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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Addicted to aid in Ethiopia

By Erich Wiedemann in Addis Ababa,

EthiopiaMany Ethiopians are kept alive by the world's generosity. But addictionto food aid has also virtually wiped out any semblance of self-reliancein the country. Much of the economy relies on foreign aid, and thegovernment sees no reason to change things.Ato Omot Atnafu and his brother Tefere were out working in the fieldswhen the priests came to their village. The three tall, slim men withblack beards and saffron-yellow robes walked nimbly up the narrow pathinto the village and disappeared into the village hall. They re-emerged a few minutes later with the mayor in tow. He raised hiscow horn to his mouth and blew into it, producing a squawking noise thatcould be heard all the way on the other side of the hill separating thevillage from the neighboring community. It was the mayor's way ofsummoning his villagers, of letting them know that he had anannouncement to make.

This was the announcement: "I understand that some of you have beendisobedient. You have desecrated a day of the Lord by working. Thesedevout men have come to remind you to obey the laws of the church."The day before had been a holiday, and the next holiday would come twodays later and would be followed by another. Three holidays a week."What should we eat if we spend all our time worshipping the saintsinstead of planting corn," said Ato Omot.It was an outrageous act of impertinence. One of the priests approachedAto Omot and gently boxed his ears. "You are a sinner," he said.150 holidays a yearAto Omot was shaking with anger, but he restrained himself. One doesn'tfight with men of the cloth. Besides, he was clearly not in the bestshape. His arms and legs were as thin as rubber bands and his patchedjacket fluttered loosely around his gaunt torso.

The priests, on theother hand, looked well-fed.There are more than 150 holidays on the Coptic Christian calendar, aswell as 180 days of fasting on which the faithful are permitted to eatonly one meal. Those who disobey the rules can expect sanctions,possibly even the threat of ending up in hell.Coptic Christianity has little to do with life, but everything to dowith fear, sin, punishment and death. But how can people feed themselveswhen every other day is a holiday and they are not permitted to work thefields on those days?When it comes to Ethiopian agriculture, even the word field is a vastexaggeration. The average farmer in the country's densely populatedhighland regions has less than a thousand square meters (about a quarterof an acre) to farm -- hardly more than a soccer field and too little tofeed a family. Ethiopia urgently needs land reform -- and a new holidaycalendar.Ethiopian farmers could certainly coax better yields from their smallplots, but the problem is that they have no sense of ownership of theirland, since all land belongs to the state. The state, for its part, hashad little incentive to build irrigation canals and plant trees. As aresult, the country's forests have declined from 40 percent of totalland area 40 years ago to less than 5 percent today.Because a controlled agrarian economy is practically unfeasible, Omotand Tefere, their aging parents, their widowed sister and her threechildren live mostly from the sale of cow-pats, which they procure fromthe owner of a herd of cattle in the neighboring village. But theirearnings are slim.

Their mother has only one leg and their father isseverely ill with malaria. Although health care is free in Ethiopia, theAtnafus are too poor to pay the bus fare to the hospital.Preferring tef to triticaleBut despite their poverty, the Atnafus are in no danger of starvation.Omot and Tefere have just applied for a "poverty certificate" for theentire family from the local farmers' collective. If the application isapproved, their parents will be permitted to ride the bus for free.Scandinavian agriculture experts visited the village last year. Theybrought along triticale, a cross between wheat and rye from South Africathat produces three times the yield and is more resistant against frost,hail and pests than tef, Ethiopia's traditional cereal crop. Accordingto Bernhard Meier zu Biesen, regional director of the United NationsWorld Food Program in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia could eliminate its hungerproblems almost immediately if only a third of Ethiopian arable landwere planted in triticale instead of tef. Unfortunately, though, it isn't quite that simple. Klaus Feldner of theGerman Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) introduced triticale in BahrDar on Lake Tana -- but the promising results he expected nevermaterialized. Ethiopian farmers proved reluctant to plant the foreigngrain. Triticale, say the Ethiopians, doesn't make decent injera, thepancake-like bread that is a mainstay of Ethiopian cuisine. And thegovernment, for its part, has been reluctant to argue with the palatesof the people, instead opting to respect their sacrosanct eating habits.

