African business, politics and lifestyle
Why is the West still feeding Ethiopia?
It has now been 25 years since more than 1 million Ethiopians died as those of us lucky enough to live in the rich world sat transfixed in front of our television screens. The horrible suffering brought with it the biggest outpouring of charity ever seen as governments and ordinary people dug deep to stop it.
But a quarter of a century on foreigners are still feeding a huge number of Ethiopians. The Ethiopian government says poor rains mean 6.2 million of its people need food aid this year and has asked the international community to provide it.
Another 7 million hungry people are on a government-run but foreign-funded scheme that gives food in exchange for work, which means more than 13 million of the country’s 83 million people rely on foreign handouts to survive.
Aid agency Oxfam is now saying that food aid is trapping Ethiopia in a cycle of dependence on the West and that donations could be better spent.
In the valleys of northern Ethiopia much has changed since 1984 when hundreds of thousands of dying people streamed down from the hills desperate for food.
Chinese engineers in huge trucks hurtle down newly built roads financed by their government and children now flow from the hills on the way to school.
Ethiopians say they are sick of their image as a people beset by famine and war and point to foreign investors showing growing interest in their country.
This week I travelled to a small village called Abay where Oxfam and Ethiopian NGO Orda are trying to help the locals become independent of food aid so that, when a drought hits, they will be able to survive without charity.
Men worked fields rich with wheat, young boys threshed barley for a local brewery and women had set up self-help groups and were giving out loans so their members could buy the five sheep necessary to start a breeding business.
The area looked prosperous and the people said they felt more pride now.
A growing number of aid experts — many of them African — say that if more money was spent on schemes like this, rather than on food, then Ethiopians and other Africans dependent on food aid could eventually wean themselves off it.
“I am 100 percent confident that day will come,” one farmer told me, standing in his impressive field of wheat. “Begging is a shameful practice for Ethiopia.”
So is food aid making Africans dependent? Is it time donor countries cut back on it? Should more money be spent on helping people become self-sufficient? Could foreign direct investment improve things? Or is there another answer?