Ethiopia: Gilio Brunelli's blog

November 6, 2011
by 
Gilio Brunelli, Director of International Programs

Gilio Brunelli, Director of International Programs at Development and Peace, was recently in Ethiopia to assess the food security of communities that have been impacted by ongoing drought-like conditions in the country. Changing weather patterns and inflated food costs have made it increasingly difficult for rural communities to have access to sufficient food and their livelihoods continue to be severely impacted by this situation. Here are his impressions.

November 16, 2011

Here I am at the end of my travel log. At this time tomorrow, I’ll be on an airplane.

It's cold today in Addis Ababa. Though situated in a tropical zone, the city sits at an altitude of 2400 metres, nestled between mountains with peaks of up to 4000 metres. Passers-by hurry to cross over to the sunny side of the street. Winter is quickly approaching. Will it snow this year?

Our mission is coming to an end. The members of the delegation have already moved onto other matters: Sam will soon return home to Canada for a minor surgery, Bruce will spend another week visiting projects in the South of the country, Grant will continue his trip onto Harare, in Zimbabwe, Jaqueline will be going back to Kampala with a few stops in Nairobi and elsewhere to accompany another delegation coming from Switzerland. Jillian is headed for the refugee camps in Kenya and I am on my way to London and then Montreal where a number of other files await me as well. Sooner or later, we’ll meet again on the path of Solidarity but at this time, we look to our parting with some sadness. For the past two weeks we have spent every one of our days together.

What have we learned? In less than three weeks, our final report will be tabled at the meeting of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. In it, we’ll put forward our comments and recommendations regarding the future direction of food aid.  But if we must share one lesson with all of you, it’s the following: Famine is not a given; famine is not an explanation in itself; on the contrary, famine is a very dynamic process by which ecological circumstances, meteorological phenomena and technology are reinterpreted according to a set of political choices and ambitious strategic interests.

The government of Ethiopia has set a goal to become self-sufficient for food in the next five years, and move the country into the range of medium human development by 2025. These are very commendable objectives, if ever there were any, but no-one – except their spokespeople believe these goals to be achievable. In the meantime, nevertheless, they may determine the fate of millions of poor peasants and herders more than any "Regime of rainfall" ever could.

November 15, 2011

Teanastellen (Hello), says the receptionist at the World Food Program office as we enter the modest building in downtown Addis-Ababa. From the outside, one would never imagine that roughly 600 million dollars per year are spent out of this office in relief, social services and development operations across the country. It is the single biggest WFP on-going program in the world. Massive is the only word which can barely describe their effort. About 20 million people, we are told, receive some form of food aid every year, more than 7 million of them from the WFP!

In the afternoon we meet the CIDA country director and the food security specialist at the Canadian embassy. Way more modest than the WFP's, Canada's commitment to food security in Ethiopia is nonetheless well organized and adequately funded. The total amount spent by CIDA in Ethiopia in 2009-10 was about 164 million dollars, a significant portion of which was allocated out of the Addis office. And there is no doubt whatsoever that the largest portion of this money is spent on agricultural support and development, in one form or another.

As I was writing yesterday, agriculture is big in Ethiopia. And it has to be, when one thinks that 84% of the 82 million inhabitants of this country live in rural areas, and that the present government wants them to stay there. Most of the present thinking in government circles envisions the development of the country as, and I quote, "agricultural-led modernization". And still, significant numbers of people living in rural areas are not farmers. The often neglected face of poverty and famine in Ethiopia are the pastoralists, herders of cattle, camels, sheep, goats, and donkeys, who are making the most of otherwise neglected marginal lands. Estimated at about 15% of the population, they are contributing about 40% of the agricultural gross domestic product of Ethiopia. No major support program exists for them on the government side. They see their herds starve and die, most of the time powerless. If they want help, so goes the official explanation, they have to settle down and become agriculturalists. So much for democracy!

Our mission is coming to an end. Two days and it will be over. Thursday afternoon we will put together the first draft of our report to the board of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Tomorrow I will send my last report from the field.

November 14, 2011

Did you know that Ethiopia has hundreds of thousands of landless peasants? Hard to believe and understand in a country where, as a result of its recent past, access to land is strictly regulated by the State through local committees that reach into even the remotest village! A program still exists to settle 440,000 rural families (counting an average of five persons per family) on unoccupied land. Moreover, everyone here agrees that there are a lot more landless people than the families registered in the program. Finally, there is no doubt that the landless rural dwellers are even poorer and needier than the poor farmers (who do, at least, have a little bit of land).

This information has emerged out of the several meetings held today, right here in Addis Ababa with NGOs and Ethiopian government agencies. It's incredible to see the money, plans and good intentions from everyone here at this huge work in progress that is aimed at improving the country's agricultural development. It is also difficult to understand why the farmers themselves are not sitting at the table where key decisions are being made that will affect their future. Unfortunately, their absence is also conspicuous in the decisions of certain large NGOs. Moreover, many stakeholders seem to be involved in the activity of manipulating statistics, either to show that there are a lot of poor farmers in Ethiopia so they can ask for more money to help them or else to show that the numbers of poor farmers are decreasing as a result of these assistance programs, so they are asking for more money so they can continue their work. For example, it has already been established that within three years, two million poor people will have acquired the means to support themselves autonomously, no matter what might happen in this period: drought, skyrocketing prices, crop failure, whatever!

