Safety net programming in Ethiopia. Disillusion in the making?

Food Security07 Sep 2009Thea Hilhorst

The 1984 famine in Ethiopia is an important landmark of development history, remembered by many for Bob Geldof’s Bandaid (“Feed the world, let them know it’s Christmas time”). But did you know that since 1984 every year an average of 5 million people have been receiving food aid during the hunger gap, sometimes as long as 8 months a year? The government of Ethiopia and the international community have now started a safety net programme that guarantees families emergency aid for a number of years while simultaneously enroling them in development initiatives to provide them with sustainable food security. GoE formally expects that this safety net programme will finally resolve the food security in Ethiopia within 5 years. One of our research programmes in Disaster Studies looks at this safety net programme. LEAFS: Linking Emergency Aid to Food Security. I spent the last week doing some fieldwork in Amhara region with our PhD candidates. It is already clear that the expectation that the safety net programme will finally resolve food insecurity will not come true. Only very few families have successfully graduated from the programme. And this should not be a surprise. A powerful painting by Eshetu Tiruneh, in the National Museum of Addis, depicts a major famine in 1974, the most destitute of people nakedly dying by the side of the road, where an endless stream of families are walking, some of them with their donkeys, to find relief. Famine has been part of the Ethiopian highland ever since, and it is an illusion to think such a complex problem can be permanently solved with one magic bullet. So why maintaining this belief in a shortcut solution to the problem? I think the answer lies in the needs of the development machinery, requiring projects that define solutions within timeframes of 5 years. Nobody we met seriously believes the programme will live up to its expectations, but away from the field realities its reputation is growing worldwide as a legendary new approach. Another disillusion in the making?