Ethiopia: A model of African food aid is now in trouble
The government's food giveaway may undercut a successful cash aid program.
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In a country where 80 percent of residents live in rural areas, the benefits of these policies have been remarkable.Skip to next paragraph
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In the past four years, GDP growth has averaged over 11 percent, led by rising agricultural output.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Ethiopians living in poverty dropped to 39 percent in 2006 from 44 percent in 2001, according to the World Bank.
Why Ethiopia is rolling back reforms
This year, in the face of the urban demands, Ethiopia is deviating from the course. Though the safety net program is still operating, the government has banned local purchase of basic grains by foreign aid organizations and is likely to accept the largest amount of foreign aid in five years.
Against the advice of the World Bank, it has also banned the export of cereals in a bid to keep prices down. All this is bad news for producers, though the government denies any ill effects.
"The government is pursing a free-market approach while on the other hand making selective interventions to solve some problems," said Bereket Simon, a government spokesperson. "On balance I think we're getting it right."
Still, some say the strategy may be more informed by political expediency than by sound technical advice.
"There is no big malnutrition problem in the urban areas here," says one senior aid official on condition of anonymity. "In cities, it's more of a political issue."
Urban rood riots seen elsewhere
Indeed, rising food prices have already led to protests and riots in countries like Mexico and Cameroon; in Haiti, the discontent led to the resignation of the prime minister. In Mogadishu – the capital of neighboring Somalia – troops opened fire Monday and killed at least two people as tens of thousands of people rioted over high food prices.
In Ethiopia, nothing of that nature has occurred, and policies seem determined to prevent it.
So far, the Ethiopian government has distributed subsidized wheat to more than 800,000 urban households, though in doing so has had to borrow 190,000 metric tons from the grain reserves, pushing them to the critical 100,000 metric ton marker.
The move is a risky gamble if conditions worsen in the south; getting food from South Africa, the nearest port with available supplies, would take 10 to 12 weeks. Even borrowing from reserves in nearby Sudan could take more than a month.
Still, the grain distribution is popular with people like Simegn Belete, a 60-year-old mother of seven living in a one-room mud hut in central Addis Ababa with no running water or electricity.
Every year at Easter, which is celebrated here in late April, Ms. Belete has prepared a traditional chicken stew and slaughtered a lamb. This Easter, she was only able to buy two kilos of ground beef for the event.
"The prices are burning us like fire," she says. "I don't know who to blame: God for not bringing the rains, the government, or the merchants."
The Ethiopian government seems determined to remove itself from that list of who's to blame.