Nothing to fall back on - Why Ethiopians are still short of food and cash


A Christian Aid report
by Clive Robinson

Executive summary

Ethiopia is once again faced with the threat of famine. More than 14 million people could be affected in 2003 unless the international community responds and delivers up to two million metric tonnes of food aid. Within and outside Ethiopia, people will respond with generosity and concern. But at the same time, they will ask why there is such widespread hunger in Ethiopia yet again.

Securing a sustainable supply of food for its people has been a priority for the Ethiopian government and donors for 20 years. In spite of this, food insecurity remains the country's most deep-rooted problem. The major famine of 1984-85 was followed by further food shortages in 1992, 1994, 2000 and 2002. By the year 2025, Ethiopia will need to double its production of cereals - to 24 million metric tonnes - in order to feed its people.

The international community has been forced by public opinion to respond to food crises in Ethiopia with food aid. But it has never sufficiently addressed the causes of those crises by investing in Ethiopia's poor rural communities. As a result, Ethiopia, its people and the international community have become trapped in a cycle of dealing only with immediate crises. This cycle must be broken.

Ethiopia's problem is a structural one which cannot be solved by food aid. It is the decline in its people's assets and the collapse of their livelihoods, as well as the lack of infrastructure in poor communities, rather than drought, which creates vulnerability to starvation. The failure of rains is only the proximate cause of famine, merely revealing the width and depth of chronic poverty.

Precarious lives

Out of a population of 67.2 million people, almost half - 28 million - live in deep and longterm poverty. Ethiopia's poor communities are vulnerable to drought, acute malnutrition and even, at extreme moments, starvation, because:

  • poverty limits their ability to buy food, both during and in between droughts

  • after successive crises, and with little consistent help, Ethiopia's poor communities have been left without productive assets. Livestock, land, tools and labour have often been forfeited in order to survive

  • the Ethiopian government alone cannot afford to pay for the fundamental improvements required in their communities. With nothing to fall back on, and no cash to buy their way out of danger, drought simply pushes poor communities into dangerously precarious situations by depriving them of their food supplies and assets.

A land of abundance - or scarcity?

Ethiopia is capable of producing food in abundance and in years of better production it may achieve this. But, even at times when there is plenty of locally grown food on the Ethiopian market, several million people continue to need food aid. This is a paradox rooted in people's poverty and a lack of purchasing power in communities which have lost their assets and livelihoods and found no alternative source of income.

The central approach of donors is now to distinguish acute from chronic food insecurity, and unpredictable from predictable needs. But there is a tendency to say that the average number of 5.4 million people who 'surface' in the government's annual appeal as being in need of food aid are the chronically insecure rather than those in acute need. In fact, these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. Latest estimates of the proportion of the population in food poverty suggest 42 per cent of all Ethiopians were inadequately nourished in 1999-2000.

Government policies and the aid that can be mobilised must offer solutions appropriate to the poverty and livelihood problems of the 28 million as it is impossible to predict which of them will be slipping in and out of acute insecurity from year to year. Food supplies in Ethiopia must try to meet three objectives:

  • eliminate import dependence (average 475,000 MT food aid per year)

  • match population growth of 2.8 per cent per year

  • absorb an increase of 15 per cent in food demand due to under-nutrition.

Currently, however, Ethiopia is moving in the wrong direction. Its under-fives mortality rate worsened from 166 per thousand in 1997 to 179 per thousand in 2000 and its rural people - 83 per cent of the population - are becoming poorer. The number of people who are hungry and vulnerable to starvation appears to be growing. The collapse in the price of coffee, Ethiopia's main export, is pushing coffee farmers, hitherto more insulated against crises, towards chronic poverty.

The country must boost massively the quantity of food it produces and kick-start the livelihoods of those who currently cannot afford to buy food at any price. It must also better store and distribute the food it currently produces in order that crops from surplus years can be used in poorer years to supply areas where food is scarce. But Ethiopia must also be helped in cash rather than in kind to bridge shortages when they occur, with locally or regionally produced food.

Above all, donors and the government must invest in poor communities in Ethiopia's countryside so they can make better use of the plentiful land and water available. This means that the enhancement of people's livelihoods and the development of rural infrastructure must be made a priority as urgent as the delivery of life-saving food aid.

