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Ethiopia: All change or no change?
Ethiopia is currently in the midst of some exciting changes. A new Prime Minister is introducing unprecedented political change; a peace deal has been agreed with neighbouring Eritrea after decades of hostility; and a dynamic young population is driving remarkable economic growth. Despite this, many millions of Ethiopians are in a constant struggle to put food on the family table, much as they were when I first visited the country back in 2011.
When I first arrived in Ethiopia, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the country: rolling green hills, tall mountains and stunning scenery, perfect for hiking (if you are fitter than me!). Journey outside of the capital Addis Ababa, and you will be snapping photo after photo.
However, I wasn’t there as a tourist, but rather in response to a severe food crises which had left many millions in desperate need. Specifically, I was looking at what causes such a beautiful country to face serious food shortages on a regular basis.
Geographically, the highlands of central Ethiopia are surrounded by a belt of semi-arid land, particularly in the East. This area, particularly the Somali region that borders Somalia, is pretty inhospitable – barren, dry and hot. Much of the population are nomadic pastoralists, moving across national borders to find water and grassland for their animals to graze. When drought strikes, as it increasingly does as the climate changes, pastoralists are forced to sell their animals at a low price, effectively giving up their means of earning a living and making them dependent on help from the government or aid agencies to survive. I was particularly struck by a conversation I had with local women in the Somali region who were unable to wash themselves – as water was too precious to be ‘wasted’ in this way.
As it turns out the greenery of the middle of the country is deceptive. The highlands in the country’s centre can also be food insecure.The terrain is mountainous, population density is high and people have access to only very small plots of land. A full 80 per cent of the population is dependent on farming, which in turn is reliant on rainfall. When the rains fail (as they do periodically), people struggle to produce enough food to feed their families.
The result is that the Government of Ethiopia has always had a huge job on its hands to feed its growing population. In 2005, the Government set up, with support from the UN and international donors like the UK Government, the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP). This huge programme aims to increase families long-term resilience to food shortages, supporting them with food or cash in times of most need and helping them develop their livelihoods, build up assets and ultimately become food self sufficient. Typically the PSNP provides support to 7-8 million rural Ethiopians a year.
This huge effort, combined with incredible economic growth rates over the past ten years (Ethiopia’s GDP has grown at between 8-10% every single year) has meant that Ethiopia has made good progress in addressing hunger as a country. Back in 2006, the Global Hunger Index rated Ethiopia as ‘extremely alarming’. By 2017, its GHI score had improved by more than 40 per cent and the country had moved back down the scale into the ‘serious’ category.
Despite the overall improvements, big challenges remain. The 2015-16 El Niño weather pattern reduced the rainfall levels on which the vast majority of Ethiopians depend. This spilled over into 2017, which was a year marked by drought, political instability and increasing food insecurity. The drought destroyed crops and livestock, and left 8.5 million people in need of emergency food assistance. Worst affected was the Somali region. Whilst rains have come this year, and the situation is beginning to improve, there is still huge need. Concern Worldwide is raising funds to support its work in this area, to provide emergency nutrition support to malnourished children, women and men, to provide access to clean water, and to help communities build their resilience to drought and other disasters so they can support themselves in the long-term.
We at Concern are hoping to see continued improvements in the daily lives of the people of Ethiopia, and also that the vicious cycle of hunger and poverty can be broken. Personally I hope to go back to Ethiopia soon – this time as a tourist – to enjoy the beautiful scenery, rich culture and unique history that Ethiopia has to offer.
Head of Policy and Campaigns