Eritrea is facing a food crisis, but aid workers say they cannot fully determine its severity as they are unable to assess the situation because of travel restrictions and the government's policy of "self-reliance".
The rains have failed again this year, in what is one of the driest regions in Africa. One aid agency report said the country had produced only about 30 percent of its food requirements in 2008/09.
According to a recent report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), rates of acute malnutrition in the northern provinces of Gash Barka and Anseba were above the emergency threshold of 15 percent; by February 2009, admission rates to therapeutic feeding centres were already two to six times greater than in 2008.
UNICEF warned that higher global food prices could be affecting up to 2 million Eritreans, more than half the population of 3.6 million. UN agencies have projected that the 1.3 million people living below the poverty line would suffer most.
Heruy Asgodom, head of Eritrea's agriculture department, acknowledged: "The rains have been poor again this year," but added, "We don't need food aid - we don't believe in it."
Eritrea is difficult terrain for humanitarian agencies, a result of strained relations with the UN system, allegedly flowing from its border dispute with archrival Ethiopia.
Marcus Prior, spokesman for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), said the government was not issuing work permits to international humanitarian staff, and with "movement restrictions, and the curtailing of project activities by key partners, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the real needs in Eritrea at this time".
The agency is feeding 17 million people in the Horn of Africa, which is still struggling to recover from its worst humanitarian crisis since 1984. Prior said WFP was "concerned" that malnourished children and pregnant mothers in Eritrea might "need the same level of assistance that the agency is already providing in neighbouring countries".
Eritrea suspended food aid in favour of a cash-for-work policy in 2006, "integrating" 94,500 tons of donor food into its new programme. Aid workers speculate that food-for-work was funded by "redirecting" supplies "seized" from a WFP warehouse. According to the US government, "this food aid later appeared on the local market". WFP still has an office in Asmara, the capital, but currently runs no operations in the country.
The government argues it rejected general food distribution because a "few have tended to use relief assistance as a political tool, and in a manner that would ultimately perpetuate dependency rather than eliminating it". It bred "lethargy", which the more dignified food-for-work programmes avoid.
NGO activities have also been brought under government control. The number of international NGOs working in the country has dropped significantly, from 37 in early 2005 to five, according to aid workers. NGOs need to have at least US$2 million in their accounts and are not allowed to be the implementing partners of UN agencies.
Asgodom said, "We want to make sure that most of the funds for a programme go to the beneficiaries - our condition was that NGOs can spend 10 percent of the funds on administrative costs, while 90 percent of it should go the beneficiaries. Those who agreed to that, stayed; others left."
Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
|Rains have failed and so have crops|
The case for food aid
Almost any Eritrean will tell you that food is unaffordable, and the price of some staple grains rose fourfold in 2008. Most of the population depends on agriculture and pastoralism for their livelihood, but even in a good year Eritrea can only produce 60 percent of its cereal needs.
Eritrea's economy is stagnant; inflation, last recorded in 2007 by the IMF, was almost 14 percent; gross domestic product (GDP) growth, then driven by an improved agricultural harvest and a rebound in construction, was estimated at about 1 percent. The World Bank put gross national income per capita in 2007 at $230 per annum.
The average family cannot afford the most popular staple grains, such as teff, which retails at $8 per kg in Asmara, and is used to make injera, a pancake that is the mainstay of an Eritrean meal. A family of four would consume at least 25kg of teff a month, amounting to $200, so teff has become a luxury rather than a staple.
Teff is often replaced with sorghum, costing about $2 per kg, but an average family would need around 40kg a month, pushing the bill to $80 and also putting it beyond the reach of most families.
"It is very hard - while the price of food has gone up, our salaries remain the same," said an Asmara resident. Many survive on money sent home by relatives in other countries.
World Bank economist Dilip Ratha, a leading authority on remittance flows, guesstimated that between 15 percent and 20 percent of the population were living overseas, and remittances accounted for over 20 percent of GDP.
The agriculture department's Asgodom maintained that the cash-for-work programme was a safety net which particularly helped small-scale farmers and pastoralists cope during the lean season.
People are deployed to work on public infrastructure projects, earning 40 nafka (about $2.60) a day; the countryside is dotted with road construction and maintenance projects that run for three months during the lean farming season.
The programme does not cover all vulnerable Eritreans, but data on how many people benefit were hard to source, except for one project funded by the European Commission (EC), which benefits 25,000 households. Asgodom said the cash-for-work programme was funded by "monetizing", or selling, food aid.
The EC, the country's largest donor, has earmarked US$96 million to help Eritrea achieve food security, with another $23 million from a $1.2 billion facility to boost food production in at least 35 developing countries affected by the food crisis.
EC spokesman John Clancy commented: "The European Commission's humanitarian aid is always provided without any conditions attached to any vulnerable population around the globe ... Eritrea included. Our humanitarian aid is provided on a needs basis, and is apolitical."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions