Oxfam calls for radical shake-up to break cycle of hunger in Ethiopia


International aid agency Oxfam is calling for a radical shake-up in the way the world deals with food crises in Ethiopia and beyond.

The agency rounded on what it calls a “knee-jerk reaction” to food crises which is dominated by sending food aid. While the agency recognises that sending food aid does save lives, Oxfam says the dominance of this approach fails to offer long-term solutions which would break these cyclical and chronic crises.

In a report, “Band Aids and Beyond”, published today to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Ethiopia famine, Oxfam says international donors need to adopt a new approach to humanitarian disasters which focuses on preparing communities to prevent and deal with disasters such as drought before they strike, rather than relying mainly on short-term emergency relief, such as imported food aid.

Twenty-five years ago Ethiopia was struck by one of the worst famines in its history. An estimated one million people died and millions more suffered from extreme hunger and malnutrition. Today, millions in Ethiopia and across East Africa are facing severe food and water shortages after years of poor rains. It is estimated that drought costs Ethiopia $1.1 billion a year – almost eclipsing the total annual overseas assistance to the country.

Currently, 70% of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia comes from the United States. Out of the $3.2 billion of US humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia since 1991, 94% has been in the form of food aid – almost all of it sourced from within the USA rather than purchased locally or regionally.

Most US food aid has conditions applied to transport and packaging, which can cost up to $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid.

Penny Lawrence, International Director for Oxfam, who has just returned from visiting Oxfam projects in Ethiopia, says while no-one can “make the rains come, but there is much more that we can do to break the cycle of drought driven disaster in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

“Food aid offers temporary relief and has kept people alive in countless situations, but does not tackle the underlying causes that continue to make people vulnerable to disaster year-after-year,” she says.
“Donors need to shift their approach, and help to give communities the tools to tackle disasters before they strike. Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution. If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores, and wells to harvest rains then they can survive despite what the elements throw at them.”

It is essential that donors rise to the challenge and provide adequate funding for emergency assistance for this year’s crisis – current response by international donors is far below requirements estimated by Governments and UN agencies.

But in this report, Oxfam argues that it is equally essential that donors do more to back programmes that manage the risk of the disaster before it strikes, such as early warning systems, creating stragetically positioned stockpiles of food, medicine and other items, and irrigation programmes.

For instance, in Somali region Oxfam is building birkhads, or protected wells, to enable communities to ‘harvest’ rain during the rainy season to make sure there is more water available nearby when the rains stop.

These types of programmes receive just 0.14 per cent of overseas aid. Yet, the agency says, that it is a more sustainable approach, as the emergency response is designed to contribute to development and keep communities safer in the years to come.

This approach is cost effective: for every $1 invested in this approach, $2-4 are returned in terms of avoided or reduced disaster impacts.

Other examples of disaster risk management programmes include “food or cash for work” programmes. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, by illustration, people received food for work on an irrigation project, as a result of this the community can rely on a more regular supply of water for their crops.

Micro-insurance schemes that pay out to farmers if their crops fail, meaning that they have money to buy food,is another case in point. Oxfam is now running a scheme like this for 200 households in Tigray.

The call for donors to shift their approach comes as Ethiopia faces ever-greater threats from natural disasters.

Climate scientists predict that by 2034, the 50th anniversary of the 1984 Ethiopia famine, what are now droughts will become the norm, hitting the region three years out of every four. A shift of approach is needed to prevent climate shocks developing into disasters which will push more people into poverty.

Lawrence adds that climate “change makes the urgency of this approach greater than ever before. Ethiopians on the frontline of climate change cannot wait another 25 years for common sense to become common practice.”

Pic: Addis Ababa, the lush green capital of Ethiopia, situated on the Ethiopian Highlands, Africa’s largest piece of arable land.