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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2010

Innovative Ethiopian food-aid scheme starving for funds

Joshua HergesheimerWebsite

When Ethiopia asked the world for food aid last October, former subsistence farmer Terefi Tekale was not among the 6.2 million people desperate for help. Though his family’s long-held plot in Ethiopia’s Konso region has done poorly in recent years—the soil is sterile, his corn stunted and his hillside eroded—an ambitious new development plan means Tekale is not without hope, or without food.

Managing Environmental Resources to Enable Transitions to More Sustainable Livelihoods Through Partnerships and Land Use Solidarity, or MERET-PLUS, is a joint project between the Ethiopian government and the United Nations’ World Food Programme. Through it, Tekale and thousands others are employed to plant rows of tiny trees, destined for hillside farms like his. The roots should stop erosion, and the fruit can be eaten, traded or sold. “Our whole livelihood now depends on this,” says Tekale.

Thanks to MERET-PLUS, dozens of seedling nurseries and other small-scale sites have sprung up across Ethiopia. The program pays participants in grain to make compost to refresh tired soils, build retaining walls to stop erosion, and ponds to catch rainwater. Tekale earns 135 kilograms of grain per month, which feeds his family, his wife’s family and her relatives.

Meanwhile, though, MERET-PLUS itself is going hungry. A 2009 WFP report says expected donor contributions to MERET-PLUS fell nearly 50 percent since 2007, a shortfall blamed on food price increases and the global economic meltdown. Of US$166 million promised for 2007–2011, MERET-PLUS officials now expect to receive US$75 million. Major donors are Canada, the United States, Denmark, Norway and Russia.

WFP officer Arega Yirga won’t say which country is the weak funding link, but Canada claims to be doing its part. Denise Robichaud, media officer at the Canadian International Development Agency, says we met our 2006 commitment of $20 million. It’s of little comfort. The funding gap caused postponement of 260 planned projects in 2008, and only 76,000 people—of a planned 122,000—received grain payments.

This wasted potential frustrates Fisseha Gizachew, MERET-PLUS regional coordinator in Awassa, southern Ethiopia. “People are coming to us because they understand the problems they are facing,” he says, adding, at the same time, lost funding has his office waiting for grain promised by the WFP seven months ago.

He won’t be the only one. This year, lost funding will force over 45,000 Ethiopian farmers off work while their land degrades. Too bad; during that time thousands of retaining walls and catchment ponds could have been built—long-term investments that help Ethiopians help themselves.

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