The world of international development is not always a shining beacon. So I prefer to think about the woman I encountered in Amhara country the day before yesterday. Along with her husband and three children, she planted some one hundred apple trees (apples sell for $1 each). Then she used the income from the apples to lease an adjacent plot of land where she planted more apple trees and vegetables; built beehives to raise bees that will produce honey, something that is always in demand as it is needed to prepare the national drink, tej; and built a poultry house and farmyard that will provide eggs and meat. In a thousand and one ways she has refused to be confined within the cycle of poverty and the aid programs that would keep her there. She is living proof that poverty and misery are not normal living conditions, not even in Ethiopia!

November 13, 2011

I am back in the Internet zone and full of stories.

We have spent the last few days in Amhara country (central Ethiopia) about 600 km north of Addis Ababa. We travelled by road from one village to the next, stopping here and there to talk to small-scale farmers and visit theirs plots. All of them live below the poverty line and experience very serious problems to feed their families year around. We are talking about several million people.

Yet, the fields are beautiful and plenty. It is now harvesting time for wheat and other cereals, and the fields are covered by yellow stalks ready to be harvested. Livestock (cows, goats, sheep, donkeys,) graze everywhere and we had to stop all the time because they cross the road when they please, not at all concerned by our incoming cars. Then where is the problem?

The problems are many. The first one is that the size of the property is too small, about half an hectare per family. Not enough to be viable no matter how hard the peasants work and how much the soil produces. Second, the prices for most traditional crops are ridiculously low. A quintal (100 kg) of wheat is sold for 1000 birrs, 1200 at the most. This is the equivalent of $50-60 CDN. Other cereals, corn, sorghum, teff, fetch much less, etc., etc.

Particularly difficult for these peasant families, is the period between planting and harvesting, when there is no food, not even seeds, available. This is called "food gap". In French this period is often referred to as "soudure". No food is then available. The little money saved from the harvest is quickly spent as food prices go up. Soon, one after the other, the animals are sold. Whatever few other items the family owns are likewise sold and then… undernourishment, starvation, begging, migration toward food distribution centers, when and where available. And the family finds itself in the poverty cycle, if they manage to survive at all.

How many such stories we heard.

But some of them fight back. I will tell you everything tomorrow because now I am going to bed.

November 7, 2011

Today, I visited with the Ethiopia Catholic Secretariat (ECS), which is also Caritas Ethiopia.

The ECS is working in five dioceses where it is supporting about 70,000 families affected by the present food insecurity situation. The organization is already involved in making food aid evolve into food assistance (a direction set in the 2008-2013 strategic planning of the World Food Programme). The average family farm measures between 0.5 and 1.5 hectares. Ethiopian agriculture still relies on rains, while huge reservoirs of underground water remain, well, underground.

The most drought-prone areas in the country lay in the East and the North. There is an overall and rarely questioned assumption that most of Ethiopia is a "naturally" drought-prone area. Yet, when one thinks about the fact that Israel receives much less rain than Ethiopia on an annual basis, the "naturally" has to be challenged, says one of our good friends from the ECS.

Food security is but one line of work for the organization. It also works on gender and development, with abandoned children, with people living with HIV, and more. It operates or supports schools and health facilities throughout the country via local dioceses and religious communities. Even though the 700,000 Catholics in Ethiopia account for less than 1% of the entire population (approx. 80 million), the Catholic Church, mostly via the ECS, comes only second to the government in terms of providing education, health, relief, shelter to youth, vocational training for women...

And how does the ECS explain that? Given the identification of Jesus with the poor (common for all Christians) and the wealth of Catholic social teaching (specific to Catholics), Catholics have no choice but to engage in social work.

November 6, 2011

I’ve arrived safely in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia. The city is 6,000 feet above sea level, and has 4 to 7 million inhabitants, depending on the taxi driver one talks to!

Ranked 174 out of 187 countries in the recently released 2011 Human Development Report by the UNDP,  Ethiopia has about 80 million people, of which 40% live below poverty line.

About 15-20 Canadian NGOs (it depends on the year) are active in Ethiopia on a more or less regular basis. Canada (including CIDA, NGOs, churches, universities, unions, etc.) is among the top 10 countries providing aid to Ethiopia in terms of overall development. When only food aid and food security are considered, Canada ranks amongst the top 3.

Ethiopia is the third biggest recipient of Canadian ODA (Official Development Assistance), right after Haiti and Afghanistan, and is the biggest African recipient by far.

Regarding the situation on food security, two days of unexpected rains (it NEVER rains in November) across the country, from North to South, have actually put the upcoming harvest in danger. At this time of the year, sun is necessary to dry up the fields of teff (a local cereal that is ground into flour and used to prepare injera, a type of flatbread that most Ethiopians consider their national dish), wheat, maize and sorghum. The rain makes the leaves turn downward and the grains spill onto the soil. Then they become lost.