Over the years, Ethiopian mother-of-three Hana Mekonnen has received all sorts of aid designed to free her from the bitter trap of poverty and hunger: goats, cash transfers, resettlement and, of course, sacks of grain.
None has worked.
Hana’s one-year-old son was diagnosed with malnutrition in October, usually a time of plenty in Ethiopia’s mountainous Amhara region, when the main harvest starts to come in.
The Horn of Africa nation’s worst drought in 50 years has left her destitute, reduced to arguing with neighbors over the allocation of aid rations.
“Because of the drought, we are all poor,” she said, seated in her dimly-lit hut with her child on her lap.
“No one in this village has anything to give their children. We all live on food aid.”
Hana blames God for failed rains, but development experts say her chronic poverty is the result of traditional farming methods, a soaring population and a lack of alternative sources of income.
Millions of farmers and herders across Africa have been pushed into crisis by drought this year, raising questions about the ability of aid to break the hunger cycle, despite a resolve to do so after famine killed 260,000 people in Somalia in 2011.
How to make people less vulnerable to natural disasters, and improving the aid response when they do strike, are key themes of the World Humanitarian Summit on May 23-24 in Istanbul.
Hana receives cash and food six months a year, in exchange for environmental work, like digging ponds and planting trees.
Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), set up in 2005, helps her through the ‘lean season’ between harvests, while also rehabilitating land and building roads, health posts and schools to tackle some of the underlying causes of poverty.
The scheme, administered by the government and largely funded by international donors, was set up to end the annual scramble for emergency funding to feed hungry Ethiopians, averaging 5 million a year in the decade before its launch.
It has made the provision of food aid more predictable and cheaper, helping to prevent the terrible famines that tarnished Ethiopia’s international image in the 1970s and 80s.
But it has not ended hunger.
“Ethiopia is, and has demonstrated itself to be, very effective at response,” said Laura Hammond, who heads the development studies department at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
“But there’s still this level of vulnerability and poverty that is persistent and that’s harder to turn a corner on.”
This year, one in five Ethiopians need food aid, with 8 million receiving support from the PSNP and another 10.2 million from a $1.4 billion humanitarian appeal.
By 2020, the project – Africa’s largest social safety net – will have cost donors $5.7 billion, raising questions about its sustainability.
“Ultimately, there does need to be a vision for this not being a donor-financed safety net,” Greg Collins, director of the Center for Resilience at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“We more and more need to be investing in creating opportunities that allow those who are able to graduate from the PSNP.”
Initial optimism about a rapid shift to self-sufficiency has been replaced with an acceptance that some Ethiopians will be dependent on aid indefinitely.
The busy roads, endless construction sites and new light railway snaking over Ethiopia’s capital are testament to the double-digit growth it has enjoyed for the last decade.
This growth has led to a dramatic drop in poverty rates, with the share of the population living below the poverty line falling from 56 to 31 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to World Bank data.
“Ethiopia is the darling of Africa at the moment,” said Lindsey Jones, a researcher with the London-based Overseas Development Institute. “Its economy is expanding massively.”
But deeper structural changes, like urbanization and industrialization, are needed to end poverty, experts say.
From the early 1990s, Ethiopia pursued an agriculture-led development strategy, under visionary strongman Meles Zenawi.
Increased use of fertilizer, better seeds and expert advice produced sharp increases in yields, benefiting the 92 percent of Ethiopians who, according to the World Bank, own land.
As Ethiopia’s population has doubled since the early 1990s, many people’s farms are often only half a hectare.
“There is no means to increase the landholding size,” said Mitiku Kassa, head of Ethiopia’s National Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Committee. “The only option is to increase the productivity of the land by using agricultural technologies.”
Each ward has three development agents, graduates in crop and animal sciences, who demonstrate to villagers how to increase their yields, he said.
But farmers remain vulnerable to poor rains, unlike workers in manufacturing and services jobs, which have proven critical in reducing poverty in countries like Bangladesh and Rwanda.
Ethiopia’s recent investment in the food processing, textile and flower industries is a step towards diversifying the economy away from its heavy dependence on farming, said SOAS’s Hammond.
ACT BEFORE DROUGHT
The most popular buzzword among aid workers after the 2011 drought across the Horn of Africa was “resilience”, which means boosting people’s ability to bounce back from shocks like a failed harvest or a death in the family.
Projects that provide families with alternative sources of income, such as livestock, or loans to set up small businesses, can make them less vulnerable when disaster hits.
“What’s needed is more investment in action before droughts strike,” said Michael Mosselmans, head of humanitarian policy and practice for Christian Aid.
Every dollar spent on preparedness saves seven dollars in disaster aftermath, the United Nations says, but it is harder to generate enthusiasm for preventative projects than tackling visible crises, like starving children.
At the World Humanitarian Summit, Christian Aid is calling for 5 percent of aid to be spent on resilience and disaster preparedness, up from the current 0.4 percent.
Ethiopia is not holding its breath.
The government’s Mitiku says efforts to end hunger for women like Hana must be driven by Ethiopia itself.
“Emergencies will continue, in my view, as long as we are living with adverse climate change,” he said, drawing comparisons with drought-hit California.
“They are not appealing (for funds) because they have the capacity to respond. We expect Ethiopia to have such capacity to respond by itself… when we reach lower middle-income (status),” he said, a target it has set for 2025.
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