Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Interview with VOA on Ethiopia

The Voice of America Amharic service asked me to comment today on the dispute between Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles and the food aid organizations concerning the magnitude of current food shortages in Ethiopia. The humanitarian community argues that the need for food is much greater than the prime minister believes is the case. First, I pointed out that I can not speak to the precise Ethiopian requirement for imported food assistance today. I am too far away from the problem and do not know if the food aid organizations or government of Ethiopia has the best estimate of current food needs. Second, I suggested that some historical perspective might be helpful. This is not the first time that the government of Ethiopia and the food aid agencies have disagreed on the need for imported food. In the past, the aid agencies generally have had higher estimates for food needs than those recognized by the government. There is some evidence that in the past these organizations have overestimated the need. In addition, over the past two decades the government has a pretty good record of storing food around the country so that it is possible to avoid famine and significant starvation. This storage system does not eliminate severe or even moderate food shortages, but it does minimize the harm resulting from food shortages. When asked if Meles reacted so strongly to the reports from the food aid organizations because of the upcoming national elections, I responded in the negative. In my view, elections that will probably take place in May 2010 are too far away to explain the prime minister's strong negative reaction to the reports. Finally, the VOA asked me to comment on steps that need to be taken to avoid food shortages in the future. I suggested that although Ethiopia has improved its agricultural practices in recent years, there is still much room for more improvement so that the country can produce more food per hectare than it is doing now. This includes more efficient farming practices, more appropriate use and distribution of fertilizer, and use of improved seed. Ethiopia's partners need to help with this effort. There may be some agricultural policies that require changing. I am not an expert in this area and am not able to suggest specific changes, but agricultural policy needs to be reviewed. Finally, it is important to lower the population growth rate in Ethiopia. Ethiopia adds between 1.5 million and 2 million persons to its population each year. This requires more food to feed this constantly growing population. A lower population growth rate would make it easier for Ethiopia to feed its own people. I would point out that since the final years of the Haile Selassie government Ethiopia has never produced enough food to feed all of its people. Ethiopia's population in the early 1970s was much smaller than it is today. Photo: "Meles-cropped" from flickr via creative commons. User: openDemocracy.

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