With war on back burner, Ethiopia can plan for future

Parliament opened Oct. 9 with the president's pledge to reduce famine that affects as many as 10.5 million.

The wind whips the sandy soil of the Ogaden desert so hard it sticks inside your ears and covers surfaces in a gritty film. Amid the dust, two dozen pastoralist elders - heads wrapped in colorful cloths - sit in the shade of an aid-agency compound and explain their future needs: small dams, agricultural training, and food aid.

The herders know drought will come again to southeastern Ethiopia, as it has for centuries - and they want to prepare.

While the emergency relief that came earlier this year halted the symptoms of starvation, it failed to address the root causes. That is precisely what President Negaso Gidada is now encouraging his country to do. As he inaugurated a new parliament last week - elected in the country's first multiparty vote this May - he emphasized that assuaging the terrible impact of present and future famines was a top priority for him and for the nation.

To prosper and avert a calamity like that of the early '80s, Ethiopia must get to work immediately on prevention. Before the next drought hits, experts say, there must be an increase in development assistance, investment in public services, and economic diversification.

"Ethiopia needs long-term sustainable investment to get itself out of the cycle of poverty," says Mary Davies, program manager of the British charity Oxfam.

A report published by Oxfam last month argues that the malnutrition-related deaths earlier this year were a "testament to the failure of donors and the Ethiopian government to deal with the underlying problems," the gravest of which is destitution. Only 1 child in 3 goes to school, and life expectancy is just 51 years.

The southeast is even worse off, partly because of its harsh environment and the nomadic lifestyle, but also because the government and international donors have neglected it. Roads are terrible. The school system is virtually nonexistent.

During the height of the drought, people weren't just dying of thirst - it was also from lack of assets to buy food. Three successive years of poor rains meant dwindling pasture for livestock. As animals started dying, families were left without the milk that provides the mainstay of their diet and without the money they normally make from selling the cows, sheep, and goats. "If we can get the economic base diversified," says Poul Brandrup with Save the Children, "the people would not be so vulnerable to the loss of cattle."

Ethiopia's attempts at economic growth have been hampered by the global trend of this past decade to reduce development assistance and by the government's pursuit of its border war with neighboring Eritrea. Overseas development aid to Ethiopia fell from $1.2 billion in 1992 to $543 million in 1997. When war broke out in 1998, the government boosted military spending and most nations froze aid.

A cease-fire was signed in June, and UN peacekeepers arrived last month. Still, it's uncertain whether the peace will stick and donors will boost assistance to Ethiopia.

Asked why donors respond to emergency relief appeals while reducing development aid, Catherine Bertini, head of the UN World Food Program, says it's easier to justify the former. "There's a basic moral outrage ... on the part of people in rich countries ... not [to] allow people to starve," she says. "And [citizens] insist their governments do something."

Alemach Teklehaimanot, an Ethiopian public-health specialist, agrees. "If the international community responded to the need for development the way they respond to the requests for relief, there would be some changes." she says. "Development takes time."

To prevent a recurrence of widespread hunger, Dr. Teklehaimanot says pastoralist people must adapt by taking up agriculture, educating their children, and empowering women.

One of these women, Nadis Abdi Dabshir, toils a few hundred yards away in the displaced-persons camp, a collection of some 3,000 igloo-shaped huts framed with tree branches. The drought ripped apart her life, killing four of her children. Everything she owns could fit in a wheelbarrow.

But she is still optimistic. "It will be possible to get our wealth back if we farm crops and the aid agencies assist us until we have a harvest," she says. But, she echoes the elders' call for dams, "it will be impossible unless we have irrigation."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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