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Oxfam calls for radical shake-up of aid system to break cycle of hunger in Ethiopia

By Oxfam

OXFORD, UK — International aid agency Oxfam today called for a radical shake-up in the way the world deals with food crises in Ethiopia and beyond. The agency rounded on what it called a “knee-jerk reaction” to food crises which is dominated by sending food aid. While the agency recognized that sending food aid does save lives, the dominance of this approach fails to offer long-term solutions which would break these cyclical and chronic crises.

In a report, “Band Aids and Beyond” published today to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Ethiopia famine, Oxfam says international donors need to adopt a new approach to humanitarian disasters which focuses on preparing communities to prevent and deal with  disasters such as drought before they strike, rather than relying mainly on short-term emergency relief, such as imported food aid.

Twenty-five years ago Ethiopia was struck by one of the worst famines in its history. An estimated one million people died and millions more suffered from extreme hunger and malnutrition. Today, millions in Ethiopia and across East Africa are facing severe food and water shortages after years of poor rains. It is estimated that drought costs Ethiopia $1.1bn a year—almost eclipsing the total annual overseas assistance to the country.

Currently, 70 percent of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia comes from the United States. Out of the $3.2 bn of US humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia since 1991, 94 percent has been in the form of food aid – almost all of it sourced from within the US rather than purchased locally or regionally. Most US food aid has conditions applied to transport and packaging, which can cost up to $2 of US taxpayers’ money to deliver $1 of food aid.

Penny Lawrence, International Director for Oxfam, who has just returned from visiting Oxfam projects in Ethiopia, said:

“We cannot make the rains come, but there is much more that we can do to break the cycle of drought driven disaster in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Food aid offers temporary relief  and has kept people alive in countless situations, but does not tackle the underlying causes that continue to make people vulnerable to disaster year-after-year.

“Donors need to shift their approach, and help to give communities the tools to tackle disasters before they strike. Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution. If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores, and wells to harvest rains then they can survive despite what the elements throw at them.”

It is essential that donors rise to the challenge and provide adequate funding for emergency assistance for this year’s crisis—current response by international donors is far below requirements estimated by Governments and UN agencies. But in this report, Oxfam argues that it is equally essential that donors do more to back programs that manage the risk of the disaster before it strikes, such as early warning systems, creating strategically positioned stockpiles of food, medicine and other items, and irrigation programs.

For instance, in Somali region Oxfam is building birkhads, or protected wells, to enable communities to ‘harvest’ rain during the rainy season to make sure there is more water available nearby when the rains stop. These types of programs receive just 0.14 percent of overseas aid.  Yet, the agency says, that it  is  a more sustainable approach, as the emergency response is designed  to contribute to development and keep communities safer in the years to come.  This approach is cost-effective: for every $1 invested in this approach, $2-4 are returned in terms of avoided or reduced disaster impacts.

The call for donors to shift their approach comes as Ethiopia faces ever-greater threats from natural disasters. Climate scientists predict that by 2034, the 50th anniversary of the 1984 Ethiopia famine, what are now droughts will become the norm, hitting the region three years out of every four. A shift of approach is  needed to prevent climate shocks developing into disasters which will push more people into poverty.

Lawrence said: “Climate change makes the urgency of this approach greater than ever before. Ethiopians on the frontline of climate change cannot wait another 25 years for common sense to become common practice.”

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