Ethiopia: A model of African food aid is now in trouble
The government's food giveaway may undercut a successful cash aid program.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Farmers in Ethiopia are better off now than they were four years ago, in part due to better-than-average rains and rising grain prices globally. But there's another reason: Africa's largest beneficiary of foreign aid has shifted from food aid to cash assistance.Skip to next paragraph
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Ethiopia is seen by aid organizations as a model of how to best help hungry nations. But in an effort to prevent food riots in cities, the government here is again relying on foreign food aid and now prohibits foreign aid groups from buying grains from local farmers. In effect, it may be undermining its own success story.
At a gathering of farmers about 40 miles outside Addis Ababa, one young man bemoans how rising food prices have yet to alleviate his hardship. Rent, fertilizer, transport, tools: Costs rise as fast as grain prices and whittle down his profits, he says.
The head of the cooperatives union, Demere Demissie, replies with a comment that would have been unimaginable just a year ago.
"Think of all the poor people in the towns," he says with a fatherly tone. "At least you can feed your family, even if only with some toasted barley. In the cities, there are people that only eat once every two days."
The perception is spreading in Ethiopia that the global spike in food prices may help once destitute farmers, while scores of city dwellers may be pushed into poverty.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recently made the exact case to parliament. But analysts here say the assumption ignores that one-third of the farmers are net consumers of food, selling their entire crop right after harvest. Current measures, critics say, threaten to reverse recent progress in the countryside, and with a drought looming, could even set the stage for a humanitarian crisis.
Ethiopian farmers as well as livestock herders may be put at risk by the government's determination to curtail rising food prices in the cities; the farmers by a renewed government reliance on foreign food aid and the pastoralists by the use of grain reserves that may be desperately needed if conditions in the south worsen.
Ethiopia has long been the beneficiary of global goodwill, but in the past the free food from abroad has forced local farmers to sell their crops at lower prices or to abandon their fields as unprofitable.
How Ethiopia became an aid model
In the past four years, Ethiopia has been working to undo that damage, pioneering a program in Africa that has now become part of the World Bank's prescribed recipe for coping with a food crisis.
Through the country's main food assistance program, the Productive Safety Net Program, Ethiopia has been giving rural residents who are chronically short of food, those who survive just below the basic nutritional threshold, a chance to work for food or cash.
Those needy individuals unable to work, such as the handicapped or single mothers, receive the same benefits.
About half of the more than 7 million people enrolled in the program choose cash, people that may have once received rations, often in bags or cans labeled "from the American people."
Instead, those people now buy their food from neighboring farmers.
In addition, foreign aid organizations like the World Food Program have been able to buy food locally from surplus areas to distribute in areas where food, and not cash, is desired.