During his two decades in power, Meles Zenawi committed himself to ending Ethiopia’s dependence on food aid. With his death, IRIN looks at his legacy in promoting food self-sufficency and fighting rural poverty in a country historically associated with drought and environmental stress.
Meles' regime is credited with having pioneered schemes designed to protect the poor such as the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP – see below), a Social Cash Transfer Pilot Programme and a commodity exchange .
Between 1998 and 2012 the average number of Ethiopians in need of food assistance fluctuated between 3 million and 14 million.
Under Meles, Ethiopia's economy, in which agriculture generates 45 percent of GDP and 90 percent of exports, became one of the fastest growing in the world. The country spends about 17 percent of its public money on agriculture, which employs 85 percent of the population.
Ethiopia’s close partnership with key western nations helped ensure it received considerable external funding – it was the fourth largest recipient of official humanitarian aid in 2010 and in 2009 it received the equivalent of 14 percent of its gross national income (GNI) as aid (ODA).
The country has consistently featured among the top 10 recipients of humanitarian aid since 2000, according to data compiled by the UK-based NGO, Development Initiatives.
"There are other African countries who have comprehensive and sound plans to make their people food secure in the long-term like Ghana and Saheilian countries like Niger but unfortunately they have not attracted the same amount of funding as Ethiopia has," said Frederic Mousseau, a food security expert and policy director at the US-based Oakland Institute, a think-tank.
Another food security analyst, who sought anonymity, cautioned that data pointing to the success of schemes such as the PSNP need to take into account "the absolute control over assessments [food security-related], information about the number of people in need, nutritional status etc.
"The narrative is that the corner [as far as food security is concerned] has been turned, but that is a narrative carefully controlled by the government. Time will tell."
The 2000 food crisis
There were at least three major droughts during Meles' tenure: 1999/2000, 2002/2003 and 2009/2010. Many food experts regarded the 1999/2000 crisis as a full-fledged famine, but Meles allegedly chose to prioritise a border war with Eritrea.
"The donors were angry about it so they didn't respond quickly either - and the result was a famine that could easily have been prevented," said one humanitarian expert, who did not want to be named.
The then UK Secretary for International Development Clare Short was reported by the Guardian as saying, "I do not believe anyone in the UK believes we should be providing long-term assistance to a country which is increasing its spending on arms, year on year" after she was criticized for reducing aid to Ethiopia.
An estimated 19,900 people died in Gode zone alone, in Ethiopia's Somali region, according to a paper by Stephen Devereux and Paul Howe, both researchers at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.
The Productive Safety Net Programme
Meles always stressed his commitment to making Ethiopians food self-sufficient, said Eleni Gabre-Madhin, a former World Bank economist and the outgoing CEO of the country's first commodity exchange. Out of this was born the idea the PSNP in 2004 - to make families secure enough to be able to produce or buy their own food.
|The narrative is that the corner [as far as food security is concerned] has been turned, but that is a narrative carefully controlled by the government. Time will tell|
The PSNP aimed to provide support to chronically food insecure families for several months either in the form of cash or food for up to five years, building their resilience and ability to withstand shocks. The families were then considered self-sufficient and would graduate from the programme.
"There is little doubt that the Productive Safety Net Programme was a pioneering effort to redress the food insecurity that long characterized many areas of Ethiopia," said Daniel Maxwell, an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in the US. "It was one critical component of the effort to reduce chronic poverty in Ethiopia."
Christopher Barrett, who teaches applied economics at Cornell University, said: "When the Horn of Africa experienced a horrendous drought last year, it wasn’t Ethiopia that experienced famine. The productive safety nets programme launched by his [Meles’] government has generally done a good job of improving standards of living for the least well off Ethiopians and is being studied and emulated by other countries in the region. While there remains much to be done, the progress in Ethiopia during his rule is very palpable and will hopefully continue through a peaceful transition to new leadership."
However, in 2008 food prices soared beyond the point of affordability for those enrolled in the PSNP and the numbers on food aid ballooned.
"One of the flaws of the PSNP was that the cash being offered to the people was too small to help them graduate from the programme," said Mousseau. "The other was it was not supported by other investments needed to help uplift the people from poverty such as infrastructure and access to markets to make any significant impact on their livelihoods."
The Ethiopian Commodity Exchange
This opened in 2008 with the aim of helping small farmers gain access to market information and bring buyers and sellers under one roof.
"Mr Meles believed that we had to be transparent and not cater to any narrow interest of big commercial farms," said Gabre-Madhin. The exchange, which trades in four commodities - maize, coffee, sesame and beans - provides real-time market information to farmers via a mobile phone text message service and a free phone-in facility.
According to Gabre-Madhin, farmers’ share of the final export price of coffee rose from 35-38 percent to 65-70 percent.
Land “grabs” and forced relocations
The government dismissed critics of its large scale land-leasing policy – part of a five year Growth and Transformation Plan - insisting the millions of dollars of foreign investment involved would create jobs, improve domestic agricultural expertise and reduce both poverty and the country's chronic food insecurity.
According to a paper by the Oakland Institute, the policy led to the forcible relocation of indigenous communities to villages in the Gambella and Benishangul regions, where they were told they would be taught new techniques to produce food. Their land is being leased out by the government to multinationals in Saudi Arabia and India. The Institute's research showed that more than three million hectares of land had been leased out to investors.
"In recent years, the Meles regime has shifted its focus to big commercial enterprises at the cost of the local indigenous communities and even the pastoral population in the Afar region," said Mousseau.
This prompted an Ethiopian economist, Aklog Birara, living in the US to lodge a protest with the Indian government in May this year.
“Today, Ethiopia is an 'empty womb'. Millions of hectares of its most fertile farmlands and the waters and rivers that give them sustenance are given away in a scheme that we can only characterize as ‘farmland colonization by invitation.’ Indian companies are taking over for 25 to 99 years duration at the invitation of Mr Meles’ government,” he wrote.
Dawit Alemu, an agricultural economist with the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research believes commercial farming has contributed to the country's booming growth. "Moreover, huge irrigation projects linked with hydropower are under implementation, which are expected to ensure food security in the very near future.” But such projects have also come under fire from activists who claim they threaten the livelihoods of thousands of people.
"Now, the question is whether we will have a person who will ensure the implementation and finalization of all these efforts that have started," added Dawit.
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