Saturday, May 12, 2012

On the Knife's Edge in Ethiopia

Abdala Wahilo finds relief from the midday sun under the corrugated metal roof of a warehouse in Shashemene, a town not far from the farm where he tries to support a family of 12 on a single hectare of land. Here, at this emergency food aid distribution centre, he also finds some relief from the hunger that his family has faced in the last few years as repeated droughts have ravaged this region in southern Ethiopia.

“We don’t want aid,” he says, waving at the wall of maize bags and plastic jugs of cooking oil that will provide basic rations to his family and more than 26,000 other people in the area. “We want to work and support ourselves.”

But without aid, his children eat at most twice a day and he and his wife only once, so Abdala says he’s thankful for the help. And he’s seen what happens without it: Last year, when the worst drought in decades hit, so many people in this area became malnourished that feeding centres were set up for children and pregnant women. To survive the past few years, he also had to sell most of his livestock, which had produced milk and butter he sold to raise money for food and school fees. Some of his children had to suspend their studies.

A vortex of population growth, land scarcity and a changing climate has wrenched Shashemene and much of densely populated south-central Ethiopia from an area that produced food surpluses less than a decade ago to a place where food aid is regularly needed. But the country as a whole has made steady progress in reducing poverty and blunting the impact of droughts since the devastating famine of 1984. And, at eight per cent, it has one of the highest economic growth rates in Africa, if not the world.

Still, there’s much more to do. After all, Ethiopia ranks 174th of 187 on the UN’s human development index, which measures income, education and life expectancy. It’s one of the world’s top aid recipients, and around a tenth of its people, like Abdala, needs some kind of food assistance each year.

Asked if getting a handout hurts his pride, Abdala pauses, then says: “I am happy because my children aren’t starving.”
And with that, he hoists a 50-kilogram bag of maize on his back and heads out of the warehouse, back into the dusty lot where hundreds of others await their ration, back into the hot February sun that he prays will give way soon to the spring rains.

Ethiopia is a frustrating paradox to its many western aid donors, including Canada, which put more than $176 million into development projects here in 2011.

On the one hand, the regime is often in the headlines for jailing members of opposition parties and journalists — it’s not surprising it won all but one of 546 seats in the last election two years ago — and, more recently, for a Human Rights Watch report condemning the relocation of tens of thousands of citizens to allow Chinese and Indian companies to set up massive commercial farms to produce export crops. On the other hand, many aid groups laud the government for a commitment to poverty reduction that is far greater than many African countries.

“In Ethiopia, you actually see a government … that’s committed to try and make a difference,” says Jim Cornelius, director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an aid and development agency that’s worked in Ethiopia since the 1984 famine. “A lot of progress has been made in the country.”

The most obvious sign of progress is that droughts and other “shocks” like food price spikes no longer cause full-blown famines — there’s hunger, yes, but not death on the grand scale that burned itself into our collective consciousness in 1984. There’s now an early-warning system for food crises, and Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program creates public works projects to help more than seven million chronically vulnerable people. From road repairs to terracing and replanting the country’s eroded hillsides, at-risk farmers work in exchange for food or the cash to buy it. (To avoid dependency on handouts the Ethiopian government stipulates that, except in emergencies, food aid is never given without work in return.) When drought hits areas not covered by the program, emergency aid kicks in. Last year, 3.2 million Ethiopians got emergency food aid to supplement their own reserves.

The paradox of repression and development stems from the same source: The regime’s almost total control over its citizens and the economy. From the control of land tenure — citizens cannot buy or sell land — to the distribution of seeds and fertilizer, the government reaches deeply into the lives of most Ethiopians. Once ruled by an emperor who controlled all the land, then by a highly centralized communist regime in the 1970s and ’80s, the country’s current government, led by longtime Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, models itself on the highly controlled state capitalism of China, its biggest trading partner.

Meles, heading to Camp David next week at U.S. President Barack Obama’s invitation, will be one of four African leaders discussing food security with G8 leaders. Although he’s reviled as a despot by his detractors, he gets a lot of slack from western donors and allies because he runs a safe and stable country amid the chaos of Somalia to the east and the warring Sudans to the west.

As the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa wrapped up on Friday, aid activist and Irish pop star Bob Geldof urged Prime Minister Meles to be more inclusive and tolerant of civil society groups. "If they keep saying 'you can't write anything critical,' they're in trouble," Geldof said. "Have them participate, allow the pressure valve to come off."

More than $3.5 billion (U.S.) in aid rolled into Ethiopia last year, but it’s buying less and less influence with the Meles regime, which plays geopolitics to its advantage.

