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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006, 23:32 GMT 00:32 UK
Self-reliance could cost Eritrea dear

an Eritrean woman walks past a bar with a decoration to celebrate the liberation of Asmara from Ethiopian soldiers some 15 years ago
Fifteen years since independence, Eritrea is Africa's youngest country

BBC News is investigating how Africa is faring one year on from the promises of increased aid made at the G8 summit in Gleneagles.

Ed Harris reports from Eritrea, where the memories of a long and bloody border war with Ethiopia have soured the government's attitude to foreign aid.

Despite the talk of drought and hunger in the Horn of Africa, delivering food and other humanitarian aid to Eritrea has become all but impossible over the past year.

Deeply suspicious of the outside world's intentions and the dangers of aid dependency, Africa's youngest nation is pursuing a policy of "self-reliance".

"In the past years, many concerned and genuine partners have demonstrated their good will and extended to us their critical support," said an official article in May.

"Unfortunately, [a] few have tended to use relief assistance as a political tool and in a manner that would ultimately perpetuate dependency rather than eliminating it," the article said.

Hunger fears

In the past year, Eritrea has seized more than 100 aid agency vehicles, demanded tax on relief items, expelled several key non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and stopped the distribution of food aid.

So far, the donor community has said nothing, apparently afraid that speaking out against the government will not improve the situation.

"They are chickening out," a diplomat said.

Donors worry that the lack of information and dialogue with the government will complicate a speedy and appropriate response if a humanitarian crisis develops.

Aid supplies being sold in an Eritrean market
Food aid is being sold without the permission of donors

No official data on last year's harvest or health indicators in the country have been released.

Now foreigners have been forbidden from travelling outside of the capital, Asmara, without a special permit.

But linked to the stoppage of food aid distributions, aid workers say rates of malnutrition are climbing higher than 20% in many parts of the country.

The World Health Organization emergency threshold for malnutrition is 15%.

And Eritrea is still waiting for the start of the "hunger season", when one harvest has run out and the next has not been gathered.

Tensions high

Eritrea's suspicions are based on a long history of abuse and betrayal by the outside world, which supported the Ethiopian colonial rule of Eritrea.

The United States and the Soviet Union gave huge amounts of military and other support to Ethiopia - but not Eritrea, which was fighting for independence.

Eritrean farmers
Eritrea is waiting for the start of "hunger season"

Eritrea is run by ex-guerrilla fighters who led the 30-year struggle against Ethiopia. And their memories run very deep.

The international community continues to give military, developmental and diplomatic support to Ethiopia.

Tensions have been running high between the two countries since their 1998-2000 border war, which killed tens of thousands of people.

Sometimes, these tensions can seem very convenient for both governments.

"They can blame anything - from lack of flour to [military] mobilisation - on the border issue," one young Eritrean said of his government.

The Eritrean authorities say aid, especially food aid, could be used as a means of political leverage by foreign powers with bad intentions. But Eritrea is not yet able to feed itself.

According to United Nations figures, the isolationist state has only produced an average of 30% of its cereal needs over the past decade.

Cash for work

Last October, in anticipation of a bumper harvest, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki wrote a blistering letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in which he said Eritrea had overcome its chronic food shortages of the past.

He accused the UN of portraying a humanitarian crisis in Eritrea that did not exist.

The month before, Eritrea had cut off free food distributions to more than one million Eritreans. The cuts are putting stress on rural communities.

"People were pleading with tears in their eyes, 'Please do something'," said one aid worker of a recent visit to the field.

Asmara, Eritrea
Foreigners need a permit to leave Eritrea's capital, Asmara

Last April, the government outlined its new cash-for-work policy to a visiting UN envoy.

Under the policy, Eritreans will receive cash in exchange for working on food security projects, such as irrigation and road-building.

The policy statement did not say how Eritrea would cover its short-term food needs, but said that cash-for-work would promote a long-term solution.

Aid workers say the policy change has been carried out abruptly and in a way that is far from transparent.

Some food aid has now been removed from warehouses without the agreement of donors, and is now being milled or sold on the streets.

"No matter whether their policy is right or wrong, it amounts to a breach of contract," one diplomat said. "And theft."

Overseas remittances

Eritrea's policy of self-reliance has been selectively implemented.

Eritrea continues to get its food, oil and weapons from outside and to accept cheap loans from China. It is now exploring the opportunities for debt relief assistance.

Its small economy depends on remittances earned by Eritreans overseas.

Some diplomats wonder whether the removal of food aid is politically motivated, aimed at controlling a disgruntled population.

The UN warns that some eight million people need emergency food aid and supplies because of drought in the Horn of Africa.

But before the food distributions were slashed last year, donors were ready to satify all Eritrea's food aid needs.

So unless Eritrea has a change of heart, the international community is powerless to prevent any large-scale suffering - directly or indirectly - from lack of food.


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