Ethiopia: Seeds of hope in a time of hunger

News and Press Release
Originally published
Oxfam works to develop long-term solutions to Ethiopia's recurrent food crises.
If there were a simple reason for Ethiopia's chronic food shortages, the problem would likely have been resolved before now. But the causes are complex, and addressing them requires a multifaceted approach. This article outlines the causes of food insecurity in Ethiopia and describes Oxfam's work to create solutions that are effective, fair, and sustainable.

Endemic Poverty

Poverty is both a cause and an effect of food crises in Ethiopia. Though the country has seen substantive economic growth since the end of its civil war in 1991, many rural areas are just as poor as they were during the 1984 famine that affected over five million people. Some communities are poorer than ever. Recurrent drought, military conflict, and the impact of economic factors like the crash in the global price of coffee are forcing agriculture-dependent families to sell their assets and spend their savings. Impoverished people, particularly farmers, are rarely able to recover from these shocks, and their capacity to deal with the next crisis is weakened by each failed harvest or market collapse.

- Oxfam is working with local partners in Ethiopia to introduce drought-resistant livestock and crops, and to build peace in regions of armed conflict. Read more.

- Oxfam assists coffee farmers and their communities by promoting Fair Trade coffee and supporting farmer cooperatives. Read about the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union.

- Oxfam is advocating for corporate debt forgiveness for Ethiopia. Read more.

A Lack of Rural Investment

Basic structural improvements, especially those related to water and other natural resource management, rural markets, and infrastructure are needed badly in Ethiopia. Farmers are encouraged by the central government to grow corn, which is not very resistant to drought, instead of other more hardy crops that Ethiopians have traditionally grown, like sorghum and barley. Farmers can't afford to build structures to store their grain and other crops, so surplus production that could be used in lean times to help stabilize prices or feed at-risk populations is unavailable.

- Through micro-credit programs, Oxfam and its local partners have helped farmers build grain storage facilities, install irrigation, and make other improvements to their farms and communities. Economic recovery has led to greater opportunities for education. Read about the effects of one such program in the life of Safeye Bentu.

Land Pressure

Eighty-five percent of Ethiopians are farmers or pastoralists who rely on the land for their livelihoods. Average farms are small, about one hectare (2.45 acres), and the limited supply of land is being strained by a rapidly growing population. Of equal concern is the fact that agricultural production is lower than it was 25 years ago. This is due in part to the fact that the government owns all the land, a policy left over from the Derg socialist regime called "Land to the Tiller." The inability of people to buy and sell land has led to a persistent problem: lack of investment. Unable to secure loans using land as collateral, farmers cannot make investments that could help them produce more food and income.

- Oxfam and its local partners have helped improve land productivity by extending credit to farmers. Small loans have helped them diversify crops and livestock, build grain storage facilities, install irrigation, and make other improvements to their farms and communities. Read about the work of Oxfam partner SEDA.

Little Trade and Lots of Debt

Lack of rain has had a direct impact on a number of coffee farmers in the south and west, particularly in the Oromia region, where production has declined by 20 to 30 percent this year. Coffee prices have also declined internationally by 70 percent in the last five years, cutting the income of coffee farmers and constraining their ability to buy food.

According to the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance, more than 50 percent of Ethiopia's export revenue comes from the sale of coffee. Due to the collapse in coffee prices, the government is losing twice as much as it gained in recent interim debt relief. The government of Ethiopia paid about $105 million in 2001 and 2002 to service its debt. Its total debt is almost $6 billion, which is almost equivalent to Ethiopia's entire annual Gross Domestic Product. All these macroeconomic factors constrain the government's ability to cope with recurring food security problems.

- Oxfam is working internationally to pressure the major coffee roasting companies to pay farmers a decent price for coffee beans. In addition, Oxfam is working to bring supply back in line with demand by supporting rural economic development and helping farmers switch to alternative crops. Read about Oxfam's Coffee Campaign.

- In Ethiopia, Oxfam partners have set up cooperatives to help farmers market their beans.

- Oxfam is advocating for corporate debt forgiveness for Ethiopia.

HIV/AIDS: The Growing Crisis

The HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa is limiting the labor force needed for agricultural production, and interrupting the transfer of farming knowledge across generations. HIV/AIDS contributes to the increased vulnerability of the Ethiopian population to hunger and other diseases. Ethiopia has 2.3 million people currently living with HIV/AIDS (the fifth highest national rate in Africa) and has a prevalence rate now of 6.6% of the adult population. There are over one million "AIDS orphans" in Ethiopia. While not a major cause of this current food crisis, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment is an area needing immediate international investment if future crises are to be managed and the virus' spread is to be contained. As people migrate seeking food and jobs, this will likely increase the rate of transmission and expose new areas of the country to HIV/AIDS.

- Oxfam is working to help poor nations gain access to affordable new medicines. Read about Oxfam's TRIPS campaign.

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