/ 26 August 2008

In a time of famine, who should be saved?

The global food crisis has forced families to make grievous choices. When Mulu Baboche travelled from the Ethiopian capital to visit her home town in the drought-stricken southern countryside, she found her brother weakened, his animals emaciated and his nine children wilting from hunger.

Mulu calculated that she could afford to care for one more child back in Addis Ababa, but which to choose?

”They were all so skinny; they were all the same,” she says, seated in her living room.

She chose the youngest, not necessarily the sickest, but her favourite. With a drought and a scarcity of food from the global food crisis leaving millions destitute and even starving, Ethiopia is faced with similar dilemma.

And, like Mulu, the country may be showing its own form of favouritism by providing cheap food to urban residents — possibly at the peril of farmers and livestock herders suffering from drought in the country’s hinterlands.

Local government offices across the capital and other cities this month began selling food at prices nearly 40% below cost, from a first shipment of a total 150 000 tonnes of wheat, enough food to fill at least five ships.

Including transport, the country paid about $80-million for the grain, according to figures provided by Gebere Egziabher, one of the directors of the Ethiopian Grain Trading Enterprise. The step had been announced months earlier by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as a countermeasure to a doubling of food prices over the past year.

Serious shortfall
Meanwhile, the country has less than half of what it needs for relief efforts in the countryside and is blaming donors for the shortfall. According to some estimates, more than 13-million Ethiopians will need some kind of emergency assistance this year to cope with a combination of drought and rising food prices. Ethiopia asked donors for an extra $300-million in emergency relief in June, and will likely increase its appeal this week.

”It is the humanitarian community’s obligation to see that the humanitarian needs are fulfilled,” says Simon Mechale, who heads the country’s disaster relief agency. ”The humanitarian community has not been able to fully support what was jointly established.”

Donor governments, however, may baulk at the latest appeal as they grow increasingly dismayed with the urban feeding programme, which they say has imperilled relief efforts in the countryside. Over the past 18 months, the Ethiopian government has borrowed 260 000 tonnes of grain from the grain reserve, established as a food bank for desperate times, to support the subsidised food distribution in urban areas. Since the government has not paid back a single tonne, the grain reserve is now all but empty.

”It was a very short-sighted strategy because they did not have the reserves to respond,” says Suzanne Poland, head of USAid’s office for assets and livelihood transitions.

Ethiopia and partner organisations like the World Food Programme have had to prioritise the use of limited supplies, cutting down rations by one-third and only providing food distribution in the worst-affected areas. With millions of destitute families in the countryside receiving no assistance at all, their children are quickly falling into acute malnutrition. Therapeutic feeding centres set up to assist the most desperate cases are in some cases overrun with mothers and their children.

Political stability
Yet, Ethiopia must also respond to the threat the global food crisis poses to its own political stability. Rising food prices have already led to protests and riots in countries such as Mexico and Cameroon; in Haiti, the discontent led to the resignation of the prime minister. In Ethiopia, nothing of that nature has occurred, and policies seem determined to prevent it, including the use the strategic grain reserve.

Since the United States and other donors pay back their loans to the grain reserve with direct food aid, bags of US wheat — wheat labelled ”not for sale”, wheat originally intended as charity ”from the American people” — are now being sold along with the wheat the Ethiopian government spent millions to import.

At a press conference earlier this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian State Minister for Agriculture Abera Deresa reiterated the government position that the urban poor are among the most vulnerable. But defending the urban food programme on these grounds has become more dubious after the government raised the price of the subsidised grain and allowed anyone to buy.

Formerly, only families certified as poor could buy the subsidised grain at 90 birr (about $9,50) for 50kg. Now 50kg cost 125 birr, pricing out people like Mulu who once depended on it. Instead, traders, bakers and middle-class mothers are now queued up to buy the wheat.

Mulu says she may send her niece back to the countryside as early as next week because of the rising price of the subsidised wheat.

”Life is terrible there, but I have no choice,” she says.

Returning from a church ceremony that marked the end of 15 days of fasting, Mulu and her family still have not eaten a meal. She is saving the last of her bread for later in the evening, and unsure of how she will feed her family the next day.

”The coming days are very dark,” she says. — IPS