Staving off famine in Ethiopia
As Ethiopia struggles to recover from its worst drought in decades, Tufts researchers are reviewing the major humanitarian responses and early warning systems put in place by the Ethiopian government and international nonprofits with a view to improving them in the future.
"The crisis was mainly in the countryside, affecting rural people whose crops failed, as well as their livestock that either died or were sold to buy food," says Andrew Catley, a research director at Tufts' Feinstein International Center who has been leading research projects in Ethiopia since 2005. Fortunately, humanitarian conditions have not reached a scale seen in the famines of 1984-85 or 2002-03, largely because the government responded quickly with emergency aid, he says.
The Tufts researchers in Ethiopia, who focus on agriculture and livestock, "have seen this kind of crisis before," says Catley, who also holds appointments at the Friedman School, Cummings School and the School of Medicine. "They sift through lots of information from different sources, do rapid analysis and advise the U.S. Agency for International Development and the government of Ethiopia, as well as U.N. agencies and nonprofits, on appropriate responses to the drought. Increasingly this means going beyond typical humanitarian assistance to trying to prevent people from losing their main financial assets, such as their livestock, and working with markets and the private sector where possible."
Tufts Now spoke with Catley about how Ethiopia can overcome this most recent drought, and about the country's longer-term economic prospects.
Tufts Now: What's happening right now in Ethiopia? Is there a humanitarian crisis?
Andrew Catley: Serious droughts in places like Ethiopia are usually a combination of weak rains over more than one season. It eventually builds into an emergency, but you have a very long time to actually see it coming and respond. The recent drought followed that pattern. In some areas it probably started as far back as 2014. There's no doubt it was a major drought, but the responses by government and, later, by NGOs helped to prevent the scale of human losses we've seen in the past.
You were in Ethiopia earlier this spring. What were you trying to accomplish there?
We were asked by USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] to do a real-time view of the situation in Ethiopia related to El Niño weather impact. The Tufts team collected information on how the drought evolved, its impact on rural communities in Ethiopia, how people are coping and dealing with it.
There have been massive development projects in Ethiopia around agriculture over the last five to 10 years, including the Agricultural Growth Programme and various projects under the U.S. government's Feed the Future initiative. So part of the question is to what extent these development projects have helped people to cope with the crisis.
A lot of these projects are focused on farmers and agriculture—about 80 percent of the population is rural. But our discussions with aid donors during the review indicated a growing understanding around the limitations of agriculture for many poorer farmers. There was a distinct shift in thinking, with a lot of the economic opportunities in the future likely to be in towns and cities—industrialization and job creation—and people are actually moving out of agriculture and having other kinds of livelihoods.
So instead of a strategy focusing heavily on agriculture development, this points to a need for a much broader approach that looks at other employment, job creation, industrialization and so on, and deciding what the balance of investments should be between rural development and urban development.
How has the Ethiopian government responded to this particular drought in the last year or two?
The response of the Ethiopian government is, I think, widely seen as a success story. It seems they've now committed up to $700 million of their own money—saved thanks to lower oil prices—which is unprecedented. If we compare that to previous major droughts in 1984-1985 and 2002-2003, one of the things we're seeing is this huge government commitment and leadership. The government was the first major responder to the drought with food assistance, while also providing emergency water, health and other inputs in drought-affected areas.
In addition to evaluating the humanitarian response, what else are you working on in Ethiopia?
We do a lot of work on the long-term policy issues, funded mainly by USAID. We try to understand why there are specific sub-populations who remain so food insecure and chronically poor and malnourished, and what kinds of development policies can be put in place to try and move those people into a better economic position and a better livelihood.
We need to have that long-term perspective, because the reality is that these places are subject to repeated humanitarian crises. Every three, four or five years, you're going to have a major drought, which can set you back to zero. This is very much a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of thing—if you're lucky.
What do you think the prognosis is for Ethiopia in the next year or so?
Ethiopia has achieved a lot of macroeconomic growth in the last 10 years or so, but specific areas and populations still show high levels of poverty and malnutrition. There's a lot of concern that at the national level, this drought will set them back enormously in terms of agricultural growth, while also having long-term impacts on the livelihoods of poorer households in rural areas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture talks about a 20 percent drop in agriculture production, which for a country like Ethiopia is huge.
It will take them a while to get back on track. And part of our work is trying to figure out how they can recover from this, and limit the impacts of the next drought. There is still a need to plan rural development projects with an expectation that drought will happen, and integrate drought management into these long-term projects. In other words, we need to make these projects "drought-proof" rather than always relying on humanitarian aid.