Ethiopia: Interview with Mike Aaronson of Save the Children UK

ADDIS ABABA, 13 March (IRIN) - Mike Aaronson is the director of Save the Children UK. During a visit to drought-hit Somali region in Ethiopia, he told IRIN of the window of opportunity now offered by increased overseas development aid to Africa. But he also called for building up capacity to make good use of the funding.
QUESTION: Have the last 20 years been a failure in terms of aid or have there been benefits?

ANSWER: We have just completed a study on the northeastern highlands where we have been working since 1973. What it shows is that there are fewer people now whose livelihoods are sustainable, there is an increasing number who are vulnerable to external shocks and there is an unacceptably high number who are basically destitute. We really do need to understand, it is not as if Save the Children and other agencies and the Ethiopian government haven't put in a lot of support over the years but nevertheless the situation is still going in the wrong direction.

So moving on from this study we have now got a substantial grant from USAID over a three-year period guaranteeing food assistance required by vulnerable people in the pilot area of 300,000 people, and will provide additional inputs to help farmers to increase production or diversify their income. The aim is to test and document different approaches to help households attain viable or sustainable livelihoods. It is an important piece of research that aims to understand what has been going on and to look at what you can do to reverse the trend. It is important for all of us not to lose heart, there are more resources becoming available now but there is also a science to this that is not yet fully understood. Having a real understanding of what is going on at the household level is essential if we are going to target the inputs in the right way.

Q: How will direct budget support affect Save the Children and other international NGOs?

A: It is extremely welcome that there is a greater donor commitment to Africa. That is fantastic and certainly in the UK, the British government is very committed to providing more support for Africa. We have had very productive discussions with Clare Short [International Development Secretary], Gordon Brown [Chancellor] and Tony Blair [Prime Minister] about Africa and that is terrific. We have been asking what is the appropriate role for international NGOs in the new and favourable environment, and I think the big issue for me is the capacity of government in a country like Ethiopia to absorb and make good use of this additional funding.

Where I would say Save the Children has a strong role to play is in helping government develop its own capacity to make use of that funding. There is a value added benefit in having international NGOs involved. I don't think it is "either or" I think it is "both and". We would argue very strongly that we could help government mainly at the local level but also at the interface between the local level and the central level to make best use of this additional funding.

Q: What do you see as the specifics in terms of capacity building?

A: Well an example of what we are developing, along with local authorities, is community schools. They are very simple - a permanent building divided into two rooms. The third is cactus and thorn roofed. There are three grades, two shifts - 300 children attending in two shifts. The teachers are from and selected by this community and they are given training so they have those skills. The community is motivated and keen and the local education department is very keen.

The sort of issues we have been successfully working on with the local education department is how to get these teachers further training, how can we make sure children can move from this informal training to mainstream education system and what are the curriculum links that make that possible and so on. Save the Children, because we operate at the grassroots, can help get
those schemes up and running, and the community provides the labour for the school. The contribution we make is to, in effect, increase the government's capacity to absorb funding from donors for education using this model.

Q: Are there policy implications for the government?

A: There are useful policy lessons there for the Ethiopian government and for donors because obviously education is a priority. If those Millennium Development Goals such as basic education for all by the year 2015 are going to be met, then you have to find ways of accessing populations in remote areas, populations that the mainstream system does not serve - and that takes quite a lot of skill, energy and commitment. So I think that is a good example of where an international NGO can play an enabling role and can help government make more of the external assistance available.

Q: Given current British funding levels, will the Millennium Development Goals be met?

A: There is a lot going on ... But I do think the real issue is capacity to spend it and it will be a real tragedy if somehow aid is available but governments weren't able to spend it. Then results wouldn't show and therefore over time the donor community would get disillusioned and we would be back to where we were before, with a decrease in level of commitment. So I think it is terribly important that we find ways to make sure that money is well spent and doesn't sit in some account somewhere because the government doesn't have the capacity to use it well.

Q: How is the situation now in Somali Region?

A: It is a pretty desperate situation down in Shinille. We saw some pastoralist communities to the north and a lot of dead animals are to be seen, not just cattle and goats but also donkeys, which is bad news because they normally last quite long. Populations have had to move away to more central areas where they have easier access to relief, but the other side of the coin is more people clustering for the same land and less pasture for animals. So I don't think anybody should underestimate the seriousness of the situation that those people face.

Q: Is aid getting through and will it continue?

A: Over the last month or so it has been possible to make a general ration distribution, so wheat is being distributed ... There is definitely now relief being made available.

The problem is ... there is no guarantee that there will be any food beyond the end of March and that is really very disappointing because the donors are being as helpful and as flexible as they can locally. But because there isn't enough food in the pipeline, they can't commit for more than a month or two at a time. Without greater certainty of food in the pipeline there could be a very serious situation ahead.

Q: Why is that, because initially there was a strong response?

A: I think 1.4 million tons of food is a lot of food and there are competing demands. The Southern Africa situation has also made huge demands on the donors. Everybody is now very nervous about Iraq and what sort of calls may be made on the UN system and humanitarian agencies generally with regard to Iraq. Understandably the donors are having to work out how to balance these competing demands. But globally, there is an issue about food aid and declining US surpluses for food aid globally. The EU commitments to food aid globally need to be maintained and increased when needed because the fact is there is still a lot of food aid needed. We have been pushing the EU very hard to make more available and let's see what happens. We have to see it in the pipeline; it can't just be a promise - it has to be delivered.


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