Human Rights, Democracy Building, and Food Security
September 1, 2015
In late July, President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia, where he met with smallholder farmers involved in U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)–led development programs to highlight the impact of his 2010 Feed the Future initiative. The president’s visit acknowledged the significance of U.S.-Ethiopian relations and the depth and sincerity of American engagement. It also invited scrutiny of vast international support for a regime whose repressive and undemocratic policies abuse citizens’ rights and stifle civil society. President Obama openly addressed human rights concerns during his trip, but critics read his choice of destination as an implicit endorsement of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has held power for 25 years.
Ethiopia has been a top recipient of both official development assistance (ODA) and humanitarian aid for many years. Surrounded by regressive dictatorships, civil war in South Sudan, and violent extremism emanating from Somalia, Ethiopia—despite long-term territorial disputes with Eritrea and Somalia—is an oasis of relative stability in a turbulent region. With the strong encouragement of the international community, the EPRDF has pursued a rigorous development scheme with tangible economic results. Ethiopia today is the fifth-fastest growing economy of the International Monetary Fund’s 188 member countries, with a growth rate nearly twice the sub-Saharan African average.
Ethiopia’s economic success marks a drastic change from the images of starving, impoverished Ethiopians whose plight spurred the first star-studded international outcry on behalf of a crisis-stricken people.
In 1984, Ethiopia weathered a devastating famine that resulted in the deaths of 1 million people. Further episodes of dire food insecurity followed throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The famine resulted from the mismanagement of a severe drought by the Derg regime, a Communist military junta that led Ethiopia through a devastating civil war. In a brutal attempt to suppress rebel support, the regime implemented a disastrous resettlement policy in regions affected by famine. The government diverted most of its budget to military spending and further marginalized vulnerable communities by restricting the movement of aid to famine-affected areas that were controlled by rebels. The use of food as a weapon of war has more recent parallels in the behavior of warring factions in 1990s Sudan and today in Bashar al-Assad’s war-torn Syria.
The EPRDF, a coalition of resistance parties, gained power in 1991 with significant U.S. support and began to pursue an exhaustive development agenda with an emphasis on public investment. Ethiopia today boasts the largest social protection scheme in the region: 84 percent of all public spending for 2014–2015 is allocated to priority areas including health, education, and agriculture. Since 2000, poverty levels have dropped more than 30 percent, a remarkable improvement that is due to its leadership’s focused approach to planned growth.
Ethiopia’s development priorities reflect the significance of the agricultural sector, which accounts for 45 percent of the country’s GDP and 60 percent of its export earnings and employs over three-quarters of the population. Initiatives such as the Agricultural Growth Program (AGP) and the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) focus on infrastructure as a means of transforming a subsistence-based rural economy to a profitable and commercialized agricultural sector. At the same time, Ethiopia has demonstrated its dedication to the rural poor and a planned approach to food security with the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP). In a marked departure from traditional humanitarian aid, the PSNP provides chronically food-insecure households with cash and food transfers in times of scarcity, as well as incentives for households to produce their own food, a move that bolsters community and farmer resilience.
Obama’s visit to Feed the Future beneficiaries reflects the centrality of agricultural development and food security to the U.S. foreign assistance agenda. The initiative allows the United States to “ support the Government of Ethiopia’s commitment to country-led development programs that facilitate economic growth and development .” Since 2011, the United States has reached more than 1.3 million children through nutrition programs and helped the Ethiopian government bring stunting, a measure of malnutrition, down by 9 percent. In 2014, Feed the Future trained more than 218,000 producers to use new technologies and management practices to increase their yields. In 2015, Feed the Future allocated nearly $60 million in nutrition and agricultural development aid to Ethiopia.
In spite of this joint investment and high-level political commitment, an estimated 7 million Ethiopians remain chronically food insecure, malnutrition is widespread, and Ethiopia’s per capita GDP of $505 is one of the lowest in the world. Dependence on agriculture for both subsistence and economic livelihood leaves the large rural population vulnerable to increasingly frequent climate-related droughts and other economic shocks. Ethiopia relies heavily on aid to achieve its development goals, and in particularly drought-prone regions, some 4.5 million people require emergency food assistance. State control of key economic sectors has suppressed the growth of economic freedom: marketing institutions and infrastructure remain weak, and transaction costs are high. It is essential that Ethiopia and its donors continue to support agricultural development over the coming decades in order to maintain safety and stability in Ethiopia and the greater Horn of Africa.
The role of Feed the Future is to enable the United States to partner with countries that take ownership of their development and create a model of constructive investment in their citizens. In Ethiopia, a strategic vision and demonstrated political commitment to development catalyzed foreign assistance and helped the country transition toward food security and stability.
Ethiopia’s progress is remarkable, but there is much that remains to be done if the country is to become self-sufficient. Many argue that there will be limits to economic transformation under a fundamentally authoritarian and repressive regime. With the encouragement of the international community, Ethiopia needs to demonstrate a real commitment to inclusive, accountable, and transparent governance in order to cement its place in the global economy and ensure that its citizens are able to benefit from long-term, sustainable agricultural growth.
The United States should not step back its campaign for improved human rights in Ethiopia, but it nonetheless has every interest in seeing Ethiopia, with its 90 million people, become food secure and benefit from a sustainable agricultural sector. As Obama’s critics noted at the end of July, the United States must continue to emphasize democracy building in foreign engagement, because only a government accountable to its people will cement and perpetuate the change that investments have wrought. However, the United States should not allow the lack of progress on the democracy front to hinder support for good projects that are feeding people and saving lives.
Kimberly Flowers is director of the Global Food Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Anna Van Niekerk was a researcher with the CSIS Global Food Security Project.
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