"It is not in proportion to say a red flag needs to go up."

Ms. Judith Lewis

Ms. Judith Lewis, resident representative of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Ethiopia spoke to The Reporter on the issue of drought in Ethiopia, and its role in alleviating the immediate and long-term problem.

We hear differences in the figures of victims affected by the drought - especially between those given by the government (DPPC) and the UN agencies. Why such discrepancies?

I think the confusion with the numbers centers on the natural shocks that we have seen in terms of the weather.  Certainly, you know how whimsical the Ethiopian weather is .  If there are any shocks in the weather, like frost, hail or no rain, they have an impact.  That is what we have found this year.  Also, we have seen an invasion by army-worm. There have been so many things that could not be predicted.

In addition to the numbers rising, we continually see pockets of problems that pop up in areas that have not been in the forecast, and quite frankly, have not been in our earlier estimates.  Also, we see too much of rain in some parts of the country.

So which figure - 4 million, 4.6 million or 5 million-is accurate?

I think the DPPC figure is still fairly accurate, approximately five million people. WFP is concerned with about 1.5 million people.

Why only 1.5 million?

Well, at the time (in June) we made our appeal, the number of people in need of immediate assistance was 3.2 million. WFP, as was the UN standard, tries to resource about a third of the overall needs.

After we have our annual assessment in November/December, we will be in a better position to know what the WFP role will be for the next months.  Our appeal for 1.5 million, which is a seven-month appeal, will be up to the end of this year.

What about the Internally Displaced People  (IDPs)? One notices that you do not give the same criteria.

No, actually this one is a little more. Because at the time it was fairly urgent and people were in very serious need.  And there has been some carry-over stocks that were available from some donors.

Have you succeeded?

We are not as successful with the IDPs as we are with the people affected by the drought.  We have been able to resource about just over a third and certainly less than half of that total right now.

The US government has given us about 6 million to buy 15,000 tons of food.  We have about 1 million dollars from the Netherlands and 500,000 USD from Japan.  But this has been a little bit more difficult, obviously because of the political connotations.

Fortunately, the people displaced due to the war have been able to cope much better than people who are dealing with drought.  They have some safetynet  and  have been able to survive. So they are not on the edge as we are seeing with drought people.

What do you mean by safety-net?

By safety-net, I mean being able to go and live with their families and have some assets they could sell.  Where as, the people affected by the drought sold all their assets and practically have nothing.

WFP purchases food especially from developing countries.  How well are Ethiopian farmers faring?

Well, most donors give food in kind while some give in dollars.  Our job is to find the best buy. We send our tender, locally and then we compare those prices with international prices for the same commodity.  Then, if we have to buy internationally, we look at the transport costs.  We look for the most food for the best price.  I want as much food as I can get for these people.  So what we really do is business, almost.

We monitor very closely farmers' prices here in Ethiopia.  I have to say Ethiopian farmers are very savvy. They want to get as much for their products as they can.  However, many times their prices are not competitive.  In other words, I can find wheat cheaper in Europe and get it here for what the Ethiopian farmer may be asking for.

Including transportation?

Including the transport, many times over. But we do try to plan so that we have some funds available when the prices go down. When the harvest is gathered, everybody has products.  That is the best time to buy locally, particularly in January and February.

But what about borrowing from the Ethiopian national reserve?

For example, once the USA says it is going to give some metric tons of food, that is an IOU, they owe us.  Trust me, they will deliver. Unfortunately, it takes three to four months to transport it.  So what we do is we go with the promissory note, to the national reserve to borrow, which we will pay back when the shipment comes.

But because of the problem we have this year the food stocks are low.  We have to be very careful that we will not go below the minimum, except in extremely extraordinary circumstances.

Which is?

I think it is 40,000 metric tons. What we are doing now is paying back the national reserve.  Some of the shipments that come in September will go to repayment so that we can build those stocks up.

Is there a duplication of efforts between you and DPPC?

No, absolutely not.  The collaboration is very good.  My technical people meet them at least once a week. The commissioner is a very wonderful colleague. They are always open and accessible.  But that is not to say every thing works perfectly. 

DPPC is one of the best operations I have ever seen in countries I have worked in Africa.  I have to say that.  The fact that we have the national reserve is one of the most forward-looking emergency backings I have ever seen.  We are beginning to see other countries asking about the reserve.  I think that is positive.

Is Ethiopia the only country in Africa with a national reserve?

Yes In fact, Tanzania and Uganda have asked for the specifics, how it works and how it was set up.  WFP gave one of the first 15,000 metric tons to the national reserve to get it started.  It is very dear to our heart and is committed to making it work. It has been one of the most important tools we have seen this year in helping address this food emergency.

Some years ago, the Ethiopian government sold some of its stock to other countries.  Do you have a say in such sales?

Well, there is a steering committee of which we are part of.  I think the donors have to be involved.  But the decision of selling stock has not come up since I have been here.


