Ethiopia’s sad plight raises relief question – Nicholas Benequista, Globe and Mail

July 9th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

GUBA LAFTO, ETHIOPIA — Berzeghin Hailu answers questions about her life as patiently and thoroughly as a dutiful witness might describe a crime, but she grows silent as neighbours gather to eavesdrop on the conversation. She does not want to unsettle a tacit agreement with other residents of her village that preserves her dignity.

Each day Ms. Berzeghin visits the home of a different neighbour under the pretence of a social call. While they chat in the cool dampness of a mud hut, Ms. Berzeghin patiently waits for a politely offered meal or a care package for her two youngest sons. (more…)

GUBA LAFTO, ETHIOPIA — Berzeghin Hailu answers questions about her life as patiently and thoroughly as a dutiful witness might describe a crime, but she grows silent as neighbours gather to eavesdrop on the conversation. She does not want to unsettle a tacit agreement with other residents of her village that preserves her dignity.

Each day Ms. Berzeghin visits the home of a different neighbour under the pretence of a social call. While they chat in the cool dampness of a mud hut, Ms. Berzeghin patiently waits for a politely offered meal or a care package for her two youngest sons. Increasingly, though, she returns empty-handed.

“I am used to sleeping on an empty stomach, but my youngest boy still cries at night from the hunger,” she says, faintly smiling as her eyes begin to tear.

For years, Ms. Berzeghin has relied on the generosity of others – on the thinly veiled charity of her neighbours and on emergency aid from foreign countries – to narrowly avoid starvation. During the biblically proportioned famine of the 1980s, international aid rescued her from hunger, and though she does not know it, foreign relief this year will again provide what her neighbours cannot. In response to the failure of the spring harvest and the rising price of food globally, the international community will bankroll at least $500-million in emergency relief to Ethiopia, the largest aid effort here in five years.

Like the 10 million other Ethiopians who will benefit from foreign donations this year, her dependency underscores a failing of international aid: Resources are available for emergencies but not for rural development. Now Ethiopia’s recurrent plight and the global food crisis are raising questions about whether donors such as the United States and Canada have had their priorities straight.

“I think we may see a string of humanitarian crises of which Ethiopia is the first,” said David Beckmann, president of Washington-based Bread for the World. “It’s bad in itself, but it’s also illustrative of a period we’re entering into; we’re in for a really rough ride.”

The World Bank has said that part of the solution to the global food crisis must come from greater foreign contributions to agriculture in poor countries such as Ethiopia, where farmers are still dependent on rainfall, still working the same tiny plots of emaciated soil, still sewing the same low-output seeds. Indeed, countries such as Ethiopia must not only feed themselves but produce a surplus in order to meet the 50-per-cent rise in global demand in food expected by 2030.

So far, Canada has responded to the food crisis by offering an additional $50-million in food aid for next year and by removing the last remaining restrictions on how its aid can be used to provide relief, meaning more efficient spending in humanitarian operations. The Canadian International Development Agency, however, has not followed its counterparts in the United States, Britain and France in boosting its assistance for agriculture, which has fallen to about 6 per cent of the aid budget from 20 per cent before 1990, according to a September, 2007, report by the Canadian Food Security Policy Group.

“In light of this seemingly diminishing place for agriculture in CIDA’s current priorities, the FSPG is concerned that CIDA’s agriculture and rural development strategy is being abandoned, ignoring the essential contributions that Canada should be making to reducing rural poverty in achieving the Millennium Development Goals,” the report said.

CIDA spokespeople and Minister of International Co-operation Beverley Oda did not respond to requests for comment.

When Susan Whelan was minister of international co-operation in 2003, she unveiled a policy that would have increased CIDA’s spending on agricultural development to $500-million by 2008. When she was replaced the following year, the policy was dropped.

Ms. Whelan’s inspiration for the policy came partly from a visit to Ethiopia.

“What struck me most about Ethiopia and my visit was that we had not done much to change the way they were producing and dealing with agriculture,” she said.

Becoming a net exporter of food may seem an unattainable goal for a country such as Ethiopia, repeatedly beset by drought, but Ms. Berzeghin and her family testify to how little help they actually require.

Ms. Berzeghin’s daughter, Engocha Asheberow, who lives two hours away by foot, does not ask her mother to perform any charade for help; she gives her mother a few dollars each month, even if that means feeding her own family just once a day.

“I will keep helping her until I have no more to give,” she said while breastfeeding her youngest.

Ms. Asheberow’s small plot has not produced food in months, but she is still able to help her mother because her husband is one of 12 men hired locally by a co-operative of other small farmers who have become more successful since irrigating their land. The 10 hectares are a verdant oasis in the desiccated highlands, with lush banana trees and plump green pepper seedlings sprouting from the dark, muddy soil.

The group of farmers received only training and a few sugar cane plants from the Ministry of Agriculture two years ago. The Ethiopian government spends about $200-million on the program, or 6 per cent of its own revenue, with no assistance from international donors.

When asked what they hope for, most farmers in the northern highlands of Ethiopia will simply answer “rain.”

Ms. Asheberow and her family, however, have seen the possibility of a life less vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather. When asked the same question, she answers, “That there be work, even when there is no rain.”

Comments are closed.