Dash of capitalism brightens Ethiopia food picture

Ethiopia has made a start down the long road to feeding its people. It could take up to 20 years and require substantial outside help, but Western officials are encouraged by steps the government has taken over the past six months to carry out new farming policies.

The policies are designed to loosen state control of agriculture and encourage private initiative. Such changes are essential, say Western experts, if Ethiopia is ever going to end the cyclical famines it has experienced in recent years. Collectivist agriculture policies combined with devastating drought have left 6 to 7 million people dependent on foreign food.

``The government means business. There is no doubt about it,'' says Ingo Loerbroks, representative in Ethiopia for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Already the licensing of more than 400 private grain traders has increased the supply and reduced the price of grains in local markets.

``These are positive steps we've been encouraging them to take. But they have a way to go,'' says James Cheek, United States charg'e d'affaires in Addis Ababa, the capital. The key now is how effectively and quickly the government can put the reforms in place, he added.

In response to the new farm policies, officials from the World Bank and the European Community here say they are recommending that their institutions target a combined total of more than $400 million to support agriculture projects over the next several years. The EC has already approved $88 million for Ethiopia.

Other donors are expected to put another $100 million behind those policies, says Benno Heffner, EC delegate to Ethiopia. The Ethiopians ``have fulfilled their part'' by adopting the reforms. ``We have given the green light'' to funds for them.

Ethiopia, which is one of the world's poorest countries, gets the lowest foreign development aid per capita of any country in Africa, says Mr. Heffner. Some countries, like the US, shy away from providing any long-term development aid to this Soviet-backed regime.

Although the new farming policies rely heavily on private initiative, they do not make Ethiopia any ``more or less socialist,'' says Mersie Ejigu, Ethiopia's minister of planning. And during a recent, six-hour press conference, Ethiopia's President, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, said his country remains committed to socialist and communist principles.

In a Monitor interview, Mr. Ejigu said: ``Everybody's eager to see us [be] self-sufficient in food. There's nothing more embarrassing than begging for food. Its a matter of pride.'' The changes come not because of ``outside pressure,'' but because of need.

Various international development officials here agree with his assessment. But other Western officials contend that several years of talks over new farm policies between Ethiopian officials and other international officials played a role in bringing about the changes.

Without the reform, foreign experts here see an increasing food shortage for this country. Despite a surprise surplus of certain grains (see box), Ethiopia is currently receiving more than 1 million tons of food aid for drought victims this year.

More than 90 percent of the nation's cropland is farmed by individuals working plots granted to them by the state. These plots account for more than 94 percent of production, says Ejigu.

Under the reform package, Ethiopia has identified regions which have been or could be growing more than they need. Farmers in these areas will be paid a higher price, beginning with an 8 percent raise this year, for the portion of their crops they are required to sell to the government. Nationally, this portion averages out to one-third of what a farmer produces. The government quotas, which were previously set arbitrarily, now are tied more closely to likely production.

Ethiopian and Western officials hope that expected rises in food prices paid by consumers, brought on by paying higher prices to farmers, will be kept from skyrocketing by a greater supply of food in the markets.

They also hope that the farmers will use their additional earnings to buy more fertilizers. A key element of improving agriculture production here is getting farmers to use more fertilizer. Better seeds and improved farming practices, including using more fertilizer, ``can double the yields in wheat'' and give a big boost to corn production, says Michael Payson, head of the World Bank office here.

Fertilizer has been scarce, period. So, donor nations are expected to make fertilizer available at market cost to farmers in the selected areas, and to supply the foreign currency for the government to buy it.

In addition, the government is planning to use some of its scarce foreign currency to import a variety of basic goods for rural shops: Farmers are said to be more likely to try to grow more so that they can earn more if shops have items they want to buy.

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