Issue 27 - Article 7

When will Ethiopia stop asking for food aid?

July 13, 2004
Al Kehler, WFP

In 2003, 13 million Ethiopians required exceptional food assistance just to survive. Despite 30 years of food aid, the country’s food security has steadily worsened, and relief food aid has become an institutionalised response. Thus the common refrain: if food security is getting worse, is food aid the right way to address food insecurity in Ethiopia? The question is, however, flawed. We need instead to ask how food aid is being used.

Relief food aid, while effective in saving lives and relieving short-term hunger, cannot achieve sustainable food security. Food aid, when well targeted and linked with other development inputs, can and is having sustainable impact. By 2002, WFP’s development food aid programme in Ethiopia had reduced food shortages by 40% for 1.4m people in 800 communities. These communities were remarkably less vulnerable during the 2003 drought, maintaining their productive assets and emerging more resilient than communities with only relief assistance. However, contributions to WFP’s development projects in Ethiopia are shrinking, largely due to the belief that food aid does not work in development. This article, drawing on WFP’s experience in Ethiopia, asserts that food aid has a major enabling role in sustainable food security strategies.

Food aid in Ethiopia: an overview

In the early 1980s, the UN Ethiopian Highlands Reclamation Study concluded that soil erosion and degradation in the breadbasket of Ethiopia had reached crisis proportions. WFP responded with a soil and water conservation programme that used food as a wage for labour. Technical experts implemented the programme, imposing design and work requirements on communities.

Initially, the project was successful. However, between 1984 and 1991 crop failures, civil war and political unrest increasingly hampered progress. Survival alone became the objective. Food aid initially intended for development was needed to address more pressing emergencies. Relief food came late, and had to be dispatched immediately to address life-threatening situations. The volumes of food in development programmes were dwarfed by enormous amounts of relief food. Technical and managerial time and expertise, never plentiful, was redeployed for emergencies.

In 1991 the government was overthrown, and changes were introduced to development and relief food aid programmes. In development, local community planning was incorporated, and investment in technical and community skills was increased. In relief, the new government recognised that the much larger relief food aid flows needed to be harnessed. It adopted the ‘Employment Generation Scheme’ in 1993, which replaced free food distributions with food for work to rebuild productive assets. However, the relief programme had fatal flaws: relief food was unreliable, often too little and coming too late; essential complementary inputs like tools, equipment and supplies were largely unavailable. Line ministries did not accept their responsibilities, and the government did not enforce them as there were too many competing priorities.

These difficulties persist. Ethiopia has received an average of 700,000 tons of food aid per year for the past 15 years. The vast majority of this has been emergency food aid. Ethiopia is the largest recipient of emergency aid per capita in Africa, but receives the least investment in development aid for each citizen. While no one questions the need to save lives, the failure to invest in food security programmes for the poor is doing little to break the cycle of food crisis.

Food aid for development has continued to mature in Ethiopia, but remains too small to be noticed. What is visible is the large relief programme. This has saved lives, but it has not halted the decline in assets, improved malnutrition levels or mitigated vulnerability to shocks. Food shortages are in fact becoming more frequent, and are affecting more people.

It is tempting to conclude that all food aid erodes livelihoods, and support for successful food aid programmes is shrinking as a result. However, during 2002 WFP showed that, where integrated food aid projects have been in place, the beneficiaries were markedly less vulnerable to the same climatic and agricultural shocks as those who had received no development food aid.

The MERET programme (MERET stands for Managing Environmental Resources to Enable Transitions to more sustainable livelihoods) has had a measurable impact on food security among some of Ethiopia’s poorest communities. Between 1994 and 2002, MERET assisted 1.4m food-insecure people in over 800 communities. The objective was to increase incomes for the poor through asset creation and rehabilitation, using food for work. It included interventions to:

  1. Conserve, develop and rehabilitate degraded agricultural lands.
  2. Establish wooded lots and community forest plantations.
  3. Improve access to potable water and to enhance water quality.
  4. Improve access to markets through construction of feeder roads.
  5. Strengthen the capacity of communities and the government to plan, implement and manage project activities and assets.
  6. Improve the availability of food through food distribution.

In 2002, the WFP with the Ministry of Agriculture undertook an assessment of the impact of the MERET project. Ten districts were randomly selected, each with about ten sites. Two sites from each district were chosen. The assessment compared areas that had projects with those with none. Comparisons included scientific biophysical field measurements (qualitative and quantitative), as well as the ‘impressions of change’ expressed by community members and field technicians. Tools were used from livelihood and stakeholder analysis, as well as from Participatory Rural Assessment (PRA). Questionnaires were designed to encourage spontaneous and unguided responses.

Socio-economic and biophysical data were collected through 600 household questionnaires (half female), 60 focus groups involving 600 individuals (female, vulnerable groups and planning teams), 200 non-beneficiary household questionnaires, 20 technical staff questionnaires at district level, background fact sheets for all sites and biophysical field measurements. Data collection teams comprised external consultants, WFP field monitors and counterpart technical staff. They were trained for a week in data collection methodologies, and then collected their data simultaneously over a six-week period.

Main impact assessment results

Respondents to the survey that had participated in the MERET project reported the following results.