But still, if your country's stocks get too high, you have to do something.  The food has to be the first in and first out, a kind of rotation.  You cannot store it forever. It has to be managed.

How do you really work with the DPPC?

WFP has the commodities and we plan with DPPC where those goods go.  Some times our donors will say they want this particular commodity only for drought.  Some, like the Japanese, say their commodity should go to the IDPs.  It is very collegial, very democratic process. 

Some people say, especially after February, that more donations are going to UN agencies than to the Ethiopian government.  Is that true?

I don't think so.  It is fairly well distributed in terms of aid.  DPPC, even though it has not been able to resource all it was appealing for, has a very good proportion in coming in.  Sometimes, part of it is a matter of capacity.  Donors look for expertise, which agencies can do better.

Just because donors have not funded 100% to DPPC, there is no need for question.  I think it is quite the opposite.  The additional 90,000 metric tons the US government has given is bilateral, straight to DPPC.

So I do not see any competition between the DPPC and WFP.  They are part of the family as far as I am concerned.  The beneficiaries are the same, the poor people of Ethiopia.

In June, you have spoken of a humanitarian crisis that could arise if the rains failed during the main rainy (kiremt) season. Considering that the season is almost over, do you find that fear justified?

That has been in the back of our minds and that is why we are so careful to monitor the areas.  We do see below average rainfall in some of our surplus-producing areas.  However, it is not in proportion for us to say a red flag needs to go up.  But we are watching it very carefully.  If we have a failure of the main growing season on the top of the belg failure, we are going to have a major catastrophe.

But so far, things are okay.  There is nothing abnormal right now.  Everybody is cautiously optimistic.

Where does Ethiopia stand in terms of WFP's priorities?

It is the largest development profile in Africa and third largest in the world for WFP.  We have a very good track record and a reputation that is sound.  Donors feel confident.

Out of the 5 million figure, how many are chronically poor people?

The people in the highlands, same time next year, are going to have the same problems. Because they live in the same area that is drought prone. Of the 5 million this year, well over half has to be chronic and the government says over 40% are chronically poor.

It is a problem WFP is facing to address. My concern is that we are not paying enough attention to a beneficiary. What would it take for that person to keep his assets so that when a drought comes, what could we do to help him survive? The drought victims we see this year have four to five bad seasons.

Is WFP doing any thing to address the problem?

We could do some water harvesting, more drought resistant planting.  Rather than every year being in a position to go back and say, okay we will give them some more emergency aid. We will give them that, but in the meantime, in the long-term, I would like to address those causes. Those people are in a terrible, vulnerable condition.

Any concrete programmes put in place?

Some. I think we need to be more aggressive and more pro-active.  The trees we plant stop erosion.  Some of the ponds we are helping in building increases livestock.

Why do you think the international community is so slow in responding to appeals this time?

I think this year is not the norm.  In the past, Ethiopia has a very good track record of being able to resource.  Unfortunately, the political climate and this border conflict have quite frankly caused people to think in terms of what they are going to provide.  That has affected our IDPs.  But I think on the drought side, we have seen a tremendous outpouring.  In about eight weeks, WFP is able to mobilize 80% of the resources needed for seven months, which is pretty good.

I do not think the international community is turning its back on the poor people in Ethiopia.  When push came to shove and people are starving, we are able to resource.  What I have said repeatedly is that my job is to separate the political from the humanitarian.  We continue to work hard to resource for our IDPs.  Because they are people and do have needs. 

This tendency to separate the political from the humanitarian normally comes too late, like when seeing people dying of starvation on TV.  Are we learning lessons from history?

Sometimes, we have to be hit over the head for history to teach us a lesson.  but as I have said earlier, I thnk, Ethiopia is in a unique position vis-a-vis a lot of other African countries.

I came from Angola where it was nearly as simple as here to reach out to the people. But, we did not have any reserve and had to wait until a ship arrived.

Ethiopia is unique because we have the reserve.  The other thing I find fascinating is the collaboration that we see with the donor community and the government. It really is a team.

The reserve addresses this issue you are highlighting.  The fact is that we do have some food in the country that has made us able to respond.  We have surpassed much of the logistics hassle in order to get that food gets here.

I believe the response has been much better this time that in a lot of other countries where you really see people dying before the food gets there.

In this country also, we are so aware of what we saw in the eighties. I never want to see that again on television, Ethiopian babies, mothers and old people just dying.

Yes, we did learn. We did learn how vulnerable the Ethiopians are.

Are you concerned about the destitute in urban areas?

Yes, we are definitely concerned about them.  One of the projects we are involved in is some of the displaced people who have been here (Addis Ababa) awhile. They are not even from this particularly crisis.  Do we get them back, or get them on their feet so they are not in a sort of noman's land.  These people are internally displaced just as the people displaced from Adigrat during the current war.  At the moment, we are helping some 11,000 urban babies.