958 to 1977, Natsios said what can be seen is a repetition of a deadly drought cycle which has been ongoing for up to five decades. "If you look at Mesfin Wolde Mariam's charts," he said, "the time between the droughts is collapsing and growing shorter."

What is also compounding the problem is a larger population, Natsios explained, which has placed increasing pressure on the country's sparse resources. "When he (Professor Mariam) started studying this cycle of famine, the population of Ethiopia was 24 million people. It is now 67 million people...so there has been a massive increase in population."

What is also evident, Natsios added, is that drought victims have not had sufficient time to recover between ever more frequent drought cycles.

"The last major drought, in which about 50,000 people died, was in 1999," Natsios explained. "Normally, if people have five or ten years...they really can recover over time, building their assets which they typically will sell off to support themselves during a crisis." The most recent victims in Ethiopia "simply have not had time to recover" from the last drought, he said.

"Unless we can break this cycle," he warned, "we are going to face continuing crises that get closer and closer and more and more severe given the population pressures" that now exist in Ethiopia.

Another key factor impacting the situation is the country's land ownership policy. Although private land ownership is not allowed in Ethiopia, Natsios said land plots that are being used are increasingly being subdivided among family members so that smaller and smaller plots are not economically viable to raise the minimum amount of food needed by families.

Natsios noted that regional trade restrictions are also complicating the situation. "Even if Ethiopia produced excess amounts of food -- and a couple of years ago there was a bumper harvest -- the country does not have a liberalized economy with its neighbors," so it cannot easily trade with other countries in the region.

"So the trade regime has effect on the incentives for the Ethiopian farmers to produce large amounts of food," he said, because farmers producing large amounts of food run the risk of not being able to export and sell their crops.

Natsios said farmers have complained to him that during bumper crop times they could not export their food after incurring costs for seed and fertilizer -- and so do not intend to plant those crops again. Natsios said agricultural markets, microeconomics and food production must all be married together for success.

Additionally, Ethiopia, according to Natsios, needs a more liberalized banking sector and suffers because it does not have any large international banks in the country that can easily move money globally or offer access to international capital markets.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)