Mobilising aid

Only five per cent of Ethiopia's irrigable land has been cultivated. The country has large reserves of under-utilised groundwater and annual surface water; the main constraint has been lack of investment in water harvesting. A further lack of investment in roads and grain stores means that three-quarters of farmers still face a walk of more than half a day to the nearest market.

Government and donors agree, in principle, that annual food aid appeals are an unsatisfactory strategy but they continue because they have become the main tool for mobilising resources. The 2002 appeal was seen as a transitional appeal towards more long-term support.

The cornerstone of the Ethiopian government's rural development policy has been ADLI (Agricultural Development Led Industrialisation). While most observers endorse the primacy of agriculture in the Ethiopian economy, perhaps the best way to view ADLI is as an economic growth policy and not as a poverty reduction policy.

Other government initiatives are voluntarily resettling people from over-populated to underdeveloped lands and supporting rural people's livelihoods by creating employment through food-for-work programmes, which have the added benefit of supplementing local infrastructure. These initiatives are set out in the government's Food Security Strategy, the Rural Development Policy and the National Policy for Disaster Prevention and Management. While in food-scarce communities food for work has often been welcomed, cash for work would provide a more dynamic engine for development.

A call for livelihoods

This report is a call for the protection of people's livelihoods to begin in earnest. It argues for:

  • cash-supported programmes focused on building skills and infrastructure through public works in return for money, which stimulates recovery in rural communities

  • rapid development of Ethiopia's ability to store food and transport it from areas of surplus to areas of deficit

  • restocking of pastoralist communities which have lost many of their animals, and improved marketing of processed meat and dairy products in urban centres to boost herders' incomes

  • enhancement of women's access to and control over resources and assets as well as their empowerment in decision-making at all levels

  • the need for protection of infant industries in order to promote diversification in both agriculture and manufacturing.

Donors have often limited their major investments of resources to belated responses to impending famine. The food aid performance of donors has often been neither adequate nor timely. But the habitual giving of food as aid, rather than providing cash to pay for long term development, has created a chain of dependency from wealthy donors to poor communities.

The European Union and bilateral donors such as the UK have begun to change these policies. However, Ethiopia's biggest donor, the US, continues to give the majority of its help in kind - food.

NGOs are also important mobilisers of resources for the country: on a rough estimate, they account for between a fifth and a quarter of its international aid. They have contributed to many types of district-based programmes, including food economy studies and nutritional assessment. Their potential to make up the capacity deficit in planning local EGS schemes and to be a source of credit for non-farm income-generation should not be overlooked.

Long-term aid for food security

The report concludes with recommendations identifying poverty as the root cause of the problem by addressing the need for livelihood support. Multi-annual planning towards this objective, with a timeframe for transition, should replace annual food aid allocations which have been shown to offer only temporary relief.

1. Planning should focus on the livelihoods, agricultural and water development and nutrition of specific poor communities. One option the government may wish to consider is to ensure that every food insecure district has the support of a specified stakeholder (donor or NGO). Peer pressure could then get to work: no donor would wish to have a portfolio of the hungriest districts.

2. More fundamental economic planning is needed to assess the best use of government and donor resources for food security. A government/donor dialogue should ask the question: 'What are all the resources available to us and how can we best deploy them?' The need is for nothing short of a large-scale livelihoods rescue plan, with government and all donors putting their resources on the table.

3. The aim should be to boost purchasing power to close the gap between targeted levels of food production and people's ability to buy it. Cash-for-work must be the preferred option. Labour-intensive public works are an effective medium for such resource injections. What would it take to resource a sufficient livelihood support programme and are donors prepared to invest more widely in it?

4. Support to farmers and pastoralists should target outputs (prices) as well as inputs for production. A thorough review should be undertaken of all the options for improving price support to farmers and herders.

5. Imported food aid will be needed until the macro and micro economies respond to financial incentives. While local purchases of grain are recommended in the first instance, in most years some food imports, mainly in the form of food aid, are still required.

6. Ethiopia needs a new focus on good utilisation of food including an effective nutrition policy with an institutional focus for its implementation.

7. A forum of government, donors and NGOs should be established to consider and develop solutions and share out responsibilities. A culture of dialogue and cooperation among partners in Ethiopia's development needs to be put in place.

Ethiopia's problem is a long-term one of chronic poverty, asset depletion and entitlement decline. Poor people have nothing to fall back on. For poor people, if loss of assets and purchasing power is the problem, livelihood support is the solution and cash may be the best fertiliser.

January 2003

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