“The weight of development aid in terms of influence on the Ethiopian government has been decreasing and has been on the wane for a number of years,” says Nicolas Moyer of the Humanitarian Coalition, a network of five major Canadian aid and development agencies that works in Ethiopia and around the world. “The increasing presence of Chinese investments on the private sector side has largely decreased the influence of the development donors on the Ethiopian government’s thinking and strategy.”

The Ethiopian government may hold most of the cards in controlling the country’s destiny, but with it comes the responsibility of feeding 90 million people.
Driving south from Addis Ababa to the country’s most densely populated areas, that challenge comes into sharp focus.

The smooth, black highway that cuts through the dry season’s palette of dusty browns and beiges is lined with Ethiopians on foot, carrying water in bright yellow jerry cans or driving heavily laden carts pulled by stoic donkeys. What’s missing here? Trucks carrying goods and raw materials, the stuff of commerce. That, says Cornelius, shows how little economic activity there is here beyond farming. Not only does this limit Ethiopians’ ability to work off the farm for extra income in bad times, he says, it limits their diet to what they can grow themselves since many can’t afford to buy other types of food. And in the big picture, it means that as the population grows and everyone’s parcel of land gets smaller, there isn’t enough opportunity for farmers, much less their children.

“We have to do something about moving people from the land to livelihoods that may still be related to an agrarian economy,” says Foodgrains Bank field representative Sam Vander Ende, who’s lived in Ethiopia for more than 18 years. “But the peasant livelihood isn’t going to get us there.”

The highway winds past a vast greenhouse complex, more than two kilometres long in all, where up to 10,000 day labourers are employed growing roses for European markets. It’s evidence of the government’s recent, and controversial, push for large scale commercial agriculture that brings in much needed foreign currency.

Still, the vast majority of people remain on the land. The poorest families in south-central Ethiopia subsist on less than a hectare of land — many on much, much less.

Thomas Tora, a farmer in the Damot Woyde area, has only an eighth of a hectare (about the size of an NHL hockey rink) on which to support his family of six. Even in a good year, that’s not enough to feed everyone. Last year’s drought left his children malnourished to the point that they couldn’t stand up, he says, much less go to school — which he couldn’t afford anyway. He left his village to gather wood to sell in an effort to make ends meet.

Eventually the Foodgrains Bank and its local partners set up a relief program, and a government food-for-work program also assisted him and thousands of nearby villagers in the same situation.

Asked if he would move to an area with more or better land, Thomas, shakes his head under a tattered ball cap. “I am too weak to go,” he says, explaining that he has health problems. But among his neighbours there’s wary enthusiasm for resettlement.

“Everyone would be willing to go,” says Zewdie Zebdewos, the chairman of the local township where Thomas lives. “But they are worried about the land and about malaria.”

Many people here live higher up in the hills where malaria can’t stalk their children or their livestock. Arable land in low-lying areas often goes unfarmed.

Resettlement of any kind, large or small, is a hot button topic. Beyond the current controversy over accusations of forced resettlements, memories of the former communist regime’s disastrous mass relocations are as close as the tractors rusting on abandoned collective farms. Canada — and many other western donors — won’t fund anything tied to resettlement efforts or commercial farming.

But there is a recognition that something has to be done to deal with the scarcity of land in densely populated places if Ethiopia is to become self-sufficient.

“The country does need to be looking at how it can develop its land, and it should be making land available to those who don’t have lands,” says Cornelius of the Foodgrains Bank. “The critical thing is that it’s voluntary and there does need to be accompanying services provided to make it viable.”

Too often, he says, people have been resettled to areas with insufficient roads, schools and health care.

With land tenure firmly in the government’s control, migration to cities has also been held firmly in check, observes Moyer of the Humanitarian Coalition.

“The current system keeps rural populations in rural areas,” he says. “If you did open up land title, then land would start to be sold and more families would start to move to cities.”

The government prefers slow urbanization, adds Moyer, who lived in Ethiopia for three years. It wants to avoid the experience of other developing countries where migration spawned slums, dire poverty and crime.

With such limited mobility, Ethiopians have few options.

“You have a huge, burgeoning population of people who don’t feel they have any control over their destiny,” observes Vander Ende. “It’s in the hands of God, it’s in the hands of the federal government, it’s in the hands of the local government … it’s in the hands of (aid agencies like) Canadian Foodgrains Bank.”

“Ethiopia struggles with promoting small-scale and community-led development where Ethiopians could set up small businesses, improve their farming practices and be part of the solutions themselves,”says Moyer. “Ethiopians don’t feel part of the solution. The state has always been the source of their livelihood.”

By Carl Neustaedter@Ottawa Citizen

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