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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006, 09:53 GMT
Ethiopia's food aid addiction
By Peter Greste
Mekele, northern Ethiopia

Unloading food aid in 1992 in the Horn of Africa
Even in good years, some 5m Ethiopians need food aid

Like a patient addicted to pain killers, Ethiopia seems hooked on aid.

For most of the past three decades, it has survived on millions tonnes of donated food and millions of dollars in cash.

It has received more emergency support than any other African nation in that time.

Its population is increasing by 2m every year, yet over the past 10 years, its net agricultural production has steadily declined.

Even in good years, some 5m people need food aid just to survive.

Ethiopia is so poor that it takes one bad rainy season to tip millions more into crisis.

There was plenty of aid, but people were lazy. They just had the food and sat in their places
Farmer Woldu Menameno

Even though the last harvest was relatively good, 1m people in the eastern Somali region are in need of urgent help.

"Droughts have always been a fact of life in this region," says economist Dessalegn Rahmato of the Forum for Social Studies in the capital, Addis Ababa.

"But it used to be on a cycle of 25 to 30 years. Now, that has been reduced to four or five years. Yet we still don't seem to be able to cope with that basic fact of life."

Poster girl

Why, with so much international support, have things gotten worse and not better?

Birhan (l) on a poster for Live Aid in 1984; Birhan (r) at a Live 8 concert in Hyde Park last year
Birhan as a child (l) came to symbolise the 1984 famine

Woldu Menameno, a farmer in the Tigre region of northern Ethiopia, believes he knows at least part of the answer.

"For years things were very bad. There was plenty of aid, but people were lazy. They just had the food and sat in their places," he says.

"They didn't participate in anything, but just counted the days. They sat in their houses, dreaming of how to get more food."

Woldu's daughter Birhan became the poster child of the 1984 crisis when her image featured in a shocking report by the BBC's Michael Buerk.

Birhan came to symbolise all that Ethiopians suffered during that famine.


Woldu - and now the aid community - have generally accepted that while vast sums of international support are needed to save lives, that help carelessly applied can make things worse rather than better over the long term.

Food assistance
We import huge amounts of grain from abroad. So this will inevitably affect the internal production and markets
Deputy PM Addisu Legesse

There are two problems: firstly, that any large-scale intervention by definition distorts local economics.

"We import huge amounts of grain from abroad. So this will inevitably affect the internal production and markets," said the Deputy Prime Minister Addisu Legesse.

When foreign aid lands, local prices collapse, and farmers who have managed to produce a surplus find their crop is virtually worthless.

They have no money to pay for seed or fertiliser for the following year.

The US government's Agency for International Development (USAid) is one of the main suppliers of food aid.

Yet privately even senior officials within the department recognise its negative impact.

"But we can't change without congressional approval, and Congress doesn't want to lose the support of Kansas farmers who sell to the government," said one who spoke off the record.


The second problem is psychological.

Failing crops in Boricha district, southern Ethiopia
Erratic rainfall has a devastating effect on crops

"You don't want to crush people's initiative," says Dr Assefa Admassie, the director of the Ethiopian Economic Association.

Nor do you want to crush the government's initiative. For what is true of local communities, can also be true of their leaders.

Even Deputy Prime Minister Addisu accepts that they have been slow to address the underlying structural problems that caused the crisis in the first place.

"There was a policy problem; an implementation problem. The way to tackle these problems was not adequate during the last regime," he said.

Now though, he insists that things are changing.

By tackling the fundamental structure of Ethiopian economics; by gradually but deliberately moving away from subsistence agriculture to commercial farming and by implementing a programme of industrial development, Mr Addisu hopes the country will be standing on its own within the next 15 to 20 years.

It is still too early to say if he is right.

But like any addict, Ethiopia seems to have taken the first step towards recovery by recognising that there is a problem.


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