November 20, 2002.  

By John Graham, Programme Director, Save the Children UK

Ethiopia is once again facing an enormous emergency, with projections of 10-15 million people requiring food assistance in 2003.  Why do these crises’ continue to occur?   Why weren’t the problems that lead to the 1984/85 famine addressed in the subsequent 17 years to prevent this from recurring?

Save the Children (UK) has been working continuously in Ethiopia since 1973, responding not only to the current emergency but also the famines of 1973/74 and 1984/85.  In between famines neither Save the Children or the people of Ethiopia have been standing by listlessly waiting for the next crisis.   Numerous programmes have been launched, and the best minds available have concentrated their efforts on policy and activities to help to attain sustainable livelihoods.  However, many factors have combined to  overwhelm the efforts to deal with the root cause of the famines, resulting in the underlying vulnerability becoming greater rather than worse.

To better understand the nature, extent, causes, and trends in destitution in Ethiopia, Save the Children along with the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, developed a study in the very poor northeastern highlands of Ethiopia in Amhara Region.   The British government through DFID agreed to fund the study, and the Amhara National Regional State became the partner in the development and implementation of the study.

The study combined academic rigour with a practical and policy oriented approach.   The study not only measured destitution, defined as those people who had insufficient resources to raise themselves to self-sufficiency, but also the ‘vulnerable’ and those with sustainable livelihoods.  According to the interim results the proportion of people living in  destitution has been rising steadily in the last 10 years in the study area, which covered a population of 4 million people.  A large number of people are moving from the ‘vulnerable’ population, who need assistance when there is a shock such as a drought, into destitution where they need assistance every year.  There is also a substantial movement from those with ‘sustainable livelihoods’, where they can support themselves and put aside enough to survive shocks on their own, into the vulnerable category.

Alarmingly, based on the self assessment of the statistically valid sample, the number of people living in destitution has increased from 5.5% ten years ago to 14.6% today, and the prediction is that this will rise to 21.8% in ten years time.   Perhaps even more worrying is the rise in ‘vulnerable’ people from 17.4% ten years ago to 54.9% today, and the decline in people with ‘viable’ or ‘sustainable’ livelihoods from 77.1% ten years ago to 30.6% today.  Apart from meaning that many more people will need assistance when they face a shock such as drought – about 70% of the population – the decline of the ‘rich’ households also has a big impact on the poor.  One of the first coping mechanisms for the poor is to seek assistance from the better off households. With entire communities becoming impoverished, the poor have nowhere to turn to locally for help.

The area covered by the study is one of the most impoverished in the country, and viable livelihoods could be either increasing or decreasing in other parts of the country.  For those concerned about destitution and potential famine, however, the study area of Wollo is the most appropriate area to consider, as the epicenter of both the 1973/74 and 1984/85 famines.

The study also investigated the reasons for people falling into destitution.   The impact of the 1984/85 famine was repeatedly cited, as many people never recovered from their loss of livestock (which is the local means of saving) during the big drought.   In addition the small plots of land due to population increase, and the impact of long term illness of bread winners in the household were also major causes of destitution.   Female headed households and new families starting out were also disproportionately represented in the ranks of the destitute.

Although the discussion on policy implications and directions from the study has only started with government officials and donors, the study did point out some potential areas of policy development.   The study points out that assistance or social protection programmes  for the already destitute was going to be a need for some time, and this absolutely had to be provided for. A major effort needs to be directed to turning the trend of destitution and vulnerability around, from increasing to decreasing numbers. This would require sustained investment in preventing more people from falling into destitution as well as efforts to help the vulnerable and destitute to secure viable livelihoods.  

On the policy front it is clear there is no magic solution. Efforts are needed to increase all forms of employment, especially opportunities in the local towns are essential to absorb the growing workforce. Cheaper and better agricultural inputs, livestock restocking and market management, labour migration opportunities, and small scale industry promotion were also all cited as areas for more attention. Follow up discussions on policy based on the final report are planned for February of 2003.

What is clear is that without support and attention to improving livelihoods between crises, that the number of people who will require assistance in every drought will continue to increase.Some of the factors which have prevented Ethiopia from becoming less vulnerable to drought since 1984/85 include:

-    disruptions from civil war and overthrow of the previous government (1990), and the war with Eritrea (1998-2000);

-    terms of trade operating against products from Ethiopia, especially coffee (price dropped by up to 90% in 2002);

-    lack of an extensive industrial base, dependency on imports with little to export;

-    low levels of external non-emergency aid per capita – one of the lowest in Africa in the 1990’s;

-     increased population pressure.

Substantial investment from both within Ethiopia and from the outside world in assisting the destitute and vulnerable out of the poverty trap is essential.   This investment will be large, but it is needed in order to stop the cycle of recurring emergencies, so that people can survive the shocks on their own resources.

In line with this thinking Save the Children (UK) is working with the support of USAID to undertake a 3 year programme in the heart of the area studied by the Destitution Report. The programme will guarantee all the food assistance required by the vulnerable and destitute for a 3 year period, and provide additional inputs to help farmers increase production or diversify their income.   By concentrating on two local districts, called Woredas, and targeting 300,000 people, the programme will be able to test and document different approaches to helping households to  protect their assets and stop them from slipping further into the ‘vulnerable’ or ‘destitute’ categories. 

This is the first major investment of its kind to confront the increasing trend to vulnerability and destitution.  Working closely with the Ethiopian government, this programme is designed to test various approaches to protect assets or improve livelihoods, and to integrate the successful pilots into an overall programme for the Amhara Region (18 million people).   If successful, the programme will be able to demonstrate how to slow or stop or perhaps reverse the slippage of population into destitution.