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Rapid response and long-term solutions: Christian Aid and food security in Ethiopia

By Antoinette Powell

Antoinette Powell is the Communications and Information Officer, Africa with Christian Aid since 2007. Previously she worked as Advocacy Officer, The African Child Policy Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (2005 - 2006).

The author would like to acknowledge the Christian Aid Ethiopia office staff, in particular Cathy Riley, Country Manager, for her support with this article.

Food insecurity is a deep-rooted problem for Ethiopia. With almost half the country's population of 78.6 million living in deep and long-term poverty, many people are vulnerable to drought and moderate and severe acute malnutrition. With millions of Ethiopians regarded as chronically food insecure, even in years when the rains are good, many face uncertainty over how they will feed their families each day, every year.

When Christian Aid began working in Ethiopia in the 1970s, the country - and indeed the whole of the Sahel region - was suffering the devastating effects of a famine which left hundreds of thousands dead. Less than ten years later, Ethiopia was once again in the grip of another drought which led to what BBC journalist Michael Buerk described as a "biblical famine". At its height, the 1984/85 famine was claiming hundreds of lives each day in the Mekelle Relief Camp in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia alone. Further food shortages followed the 1984-1985 famine in 1992, 1994, 2000 and 2002, and more recently in 2005 and 2008. These emergencies highlight the persistent food insecurity which characterises life for many Ethiopians.

Christian Aid response

In each of these emergencies, Christian Aid responded rapidly through a network of partners to provide relief and rehabilitation support to those most in need. These partners - local organisations based within the communities with which Christian Aid work - are central to Christian Aid's capacity to respond in emergencies, as well as the organisation's wider development work. Christian Aid remains nonoperational I the belief that local organisations, rooted in the communities they support, are best placed to understand the issues local people face and the solutions most appropriate to each context. Working through local partners at the grassroots level is also considered essential to maximise impact and ensure sustainability. These organisations also provide a key connection to the rapidly changing environment and alert to potential emergency situations. When emergencies do strike they are already based within the communities that need support, and so are often better able to respond with agility than organisations that need to bring in staff and resources.

Such an approach enables Christian Aid to adapt emergency response to ensure that the support meets the needs of each affected population. For example, in 1984 when Christian Aid could not reach the northern areas worst affected by Ethiopia's drought by travelling north from Addis Ababa, cash was provided to the Emergency Relief Desk based in Sudan to purchase grain locally and provide it to affected communities. More recently, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), supported by Christian Aid, set up a cash for work project in southern Ethiopia enabling communities to purchase locally available food when their crops failed.

Suku Deda's village of Sabant in southern Ethiopia was devastated by drought (see case study)

Surviving drought and developing communities Although ensuring that food aid and other relief reaches communities in need is critical during droughts and other emergencies, humanitarian response must work alongside longer term solutions to poverty. So, when the immediate needs during or in the aftermath of a disaster have been met and the eyes of the world move on, Christian Aid partners remain with the affected communities ensuring that the long-term work of rebuilding lives and livelihoods is not neglected.

Following the failure of seasonal rains in late 2005, large parts of southern Ethiopia faced serious water shortages. Vast areas of crops were lost and with pastoralists and sedentary farmers unable to find pasture and water, many livestock died. More than two million people were affected, leaving them uncertain of how they and their families would survive. This is reflected in the situation of one woman, Suku Deda:

Suku Deda was caring for her ten children in Sabant village, southern Ethiopia when this drought devastated the herd of cattle she had carefully increased year on year in order to support them. Along with other women in the community, Suku had set up a cooperative through which she sold milk and cheese enabling them to earn a small income and ensure their children had enough to eat each day. The drought devastated this business with the women's cattle dying one by one, leaving them with no food and no source of income. Having worked determinedly to build her business, Suku was reduced to waiting for external help saying, "If nothing comes, we can do nothing. We will just wait and sit and die."

Christian Aid partner, the EECMY, works with some of the most marginalised communities in Ethiopia including pastoralist communities in the country's south. Recognising that many people - like Suku - had been left without any means to feed their families following the failed rains in 2005, EECMY responded quickly. With food still available in the south, despite people's inability to afford it, they provided cash injections to avoid damaging the local economy by bringing in supplies at the expense of those already available. At the same time they also realised that this was an opportunity to put in place measures to help protect communities from the effects of other droughts that would inevitably occur in the future.

EECMY's cash for work project provided not only a welcome source of income for families, but also brought communities together to build structures including ponds to catch rain water. This has enabled them to make better use of this scarce resource in the years that have followed. Fifteen-year-old Dhaba, who is a Borana pastoralist, described EECMY's project saying, "If anyone else came here to do this work we would be so disappointed. This is our opportunity to work on our own development and I want to be a part of this."

Increasing resilience to avoid disaster

It is not only in the aftermath of emergencies that Christian Aid's partners carry out projects. Increasing communities' resilience to disaster is another key aspect of the organisation's work on agriculture and other food security projects in Ethiopia. This has brought a radical change in the lives of men like Muhe Shehu Ibrahim who lives in Harbu in the north west of the Amhara region (see case study 1). When carrying out interventions like described, which aim to reduce communities' resilience to natural disasters, Christian Aid is keen not only to identify areas where these events are particularly likely. The organisation also targets the communities least able to cope because of high levels of poverty and who in many cases have been pushed to the margins of society.

