By Erich Wiedemann
November 28, 2005
Ato Omot Atnafu and his brother Tefere were out working in the fields when the priests came to their village. The three tall, slim men with black beards and saffron-yellow robes walked nimbly up the narrow path into the village and disappeared into the village hall.
They re-emerged a few minutes later with the mayor in tow. He raised his cow horn to his mouth and blew into it, producing a squawking noise that could be heard all the way on the other side of the hill separating the village from the neighboring community. It was the mayor's way of summoning his villagers, of letting them know that he had an announcement to make. This was the announcement: "I understand that some of you have been disobedient. You have desecrated a day of the Lord by working. These devout men have come to remind you to obey the laws of the church."
The day before had been a holiday, and the next holiday would come two days later and would be followed by another. Three holidays a week. "What should we eat if we spend all our time worshipping the saints instead of planting corn," said Ato Omot. It was an outrageous act of impertinence. One of the priests approached Ato Omot and gently boxed his ears. "You are a sinner," he said.
150 holidays a year
Ato Omot was shaking with anger, but he restrained himself. One doesn't fight with men of the cloth. Besides, he was clearly not in the best shape. His arms and legs were as thin as rubber bands and his patched jacket fluttered loosely around his gaunt torso. The priests, on the other hand, looked well-fed.
There are more than 150 holidays on the Coptic Christian calendar, as well as 180 days of fasting on which the faithful are permitted to eat only one meal. Those who disobey the rules can expect sanctions, possibly even the threat of ending up in hell. Coptic Christianity has little to do with life, but everything to do with fear, sin, punishment and death. But how can people feed themselves when every other day is a holiday and they are not permitted to work the fields on those days?
When it comes to Ethiopian agriculture, even the word field is a vast exaggeration. The average farmer in the country's densely populated highland regions has less than a thousand square meters (about a quarter of an acre) to farm -- hardly more than a soccer field and too little to feed a family. Ethiopia urgently needs land reform -- and a new holiday calendar.
Ethiopian farmers could certainly coax better yields from their small plots, but the problem is that they have no sense of ownership of their land, since all land belongs to the state. The state, for its part, has had little incentive to build irrigation canals and plant trees. As a result, the country's forests have declined from 40 percent of total land area 40 years ago to less than 5 percent today.
Because a controlled agrarian economy is practically unfeasible, Omot and Tefere, their aging parents, their widowed sister and her three children live mostly from the sale of cow-pats, which they procure from the owner of a herd of cattle in the neighboring village. But their earnings are slim. Their mother has only one leg and their father is severely ill with malaria. Although health care is free in Ethiopia, the Atnafus are too poor to pay the bus fare to the hospital.
Preferring tef to triticale
But despite their poverty, the Atnafus are in no danger of starvation. Omot and Tefere have just applied for a "poverty certificate" for the entire family from the local farmers' collective. If the application is approved, their parents will be permitted to ride the bus for free.
Scandinavian agriculture experts visited the village last year. They brought along triticale, a cross between wheat and rye from South Africa that produces three times the yield and is more resistant against frost, hail and pests than tef, Ethiopia's traditional cereal crop. According to Bernhard Meier zu Biesen, regional director of the aid group German Agro Action in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia could eliminate its hunger problems almost immediately if only a third of Ethiopian arable land were planted in triticale instead of tef.
Unfortunately, though, it isn't quite that simple. Klaus Feldner of the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) introduced triticale in Bahr Dar on Lake Tana -- but the promising results he expected never materialized. Ethiopian farmers proved reluctant to plant the foreign grain. Triticale, say the Ethiopians, doesn't make decent injera, the pancake-like bread that is a mainstay of Ethiopian cuisine. And the government, for its part, has been reluctant to argue with the palates of the people, instead opting to respect their sacrosanct eating habits.
