Supporting the People of Ethiopia to Get Back on their Feet


Mandefro Mekete, Emergency Operations Coordinator, CARE Ethiopia

Jan. 30, 2012

Supporting the People of Ethiopia to Get Back on their Feet  image 1

The case of Ashenafi, 35, illustrates how it is not a single event, such as a drought, that deeply affects people, but rather the cumulative impacts of a number of previous shocks.

I clearly remember July 2011 when the world started to focus its attention on the food crisis in the Horn of Africa. At that time, more than 4.5 million people in Ethiopia were in need of food assistance and water shortages were putting millions at risk of waterborne diseases.

I remember July 2011 because by then it had been almost a year since I released a drought alert for the Horn of Africa to our key partners. In August 2010, la Niña, a meteorological phenomenon that usually provokes dry weather conditions, was forecasted. As an Ethiopian who grew up in the north-eastern part of Ethiopia and who has been affected by drought, I knew the potential consequences of such a forecast.

In response to this, we at CARE immediately started to prepare ourselves to respond to the potential crisis. We launched our first relief interventions in February 2011 with activities to provide water to drought-affected communities in Borena, located in the southern part of Ethiopia. We also provided food assistance in East and West Hararghe in Oromia region and in Afar region in eastern Ethiopia. We later complemented our drought response with nutrition and livelihoods interventions in order to have an effective, comprehensive and integrated approach.

Chronic food insecurity is, however, commonplace in rural Ethiopia in any year, irrespective of unusual climatic or economic shocks. Many factors contribute to this, including land degradation, limited access to basic social services, population pressure, and near complete dependence on rain-fed, subsistence agriculture.

The vast majority of the Ethiopian population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods. As most agriculture is rain-fed, reliable and sufficient rainfall is critical for the country's economy, livelihoods and food security. Each year, depending on the location, Ethiopia has two rainy seasons and one or two dry seasons. The most difficult period of the year is called the "lean season", when food stocks are low and the new crops have not been harvested yet. This usually happens at the height of the rainy seasons. Food prices tend to rise during that period while livestock prices significantly decline.

People use different mechanisms to cope with the lean season, such as reducing the number of meals per day, buying less preferred food and selling key assets (e.g., livestock). Once key assets are sold, it takes a very long time for people to rebuild their capital. They therefore become increasingly vulnerable over time and are trapped in a cycle of poverty.

So, when the drought hit Ethiopia in 2011, people were not only affected by this event but by the cumulative impacts of previous events (droughts, floods, economic shocks or lean seasons).

Nothing illustrates this better than listening to the people affected by the drought. When asked about the impacts of the 2011 drought, many start recalling the interrelated chain of events over past years that have pushed them over the edge this year. The story of one man in West Hararghe last November is particulalry striking. Ashenafi, a 35 year-old farmer and father of eight children, explained to CARE how he progessively sold his productive assets over the years to cope with the drought or lean seasons. As result, he was backsliding each time a little bit more into the cycle of poverty.

In 2005, Ashenafi was in a position to provide a decent life for his family and send all his children to school. He owned a house with a corrugated roof and had three oxen, one cow, three sheep, three goats and thirty chickens. Then, during the 2006 drought he was forced to sell one of his oxen and three sheep. A year later, he had to sell another ox and his three goats to cope with the lean season. The last ox was sold in 2008, along with all his chickens. And then in 2009, he had to sell his cow that provided milk for his children. Moreover, every time Ashenafi sold his livestock, he did so at the peak of the lean season, which meant that he had to sell at a reduced price.

When the drought hit in 2011, with no other assets on hand, Ashenafi was forced to sell his house. He now lives in a hut with his family and has started to receive food assistance, initially from the Government and later from CARE.

My own family story is very similar to Ashenafi's. We were also farmers, and during the severe drought in 1984, my family lost all their assets. We had to sell our cows, plow oxen, horses and goats in order to survive. During that year and the one that followed, we received support from NGOs. My family participated in cash-for-work projects, where they worked on soil and water conservation activities in exchange for a salary. We also received funds to buy plow oxen that helped us to restart our agricultural activities.

Two years later, my father was able to secure a position as a guard in a government seedling nursery. As a result, we were less vulnerable. We still continued to farm, but a low harvest no longer had the devastating impact it did before.

Progressively, my family was able to rebuild its capital and buy plow oxen, sheep, goats, cows, donkeys and horses. Recovery was a long process, but eventually all my siblings were able to graduate from college and find good jobs. Today, we are in a position to resist shocks, such as drought, and we can also support other family members and friends.

Ashenafi's family can follow a similar path if they also receive timely and appropriate support. Receiving seeds and small ruminants will help his family to restart their agricultural activities in the short term. Water system rehabilitation/development will ensure that his family has reliable and easy access to water, which will positively impact the health of all the members of his household. Since women typically bear the main responsibility for fetching water, this will also free up time for his wife and daughters – time that can be better used for school and productive employment.

Other initiatives, like village savings and loans associations, will help his family to accumulate savings, improve their cash management skills, and enhance their access to credit. Such projects, which focus on gender equality, will also help Ashenafi's wife to be more active in her community and engage in income-generating activities, therefore increasing her family's income.

We know how to support people to improve their resilience against recurrent shocks, thereby avoiding future crises. Ideas abound, but recovery support will be critical. Ashenafi and his family will get back on their feet only if we immediately support them in recovering from the drought and continue to do so in the medium/long term. This way, in a few years Ashenafi's family can also succeed like my family did and become independent and resilient. Let's work together to make this happen.