Imported Dependency: Food Aid Weakens
Ethiopia’s Selfhelp Capacity
Tillmann Elliesen (Deutsche Stiftung für Internationale Entwicklung)
Since the great famine of 1984–85 Ethiopia has received hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid per year. Even
Ethiopian administration officials now speak of a dependency syndrome, a recipient mentality, among the people.
Much less aid would be needed if the country’s agricultural potential was better used and more attention was paid to the aid actually reaching those that need it. But the current food aid system is bound up with strong political and
economic interests in Ethiopia and the donor countries.
“Yes, there is something like a ‘dependency syndrome’ here. There’s no denying that the food aid deters the farmers from using innovative techniques and relying upon themselves. They take the aid whether they need it or not.” That is not the judgment of an arrogant European, but the assessment of Yibabe Adane, Extension Team Leader in the Department of Agriculture in South Gondar, an administrative district in northern Ethiopia. The people of the district, which is part of the Amhara uplands ranging 1,000–3,000 feet above sea level, have one of the country’s highest rates of chronic malnutrition or poor nutrition. About five million people of the Amhara are considered as affected by food insecurity. The ‘Integrated Food Security Project South Gondar’ of the Amhara Bureau of Agriculture, which the GTZ has promoted since 1996, is attempting to reach 120,000 of them. The project purpose is to familiarise the farmers with agricultural techniques and products that are more efficient and appropriate to the difficult environmental conditions. That includes improved protection against erosion, the rehabilitation of degraded land and the introduction of more robust types of grain and new forage plants for livestock.
Results to date show that the project’s innovations could help bring about a marked increase in agricultural yields and thus
improve the food situation of the people of South Gondar. But the innovations must be adopted by enough farmers. A factor
which could counteract that is the undermining of the people’s will to self-help by an excess of food aid. That is why, like
Yibabe, the project managers also argue for a rethinking of the annual international food aid shipments in the measure that has
become standard practice since the terrible famine of 1984–85.
Ethiopia became a ‘favourite child’ of the international donor community in the 1990s. According to the World Bank, about
US$ 12 billion in development and food aid has flowed into the country since the toppling of the Mengistu dictatorship in 1991. Since 1980, annual inputs have averaged 16 per cent of Ethiopia’s gross domestic product. Both the World Bank and the German Federal government (in its Country Concept on Ethiopia of May 1998) have pointed out that the absorptive capacity of Ethiopia’s government budget has reached its limit. The aid in recent years, however, has failed to push ahead fundamental economic and political reforms in Ethiopia or contribute to the country’s development. In its report on aid and reforms in Africa, the World Bank describes Ethiopia as a “classic case of an economy with great potential struggling to ‘overcome a ‘low-level equilibrium trap’”.
The proportion of food aid in total development assistance for Ethiopia since 1985 has been 11 per cent. According to
Hansjörg Neun, head of the European Union’s Food Security Unit in Ethiopia, the country has received a total of 10 million
tonnes of food, or 700,000 tonnes per year, most of it grain. That equals 10 per cent of Ethiopia’s own food production during
this period. The major donors are the USA, the EU and the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
Does Ethiopia really need as much food aid as it receives every year? Both Neun and Klaus Feldner, co-ordinator of the GTZ
project in South Gondar, say no. The Project Progress Report for 2000 says practical on-site experience over several years
proves there is no compelling reason for the donor countries’ large-scale shipments of grain. The report notes: “Given sufficient
self-effort, the will for changes and improvements, and additional careful and simple technical innovations, the still considerable
agricultural potential of the uplands could be much better used.”
Much less food aid would be necessary if, in addition, more attention was paid to it reaching those who really need it. A great
amount of the food never gets to the most needy families, for whom it is intended. A farmer in South Gondar said his
community had not received any supplies for four months because the last shipment had disappeared into the bags of some
better-off farmers who had distributed it among their relatives. The swindle was exposed when the poorer community members complained to the district administration. In the neighbouring community, the chairman of the Peasant Association who is responsible for distributing the supplies, said some more affluent farmers had gone over his head to complain to the district administration because he had refused to give them a share of the last shipment.