Case Study 1: Muhe Shehu Ibrahim's story

Muhe's father and grandfather were both farmers, but growing enough for the family to eat had always been difficult. In 1984, this task became impossible. "In 1984/1985, for the first time, we received food assistance," explains Muhe. "There was a funeral committee. That committee had one job; to organise funerals. They were paid in food. For almost a year we continued to bury people."

Muhe and his father before him had no irrigation system and had relied on just two crops - heavily dependent on water - to feed their family. "My father and my grandfathers used to plough these lands. Production was very difficult," says Muhe. "They were full-time farmers. Everything was natural. We produced only teff and sorghum; we didn't know any other crops". "There was a drought and we faced difficult problems. For teff and sorghum we could only have one harvest. When the rains didn't come we had no harvest, we were forced to sell our ox. We sold the ox for cheap prices and bought the food for expensive prices - so we still faced problems because we couldn't afford to buy enough food."

Despite the failure of many farmers to grow waterhungry crops like sorghum and teff, many Ethiopians note that the rivers in the northern Amhara region never ran completely dry. It was simply that without effective irrigation systems, families like Muhe's could not make use of the little water that remained available.

Christian Aid partner Water Action worked with Muhe and others from his community, providing training to help them make best use of the water available to them, suggesting drought resistant crops which can be planted at different times of the year and installing an irrigation system.

"I produce three times a year," says Muhe. "Since Water Action, I haven't thought about food problems."

Working with three Ethiopian organisations, Agri-Service Ethiopia, Action for Development and Women Support Association, Christian Aid is currently implementing a project funded by the European Union to increase the food security of households in Dasenach, Maalee and South Ari woredas in South Omo zone in Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). Despite facing annual food shortages lasting between six and nine months, these areas have been left out of many development initiatives within the SNNPR where South Omo is located. Consequently levels of poverty remain high, with over 50% of the population living below the poverty line. And yet these woredas lie along the Omo River that could be used to provide irrigation for the surrounding areas and for fishing. This project will involve developing small scale irrigation schemes which, along with ensuring that a more diverse range of seeds are planted and organic fertilisers are produced and used, should increase crop yields across the area. In addition, training and support for fisheries and livestock production will ensure that communities are less dependent on one food source. Although 20 per cent of the population required food aid in 2009, if these natural resources were fully utilised the area could produce enough food without relying on external support: Christian Aid is working with these communities to exploit this potential.

Addressing climate change

This work on the ground, responding to emergencies and building people's resilience so that floods, droughts and other extreme weather conditions do not become disasters, will not remain effective if we do not also keep an eye on the context in which we are working. While scientific evidence on the causes - and indeed future effects - of shifting weather patterns around the world remains inconclusive, it looks likely that the changes Ethiopia has already seen are a result of climate change caused by increasing CO2 emissions. Ethiopia reports an average rise in temperature across the country of 0.2oC every decade for the last 50 years and an increasing number of droughts. With patterns of rainfall predicted to become even more uncertain in the coming years, this is a phenomenon that any development agency working to help Ethiopians lift themselves out of poverty simply cannot afford to ignore.

In 2009, Christian Aid funded one of its partners, Citizens Solidarity for the Campaign Against Famine in Ethiopia (CS-CAFÉ), to conduct a study on climate change. The study found that awareness about climate change has dramatically increased during the past 10 years, and that farmers are increasingly noticing changes that may well be climate-related. These include increased incidence of insects, weeds, plant and animal diseases, changes to potential crop growing periods, and shifts in which areas are suitable for growing crops. The findings of this study will enable Christian Aid to work with partners to identify how they can support communities to adapt to the changing weather patterns they are already seeing, and how to mitigate the impacts of climate change in their work.

The Ethiopian Civil Society Network on Climate Change (ECSNCC) is a non-governmental organisation which began a localised campaign on climate change as part of Countdown to Copenhagen in September 2009. ECSNCC used their network to collect signatures calling for climate justice and to hold events such as climate hearings across Ethiopia. Work helping communities to adapt to the changing climate within Ethiopia is complemented by Christian Aid's campaign at international level which calls for swift action by governments around the world, and particularly in industrial nations, to curb carbon emissions.

A future without hunger

While Christian Aid will continue to respond to the emergency needs of Ethiopians affected by the country's high levels of food insecurity, the organisation believes that with continued support it will be possible to break this cycle of hunger. By drawing on its experience of building communities' resilience to drought and other disasters and looking for new opportunities for this work, the organisation aims to change the outlook for some of the poorest and most marginalised Ethiopian communities.

In the face of climate change, Christian Aid will seek to mitigate its impacts and support people to adapt. Despite the increasing challenges the changing climate brings, Christian Aid believes that communities who need food aid year after year can be supported to achieve self-sufficiency where neither children nor adults go to bed hungry each day.

For further information, contact: Antoinette Powell, email:, telephone: +44 (0)20 7523 2288 (UK)

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Reference this page

Antoinette Powell (). Rapid response and long-term solutions: Christian Aid and food security in Ethiopia. Field Exchange 40, February 2011. p48.



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