There is a joke told in Ethiopia that encapsulates the country's struggle with food aid dependency. In it, two subsistence farmers are talking about the year's poor rains and the impact on their harvests.
The older, his face and hands worn from a lifetime of hard work, turns to his younger friend and offers some advice: "It is not the rains in Ethiopia you need to worry about, but whether it rains in America or Canada."
For the last three decades, millions of Ethiopians have depended on food aid from the donors. Each year, regardless of harvests or rains, at least five million Ethiopians need food aid for six months to survive.
Millions of tonnes of wheat are shipped and trucked into the country. In the eyes of the world, Ethiopia seems to be in constant crisis, and food aid has become the norm.
Two years ago, the government decided to take steps to reduce its dependency on food aid.
"We could not go on as normal," said Mulugeta Debalkew, agriculture ministry spokesman. "Things had to change."
In 2005, the Ethiopian government launched a relief-to-development strategy called "safety nets", which it hoped would end food aid dependency for millions within three years.
Agricultural development is at the heart of the plan, which is, effectively, a food-for-work scheme where local people build wells or small irrigation systems and work on projects to help prevent soil erosion in exchange for food.
"On one hand, people get food to eat. On the other, it contributes to growth because people are doing things to help support the communities," said Mulugeta.
Relief creates dependency while development breaks it, he said. The safety nets programme combines relief with development.
"The safety nets programme offers the chance to move from food aid dependency to a situation where you save lives while figuring out a solution," said Ishac Diwan, head of the World Bank in Ethiopia, which is one of the leading proponents of safety nets initiatives.
Breaking the cycle of dependency
In most parts of the world, food needs are transitory: An earthquake hits a region, and people need food to survive until they are back on their feet.
That solution has been used repeatedly in Ethiopia, where rains regularly fail. Hungry people got food handouts.
That approach failed, according to Mulugeta, because it created dependency and did not address the real problems of repeated drought, bad governance, and conflict in the country.
"If the need is transitory, it should be stopped at a particular time. But the food aid to Ethiopia has been going on for the last three decades," he said.
"The problem in Ethiopia is a chronic one, and you cannot solve this with free handouts. The food aid just kept them alive and next year they needed it again," he added.
Mulugeta said that since the current government led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came to power in 1991, the number of hungry people in Ethiopia had remained the same.
The target of ending chronic hunger for five million people in three years is optimistic, and the relief-to-development scheme has not been without its share of problems, such as poor implementation leading to delays in food reaching its intended beneficiaries.
"This is a very important transformation," said Diwan. "The first year of the programme was not bad. There were problems and lessons have been learned. One of the things learned is the need was greater than five million people."
Ethiopia's development partners maintain that in isolation, the flagship scheme will not bring about real change or end dependency.
Aid workers believe that to make a real difference, subsistence farmers - who account for 85 percent of the 77 million people living in rural areas - must be offered alternatives to eking out a pitiful existence on endlessly dwindling plots of land. Most of them live below the international poverty line of US $1 a day.
"The problem we face here is that more and more people are living on the edge," said Paul Hebert, who heads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia. "It doesn't take very much to push them over that edge.
"The fear is that if we do have another large drought in this country and we haven't made significant progress in addressing the chronic food security that could set things back significantly. Because of the precariousness of many people, you can easily slip into a very serious famine situation."
An estimated 11 million people in East Africa and the Horn of Africa are currently facing critical food shortages owing to a prolonged drought - some 1.75 million people in southern Ethiopia's Somali and Oromiya regions are facing severe food shortages. Experts predict that the coming rains will also be insufficient.
Hebert warned against focusing only on the relief-to-development side at the expense of reduced capacity to address acute life threatening humanitarian needs.
"Mitigation is important, and these development activities can partially do that. But I think the country has to maintain the response capacity to the inevitable next large drought," he said.
Basic needs like nutrition, health assistance and dealing with major diseases also need to be given a higher priority, he added.
Ethiopia's booming population is also exacerbating current development drives.
"If the current population growth in Ethiopia continues, according to recent figures, by 2050 there will be more than 170 million people," Hebert added.
"The Ministry of Finance and Economic Development indicated themselves that population growth will undermine development and growth efforts of the country if it is not addressed. These problems of course have to be addressed, otherwise we are not going to achieve the Millennium Development Goals," he noted.
Hebert said as many as 10 million people may need assistance annually, and current aid of around $1.9 billion would need to be tripled if Ethiopia were to make development gains.
He also stressed the importance of growth outside the farming sector.
"People must be given other options rather than just agriculture," Hebert added. "There is going to have to be a tremendous increase in the private sector to be able to create alternative job opportunities. It cannot be created just through government programmes.
"That could also have a large impact on food security because people can buy their food," he said.
The agriculture ministry is optimistic it can overcome these hurdles and break the three-decade dependency stranglehold and sees the safety nets initiative as part of the solution, which also includes boosting the private sector.
Mulugeta said the ministry was trying to create a fruit and vegetable corridor along the country's Rift Valley. It is also encouraging farmers to switch from growing crops like sorghum, which sells at local markets, to crops like sesame, for export on the world market.
"We have to break this continual dependency if we are to develop. The relief-to-development programme will help do that," he said. "I think we will achieve our target of ending food aid dependency for five million people in the next three years."
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