That such misallocations are not isolated cases is confirmed by a study of the Grain Market Research Project Ethiopia
implemented by Michigan State University, USAID and the Ethiopian government and completed in 1998. It said that during
the survey period in 1995/96 districts with either a high or a low proportion of needy households benefited in equal measure
from food aid shipments. So there was no correlation between the scale of need in a district and the fact that it received aid.
The study added that the poor ‘targeting’ continued at the next lower level. The authors concluded that food supplies were
reaching no more than 20 per cent of the Ethiopian households which were at risk of food insecurity. At the same time, 20 per
cent of the non-endangered households were receiving aid.
That explains why a great part of the food aid for Ethiopia – up to 30 per cent –is not consumed directly by the recipients, but
resold. There is nothing against that if reselling food supplies fills a gap on local markets and pushes prices down to a level
which poor families could also afford. But food aid can also destroy local markets if prices fall so steeply that they no longer
cover the farmers’ costs.
External aid supplies could also be reduced if more food were bought in Ethiopia itself. The country, in fact, has years in which
the harvest is so good that the shortage regions could be supplied completely by the areas of surplus. But that is not all. In their
joint report of December 1996, a record Ethiopian harvest year, the UN’s FAO and WFP recommended that donor countries
should not only stop sending foreign food aid to Ethiopia but also buy up Ethiopian surpluses and ship them to neighbouring
Eritrea, Kenya and Somalia, which were reporting serious food shortages.
That despite this suggestion more than 200,000 tonnes of grain were also shipped to Ethiopia the following year shows that the
international food aid is in no way based purely on a corresponding level of demand. Rather, it is driven in no small part by the
offer and the interests of the donor countries and their seed industries. Above all, the USA, which in 2000 provided 64 per cent of global food aid, perceives its engagement mainly as promotion of its national industries’ exports. While, according to the WFP, the EU in the same year bought 11 per cent of its worldwide aid supplies on local markets, in-country purchasing
accounted for only 0.2 per cent of US food aid. Not by chance, some of the most important sections of the US aid programme are administered not by USAID but by the Department of Agriculture.
“Food aid is simply also big business,” says Neun. That also has impacts on the GTZ project in South Gondar, which includes
field trials of the grain variety triticale, previously unknown in Ethiopia. The grain is a cross-breed of wheat and rye that is much
more robust than Ethiopia’s usual grain types of teff, wheat and barley and can deliver yields three to four times greater. The
project managers are convinced that introducing triticale nationwide could markedly reduce Ethiopia’s dependence on imported seed. But that would clash with the interests of US seed producer Pioneer Hi-Bred International. The company supplies the Ethiopian government’s Agricultural Package Programme under which the country’s farmers buy seed and fertiliser on credit. Observers believe it is quite likely that in order to fend off losses Pioneer could mount a lobbying campaign with the government in Addis Ababa against its impending general approval and release of triticale.
But there are also actors in Ethiopia itself who make money on food aid or have a political interest in continuing the practice to
date. The researchers of the Grain Market Research Project noted that the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray receives a
disproportionately great quantity of food aid shipments. In survey year 1995/96 the region’s per capita supply was eight times
greater than the national average. About one-third of all aid went to Tigray, although it accounts for less than 10 per cent of the
country’s population. That is explained in part by the fact that Tigray in the past was hit particularly hard by food shortages and
famines. In Tigray, as in parts of Amhara, a staff and technical infrastructure has been built up to absorb and administer great
amounts of food aid. In other words, a large part of the annual food aid flows into where most of it has always gone. But there
are also political reasons for Tigray’s preferential treatment. The region simply has the best connections with the government
party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which emerged from the former Liberation Front and
the present government party in Tigray, the TPLF. By contrast, the nomads who live in the South have no lobby in the capital.
At the grass roots political level, food aid is also billed as a ‘gift’ to the people in order to foster political sympathy and secure
influence. The agricultural authorities in the Farta district in South Gondar, for instance, tried to get the GTZ to ‘pay’ farmers
with 800 kg of grain for cutting the grass in a rehabilitated gully. The gullies are erosion channels, some of them some metres
wide and deep, that are cut into cultivated hillside slopes by the uncontrolled runoff of rainwater. As part of the GTZ project
these gullies are being terraced and planted with forage vegetation. To compensate the farmers for cutting the grass was
unnecessary since they were using it anyway for their cattle without extra payment. But for the administration it was worth
making an attempt to give the local people an additional bonus at no cost to themselves.
But the Farta authorities did manage to assert their bid to modify the GTZ’s new form of erosion control so that as many
people as possible were included in food-for-work measures. The project’s innovation in preventing erosion on slopes was to
plant hedges of vetiver grass instead of building traditional small stone walls. Vetiver is a tall, hairless, coarse and very robust
grass which, planted densely, works at ground level like a wall. The advantage of grass hedges compared with stone walls is
mainly that they need no care, meaning they save the farmers time. A hedge also takes up less space than a stone wall, so
farmers have a greater area to cultivate. The Farta authorities, however, insisted that earth walls be built parallel to the grass
hedges as an extra safeguard against erosion. This is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive because it nullifies the
extra space gained by simply planting hedges. The sole purpose of the authorities’ insistence was to create work for as many
people as possible and give them food aid.
A major local actor that profits from the food aid programme is the Ethiopian transport sector, which delivers supplies on behalf of the donors. The latter pay about as much again for this service as they do for the grain itself. This is where economic and political interests mesh, because Ethiopia’s biggest transport company is owned by the TPLF. The state Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) also lives on the back of international food aid because it administers and distributes the majority of it.
If it were up to the World Bank and the EU, food aid to Ethiopia would be reduced greatly and replaced in part by donor
assistance for the government’s budget. The money could finance job creation and poverty reduction programmes and
agricultural reforms. The donors’ condition for such assistance is that the Ethiopian side creates adequate capacity to administer the funds and supervise their use. The Ethiopian government is also becoming increasingly aware that the food aid system used over decades does not help the country to go forward and has caused many problems. But the transport sector and the DPPC, above all, are apparently bringing all their influence to bear so that the status quo remains in place. Observers with an insight into the negotiations between the donors and the Ethiopian government talk of power struggles within the administration.
The GTZ project in South Gondar shows how simple measures could increase the productivity of farming in Ethiopia. Neun
points out that at present only 6 per cent of the country’s irrigable land is used for agriculture. Only another 10 per cent need be irrigated to balance an annual shortfall of 900,000 tonnes of grain. In addition, the regions of scarcity in the North and
Northwest need to be relieved by migration to the thinly-populated areas in the West of the country, as well as greater efforts
to reduce the current population growth of 3 per cent. Being refreshingly politically incorrect, Neun notes that due to Ethiopia’s
many religious and other traditional public holidays the average farmer there works only 100 days per year, while the foreign
farmers who produce most of the food aid for the country put in 300 working days a year.
An important task now is to overcome the opposition to reducing food aid both in Ethiopia and in international politics and
business. The dependency syndrome and recipient mentality cited by Yibabe Adane must also be overcome. It is a mentality
which results in stone walls against erosion that are built during the day being torn down at night so they can be rebuilt the next
day for pay. Under these conditions, help for self-help is impossible. In that respect, it is certainly to southern Ethiopia’s
advantage that it has not yet been flooded with development and food aid like other parts of the country. Food-for-work does
not yet play a major role in the GTZ ‘Pastoral Development Programme’ in the Borana district on the border with Kenya. Due
to the drought there since 1999, food for work was distributed last year for the first time, but only to alleviate the local people’s plight. The Project Report of June 2000 says: “If Borana pastoral communities are able to help themselves with only a little (initial) support from outside, why should we spoil their traditional self-help systems and their working morale through the provision of food-for-work?”
So while in Borana it is about maintaining the people’s capacity for self-help, it appears that in South Gondar this spirit must
first of all be resuscitated. The GTZ is therefore making efforts to reduce the importance of food-for-work for the people there. “But a project cannot do that on its own,” notes Elmar Kreutzer, responsible in the project for water resources issues. He says cooperation is called for between the many Ethiopian and foreign government and non-governmental development cooperation organisations that are tripping over each other in South Gondar. But things do not always favour that wish. “An American NGO set up a branch in the project area last summer,” said Feldner, “and is now distributing huge amounts of grain without once having spoken to us about it. Nobody knows who is getting how much, and by what criteria it’s being allocated.”