Food security and livelihoods

  • The average annual food shortage was down from five to three months, a 40% reduction.
  • 60% reported an increase in the number of meals eaten per day.
  • 85% indicated an improved ability to cope with drought.
  • 84% reported a 150–400kg increase in crop production per year per household.
  • 72% enjoyed increased income from the sale of agricultural products.
  • 73% had more money to spend on education, health and clothing.
  • 88% considered that their livelihood situation had improved from ‘struggling’ (losing assets) to ‘doing okay’ (not selling assets) or ‘doing well’ (making some extra money and buying new assets).

Soil and water conservation on farmland

  • 78% reported a reduction in soil erosion.
  • 83% indicated an increase in soil fertility.
  • Field measurements indicated an 80% reduction in soil loss on cultivated land, and a 37% increase in soil depth.

Area closure and forest development

  • 71% reported improved availability of forage.
  • 47% indicated improved livestock health and productivity.
  • 45% reported 0.5–2.5 hours saved in collecting forage each time.
  • 61% said fuel wood was more easily available as a result of forest development activities.
  • Field measurements indicated a 76% increase in vegetation (trees/shrubs).

Water and road development

  • 42% indicated increased water availability through ponds and springs.
  • 37% reported improved quality in water for human consumption.
  • 60% reported better access to markets and other services through feeder roads.
  • 25% have more income from selling more products at markets.

Women are primarily responsible for collecting wood for fuel and water, so forest and water development disproportionately benefit them. Of all female respondents who had participated in MERET:

  • 41% reported reducing the time they spent collecting water by between one and five hours per day.
  • 45% saved 1–6 hours each time they collected wood.
  • Households headed by women experienced the largest decrease in the number of months in which they suffered from food shortages after the project (2.3 months).

A number of conclusions follow from this.

  1. The MERET programme has increased the availability of food and improved access to food for the majority of participants. Investment in assets, including soil, water harvesting, trees and vegetative covering, is earning income for the poor.
  2. MERET lifts people out of destitution. Almost all of its most vulnerable participants have gone from ‘struggling’ to ‘doing okay’. Thus, it has acted as a safety net, protecting 1.4m food-insecure people. Similar interventions should be considered for the four million chronically food-insecure people who are perennially assisted through relief. A more thoughtful intervention could prevent them from sliding further backwards, and build their resilience to future shocks.
  3. MERET has not reduced food shortages to zero, and will not do so unless more comprehensive food security packages are made available to these communities. These packages, including cash-based interventions, need to create alternative sources of income for the poor to reduce the current complete reliance on agriculture. This would enable the effective phasing out of food aid over an appropriate transition period is possible.
  4. MERET has strengthened community-planning skills. This is a foundation that should be useful, particularly for supporting the government’s policy of devolving more power to the grassroots.

Lessons learned were incorporated in the redesign of this activity for the years 2003–2006. Particularly vigorous efforts are being to work in strategic partnership with other complementary development interventions; work is under way with the World Bank, for example, to link its Food Security programme with the MERET programme. Even better results are expected in the next evaluation.

Addressing chronic hunger with relief food aid alone cannot achieve sustainable food security. Disciplined, considered development interventions are required. In the MERET project, development food aid has demonstrated that it can build a solid foundation for food security.

Ethiopia’s opportunity: graduating from food aid

Following the record relief requirements of 2003, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called a meeting between the government, UN agencies including WFP, donors and NGOs. The deteriorating food security situation was named as Ethiopia’s most pressing priority. The government requested support to move from the current model of short-term relief to multi-year development to lift and keep people out of hunger. The government proceeded with legislation, drastically curtailing the mandates of the relief bureaucracy and overhauling the structure of agriculture and rural development. For the rest of 2004, the government is working with donors, UN agencies and NGOs to design a multi-year programme to protect people from shocks, build up productive assets and link into successively more robust food security programmes.

Food aid is essential to this strategy. Vast areas of highland Ethiopia have very limited transport, communications and markets. Institutional capacity to handle large amounts of cash at the community level does not yet exist – for example, the majority of rural Ethiopians and rural government offices do not have ready access to banking facilities. Communities along major roads, with access to regular markets and with financial institutions, should move towards more cash-based programmes. However, other communities will need continued food aid for a number of years.


Ethiopia has had food aid for 30 years, and its food security is worse than ever. Food aid is not the culprit – it has saved millions of lives. But its potential to bring about lasting improvements in food security has not been utilised.

With the government providing leadership, Ethiopia has another opportunity. Food aid applied with development discipline can make a remarkable contribution. A good food aid programme can simultaneously reduce vulnerability and improve food security.

Food aid cannot achieve food security for Ethiopians by itself. By using both food and cash strategically, and by providing a continuum of programme options through linkages with other food security programmes like the World Bank’s, the impact on community livelihoods will be even more substantial. This will also depend on parallel efforts to tackle poverty with policies that promote agriculture (including security of tenure), improve education and health, address HIV, control population growth and upgrade rural infrastructure. Effective safety nets for the vulnerable and a focus on nutrition are essential.

Food aid will be a necessity for a number of years to come. However, provided that cash becomes increasingly available, planned transitions away from food aid are also required. The two most important areas are boosting local production, so more of the imported food aid can be replaced with purchases of locally produced crops, and capacity-building to enable reliable cash programming.

The clock is ticking for Ethiopia: old patterns must be broken so that real hope can emerge. Food aid is vital to success, but with success food aid will cease. The goal – ambitious, but possible – is that by 2015 Ethiopia will no longer need to ask for food aid.

Al Kehleris Development Coordinator for the WFP in Ethiopia. His email address is:


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