The Ethiopian government instead takes the antiquated approach of romanticizing agriculture at the expense of trade and industry, which it finds somehow conspiratorial. As far as the administration in Addis Ababa is concerned, if the people had just a little more to eat, everything could just as well remain as it is. National income has declined by half in the last 20 years, a trend that continues unabated. At the same time, the population is growing by more than 3 percent a year.
A cycle of aid
Yet despite the growing poverty and repeated food shortages, the government has done absolutely nothing about low crop yields. And why should it? After all, with a well-oiled aid machine routinely offsetting the country's food deficits, there is little in the way of incentive. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP), which administers international aid to Ethiopia, likewise has shown little interest in breaking the aid cycle in Ethiopia. After all, by doing so it would be making itself superfluous.
In early January, the WFP announced that $122 billion would be needed to feed Ethiopia's hungry for the next decade. The next day Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called upon Western lender nations to forgive Ethiopia's debts. Germany had just agreed a week earlier to forgive the money it is owed by Ethiopia. "We expect that the funds that will be released as a result of the agreement will be used to fight poverty," said then-Deputy Foreign Minister Kerstin Müller. It was wishful thinking on Müller's part. So far, the Ethiopian government has spent most of its savings on the military. Despite being the world's poorest country, Ethiopia has the largest military in all of sub-Saharan Africa -- and Prime Minister Zenawi has given no indication that he plans to change anything.
The categorical imperative of development aid is simple: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show a man how to catch fish and he'll feed himself for a lifetime. But it's an imperative that doesn't apply in Ethiopia. Food aid is the country's second-largest industry, and it's growing at such a fast clip that it has outpaced Ethiopia's agricultural sector. Paradoxically, food aid is the reason why Ethiopians are sinking even more deeply into poverty. Between 1984 and 2002, annual per capita food production has dropped from 450 kilos (993 lbs.) to 140 kilos (309 lbs.).
Aid shipments destroy grain prices
In 2003, the UN donated 1.5 million tons of grain to Ethiopia, but the aid was more of a blessing to farmers in the donor nations than to those in Ethiopia. Farmers in the Ethiopian highlands earned only $25 for each ton of grain that it cost them $50 to produce, because free imports were destroying grain prices on the open market.
Prime Minister Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has no interest in upsetting this bizarre trade imbalance. Shipping companies, after all -- all of which are owned by the EPRDF in Ethiopia -- collect $40-50 per ton in shipping charges. Furthermore, Addis Ababa is home to more than 300 aid organizations, from Arat Kilo Child Care to ZOA Refugee Care, and their combined staff number in the thousands. More than a hundred of these agencies are involved exclusively in food distribution.
In other words, once a country gets placed on the list of the world's neediest, it has trouble weaning itself from foreign assistance. As if to underscore the notion that the ubiquity of charity destroys all initiative, nomads in the south now follow aid convoys the way they once followed rain clouds.
But less than a quarter of aid shipments actually reach those segments of the population where they are most urgently needed, because the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) don't take the trouble to analyze recipients on the basis of need. As a result, food aid ends up in places where infrastructure allows it, but not in the country's poorest regions -- especially in remote mountain areas plagued by a lack of roads and poor administration.
"Doing nothing is like being an accomplice to a murder," says British pop star Bob Geldof, made famous by the Live Aid benefit concerts for Ethiopia he organized. But the aid organizations, while keeping people alive, are failing to provide them with a basis for making a living.
One should not apply too rigid a standard to Ethiopia, says Austrian development aid veteran Karlheinz Bí¶hm, who for the past 23 years has spent countless millions in aid donations to build grain storage elevators, schools and hospitals in Ethiopia. The Ethiopians, he says, cannot be expected to achieve, in only 50 years, the same skills Europeans took centuries to master.
Bí¶hm, a former actor, goes to great lengths not to offend. During a recent visit to a school classroom, the former Austrian actor discovered that its condition didn't correspond to his idea of order and hygiene. Bí¶hm, a man of action, promptly grabbed a broom and swept the room clean himself instead of assigning the task to a pupil. Karl the Good, as he is called here, apparently wasn't aware of just how typical his gesture was of European development aid.
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