Ethiopia aid workers shift focus to long term. But ability to further gains hinges on funds tied to policy shifts

As Ethiopians begin to assess last month's harvest, famine relief workers are stepping out of the trenches of emergency-relief operations to address the country's future. Although emergency food drops continue in isolated northern areas and Ethiopia remains on the United Nations' list of countries that have a ``critical need'' of food, the refugee camps have emptied and local feeding programs are closing.

``We are looking at things with guarded optimism,'' says Michael Priestley, head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) office here. ``... Ethiopia should have a normal harvest.''

But normal harvests in Ethiopia these days are measured by the size of the food deficit and not surpluses, Mr. Priestley cautions. ``A normal harvest this year would mean a deficit of about 400,000 tons in 1987,'' he says. ``A crop assessment mission from the [UN] Food and Agriculture Organization will give a projection shortly, but 400,000 tons should be manageable when you think that the deficit in 1986 was 1.2 million and must have been more like 2.4 million tons in 1985.''

Canada, Australia, and the European donor community are waiting on the harvest assessment before committing themselves to levels of food aid for Ethiopia next year, but the United States does not envisage more grain shipments in 1987.

``We came here to put out a fire,'' says one well-placed US source. ``There are adequate relief stocks already in the country, and from our perspective we are at the end of an emergency. We are not here to become involved in prevention or long-term development.''

Other Western donors have essentially left the question of longer-term assistance in Ethiopia's court. The European Community, the Swedish government, and the World Bank have all offered multimillion-dollar contributions subject to Ethiopian efforts to establish more flexible pricing arrangements for farmers and the free movement of produce between areas of surplus and deficit. All three proposals are on hold pending some tangible response from the ``Marxist'' country's ruling central committee. Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam has set up a pricing committee to consider policy shifts and is expected to make a recommendation to the World Bank soon.

Some Western aid officials are optimistic that progress can be made this year. They base their optimism largely on the fact that anti-American and pro-Soviet rhetoric here has markedly decreased. A spate of top-level Ethiopian defections to the US in response to alleged intransigence in the central committee might, however, be a more reliable barometer of change.

For Western aid agencies that have tried to retain a focus on long-term needs, the future is a blur of promise and politics. Larger than usual supplies of seeds, fertilizer, and agricultural implements have brought good crops to several resettlement villages in Wollega Province. But the question of resettling populations from the barren north to more fertile areas in the south has been given such bad press in Europe and North America that a number of agencies are nervous that donors will desert them if they work to consolidate gains in those areas.

Resettlement, which resulted in thousands of deaths, was suspended in February - partly in response to international opinion, but also to catch up with services for settlers who had been badly neglected. The program is expected to resume in the new year, and the Rev. John A. Finucane, field director for the Irish nongovernmental organization Concern, says the international community should back the concept and help to bring about an orderly and humane transition. Concern has agriculture and health programs for 38,000 people resettled around Jaso and Keto in the Wollega Province.

Fr. Finucane argues that key donors, including the US Agency for International Development, pushed for resettlement in Ethiopia more than a decade ago and the concerns they had 10 years ago for the carrying capacity of northern lands are more relevant now.

``There is no doubt at all that the implementation of the program left a great deal to be desired,'' says Finucane. ``It was poorly implemented, the timing was bad. The very fact of moving 600,000 people over a short period of time - a few months - obviously meant that families would be separated. There was coercion, no doubt about it. People were moved when they were probably in their worst condition nutritionally. We are not disputing that there were insufficient feasibility studies, if any. These things are givens. But having said all that, one can argue in favor of resettlement if it is done properly.''

``The World Bank also recommended resettlement,'' he notes. ``And FAO studied the country for three years before producing a Highlands Reclamation Study which recommended specifically that resettlement be carried out immediately because the land in the north was so abused that it couldn't support a population. Resettlement wasn't something which just came into being in 1984.''

The FAO Highland Reclamation Study some years ago estimated that the highlands of Ethiopia contained 88 percent of the population, more than 90 percent of the regularly cultivated land, and some two-thirds of 70 million livestock. It noted that while 90 percent of the country's economic activities were concentrated in areas more than 6,000 feet above sea level. Half of this critical land base had been significantly eroded, and 20,000 square miles had been so badly degraded that it was unlikely agriculture could be sustained there. It recommended that people be moved out at a rate of about 150,000 a year to relieve pressure on the land, but Priestley thinks it is unlikely that the government can achieve that rate of resettlement.

Priestley says that the government has admitted to ``a lot of mistakes in 1985'' and he believes that the pace of resettlement next year will be dictated by resources.

The government's policy of villagization - collectivizing established villages into new communities, ostensibly to centralize services so that production will be intensified - is another question mark for relief donors.

``Collectivization requires intensive investment,'' says Gregorio Monasta, a United Nations Children's Fund representative. ``That's not our work. We are experts in small-scale development. We advocate income-generating projects for women, breast-feeding and immunization for children, basic technologies, not intensive capital production.''

Aid agencies have been constrained to operate within the system of resettlement and villagization.

``It's government policy, and faced with this situation our policy can be neutral, positive, or negative,'' says Mr. Monasta. ``But the presence of international agencies can make this process more human and better implemented.''

Michael Priestley of UNDP is looking to the future. ``We are holding talks with the government and the donors now to work out a system whereby emergency prevention can be built into everyday development activities,'' he says. ``We did a survey of nongovernmental organizations to evaluate the emergency effort and one of the questions was: When do you expect the next drought? The longest projection was eight years and the shortest was two. A lot of people said two.''

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