Ethiopia: Interview with UN Country Representative Sam Nyambi

ADDIS ABABA, 11 February (IRIN)

  • Sam Nyambi is the United Nations Country Representative for Ethiopia, arriving in 1998 and heading the largest UN country team in Africa. He tells IRIN about radical changes underway to prevent future emergencies in Ethiopia.
    QUESTION: Given the enormous obstacles like AIDS, poverty and the drought, what future do you see for Ethiopia?

ANSWER: It is true these are challenging times, difficult times, but they are also times that show this country is beginning to move ahead in a very different way in terms of its search for development. The indicators at the moment are very low -- the poverty levels and so forth. But the promise is there. In the last two years since the war ended, the government has put together one of the most advanced reform packages I have seen in developing countries. A whole package of reforms in key areas with new strategies, in areas like HIV/AIDS, in relation to water, a radically revised food security strategy which takes drought as a permanent feature and good years as an exceptional event - so that just shows the change in thinking.

They also put together a strategy for education and health -- key social sectors and approval for their poverty reduction strategy, an overarching three-year programme. These have brought a very unique collaboration between the government and partners -- something much more different from before or during the war. So we are witnessing a new spring in terms of partnership. I can see how this new partnership is being reflected in increased overseas development assistance to the country from US $600 million in 1997 to US $1.4 billion in 2002. This is indicative of the right policies, the right moves in the right direction. These are the things that give me a confident look towards the future.

Q: How far do you think this current drought has or will throw Ethiopia off its current development course?

A: We have a crisis but we can avoid a diaster ... The crisis can be handled if the present trend of response for food and non-food is maintained. Then I think nine, ten months down the line, look back and say this was handled. The key of course is to make sure the trend is not interrupted in terms of contributions or response to what has been put out as needs ... The growth rate for this year will tend to be low but that should not prevent this country from bouncing back. The emphasis which is being made now, which is completely new, is to consider this crisis as a twin emergency. The first emergency is the relief. The second emergency is addressing the urgent structural development issues, some of those recovery issues that in fact strengthen the basis for livelihood and reduce the vulnerability of the population. Then come the next year the country comes away stronger. We are making the point now that the real opportunity this year is to tackle some of these structural issues that are there. Two or three issues tackled can make difference.

Q: What do you see as the key structural weaknesses that will make a difference?

A: The key interventions for me would include dealing with the water shortage issue, investigating how much it takes, where water points are required and creating them. Another is asset protection. It is time to try this out and scale up the trials to all the areas that are vulnerable in drought situations. That would require investments. Third is in terms of seeds for farmers. Again this takes some investment but is well worth it. Investing in the health of people so they can withstand every succeeding drought. Then four or five areas that are critical in their own ways - voluntary resettlement, and health in areas like malaria and capacity building for woreda [district] people, at the local level to manage recovery. Then marketing systems, a quick investment looking at the marketing systems in place and revamping them so if there is a bumper crop then they can distribute them. From these areas you can formulate a programme of action because these are the root causes that make such an emergency a draining experience. By targeting these we can transform this current emergency into something that finally forces the government and all of us to do something that makes future emergencies more bearable.

Q: Why haven't these ideas been implemented?

A: Many of these issues we have all tended to see as things being taken care of in the context of longer-term development. There has been a unconscious postponement that these things will be dealt with in the food security strategy -- of course it takes five years to implement that and by then you have gone through two droughts - or the poverty reduction strategy. The government thought so and the partners partly believed so. It is much easier to raise money for emergencies than development issues. What we are saying is pool them into one programme, give it a short timescale -- say one year like a crash development programme for vulnerable and affected areas.

Q: Where do you see major breakthroughs that offer hope?

A: The Nile River Basin is the biggest hope for the sub-region but has also been the biggest source of conflict for hundreds of years -- the source around which a war could break at any time. For the first time the countries have come together and are working closely and putting together a cooperation plan and we see things happening where Egypt, Ethiopia and other riparian countries are now working to collaborate on a forward-looking programme for effective utilisation of the values of the Nile. This would provide a win-win situation for these countries to be able to use the resources of the Nile for their own development without jeopardising the opportunity for those who rely on the resources for themselves. If you put these prospects together I remain optimistic about the country.

Q: What sort of time frame are we looking at in terms of real changes being made -- when people will not be living on less than US $1 a day?

A: The challenge for Ethiopia and many developing countries is not that they will overcome the need for aid because aid will continue for a long time. We are seeing areas of progress and in some, progress will be slow for a while. For example in terms of education there has been some good progress in terms of enrolment rates and the gender enrolment rate (GER). A lot of investment has been done in terms of school infrastructure. We are seeing similar gains in health - things have been moving to show improvement. Infrastructure development like roads has also seen gains and signs of growth. We also have improvements in areas such as coping with diseases where mass vaccination campaigns have been carried out. The private sector also offers great potential. My estimation is that as the peace is holding and the reform package is being implemented -- three to five years from now we will be able to see some quite significant changes.


Tel: +254 2 622147
Fax: +254 2 622129

[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: or Web: If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]

Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003