The Ethiopian government instead takes the antiquated approach ofromanticizing agriculture at the expense of trade and industry, which itfinds somehow conspiratorial. As far as the administration in AddisAbaba is concerned, if the people had just a little more to eat,everything could just as well remain as it is. National income hasdeclined by half in the last 20 years, a trend that continues unabated.At the same time, the population is growing by more than 3 percent ayear.A cycle of aidYet despite the growing poverty and repeated food shortages, thegovernment has done absolutely nothing about low crop yields. And whyshould it? After all, with a well-oiled aid machine routinely offsettingthe country's food deficits, there is little in the way of incentive.The United Nations World Food Program (WFP), which administersinternational aid to Ethiopia, likewise has shown little interest inbreaking the aid cycle in Ethiopia. After all, by doing so it would bemaking itself superfluous. In early January, the WFP announced that $122 billion would be needed tofeed Ethiopia's hungry for the next decade. The next day Prime MinisterMeles Zenawi called upon Western lender nations to forgive Ethiopia'sdebts.Germany had just agreed a week earlier to forgive the money it is owedby Ethiopia. "We expect that the funds that will be released as a resultof the agreement will be used to fight poverty," said then-DeputyForeign Minister Kerstin Müller.

It was wishful thinking on Müller'spart. So far, the Ethiopian government has spent most of its savings onthe military. Despite being the world's poorest country, Ethiopia hasthe largest military in all of sub-Saharan Africa -- and Prime MinisterZenawi has given no indication that he plans to change anything.The categorical imperative of development aid is simple: Give a man afish and you feed him for a day; show a man how to catch fish and he'llfeed himself for a lifetime. But it's an imperative that doesn't applyin Ethiopia. Food aid is the country's second-largest industry, and it'sgrowing at such a fast clip that it has outpaced Ethiopia's agriculturalsector. Paradoxically, food aid is the reason why Ethiopians are sinkingeven more deeply into poverty. Between 1984 and 2002, annual per capitafood production has dropped from 450 kilos (993 lbs.) to 140 kilos (309lbs.).Aid shipments destroy grain pricesIn 2003, the UN donated 1.5 million tons of grain to Ethiopia, but theaid was more of a blessing to farmers in the donor nations than to thosein Ethiopia. Farmers in the Ethiopian highlands earned only $25 for eachton of grain that it cost them $50 to produce, because free imports weredestroying grain prices on the open market.

Prime Minister Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary DemocraticFront (EPRDF) has no interest in upsetting this bizarre trade imbalance.Shipping companies, after all -- all of which are owned by the EPRDF inEthiopia -- collect $40-50 per ton in shipping charges. Furthermore,Addis Ababa is home to more than 300 aid organizations, from Arat KiloChild Care to ZOA Refugee Care, and their combined staff number in thethousands. More than a hundred of these agencies are involvedexclusively in food distribution. In other words, once a country gets placed on the list of the world'sneediest, it has trouble weaning itself from foreign assistance. As ifto underscore the notion that the ubiquity of charity destroys allinitiative, nomads in the south now follow aid convoys the way they oncefollowed rain clouds. But less than a quarter of aid shipments actually reach those segmentsof the population where they are most urgently needed, because thegovernment and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) don't take thetrouble to analyze recipients on the basis of need. As a result, foodaid ends up in places where infrastructure allows it, but not in thecountry's poorest regions -- especially in remote mountain areas plaguedby a lack of roads and poor administration. "Doing nothing is like being an accomplice to a murder," says Britishpop star Bob Geldof, made famous by the Live Aid benefit concerts forEthiopia he organized. But the aid organizations, while keeping peoplealive, are failing to provide them with a basis for making a living.One should not apply too rigid a standard to Ethiopia, says Austriandevelopment aid veteran Karlheinz Böhm, who for the past 23 years hasspent countless millions in aid donations to build grain storageelevators, schools and hospitals in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopians, he says,cannot be expected to achieve, in only 50 years, the same skillsEuropeans took centuries to master.Böhm, a former actor, goes to great lengths not to offend. During arecent visit to a school classroom, the former Austrian actor discoveredthat its condition didn't correspond to his idea of order and hygiene.Böhm, a man of action, promptly grabbed a broom and swept the room cleanhimself instead of assigning the task to a pupil. Karl the Good, as heis called here, apparently wasn't aware of just how typical his gesturewas of European development aid.Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/0,1518,387188,00.html

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