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Ethiopia: Building Resilience for the Future?

The Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) Report, released today, shows international funding is faltering. Ethiopia seeks to provide alternative ways towards food security.
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Ethiopia's resilience-building PSNP in action. Photograph by CARE EDU.

The response of the international community to the 2011 Horn of Africa food crisis left much to be desired. Despite timely warnings of the impending disaster, over 13 million people across East Africa were affected by the famine. Refugee camps are now overflowing as the number of refugees in the Horn exceeds one million. 

However, in recent years Ethiopia has demonstrated a potentially longer-term alternative to dealing with food insecurity - one which, it is hoped, will ultimately relieve the need for emergency humanitarian assistance.

The Global Humanitarian Assistance Report

The Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) Report, released today, reveals the weaknesses of the international community in responding to the Horn of Africa’s crisis. The initial appeal for funding for Somalia was $530 million, a figure which dramatically underestimated the scale of the crisis. Before the famine was officially declared, only 38% of Kenya’s and only 28% of Somalia’s had been met.

The GHA report reveals shortfalls in funding for resilience-building, the absence of which could have made a considerable difference to the Horn of Africa’s food problems. Building resilience to severe hazards makes vulnerable populations less susceptible to shocks, and these kinds of long-term solutions are thought to be the most efficient and cost-effective way of preventing suffering and protecting livelihoods. Only 4% ($1.5 billion) of official humanitarian aid is being spent on building resilience, significantly short of the desired 10%. And of the non-humanitarian official development assistance spent between 2006 and 2010, only 0.7% ($4.4 billion) was invested in disaster risk reduction.

Ethiopia’s resilience building

The potential benefits of resilience building can be seen in Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Nets Programme (PSNP). Implemented in 2005 by the Ethiopian government and financed by international donors, the PSNP is the largest social safety net programme in Africa (outside of South Africa). Funded by the Donor Coordinating Group (DCG) – a joint donor group which includes USAID (US Agency for International Development), the World Food Programme and the World Bank – the scheme initially cost approximately $230 million per year, though this has increased by about 50% in the last few years.

As part of Ethiopia’s wider Food Security Programme, the PSNP aims to provide households with enough income, in the form of either cash or food, to meet the food gap (i.e. any number of months a household is unable to satisfy its food needs). The ultimate goal is to end dependency on emergency food relief altogether and stimulate sustainable livelihoods.

For six months of the year, the programme mobilises labour for public works activities - building infrastructure such as roads, soil and water conservation, and irrigation systems, in order to promote agricultural productivity and access to markets. Payment for this public work comes in the form of either cash or food. Thus, rather than simply addressing the symptoms of food insecurity, the PSNP aims to help people ‘graduate’ out of chronic food insecurity.

From 2005 to 2008, the number of beneficiaries increased from five million to eight million, who were eating more food of better quality more often, while the programme has helped protect people’s assets and reduced the need for premature harvesting of crops.

Increasing PSNP capacity

Whilst predominantly a development programme, the PSNP has most recently improved its capacity through the introduction of a risk financing mechanism (RFM) in order to help address humanitarian emergencies. The RFM comprises an early warning system, contingency finance, contingency planning, and capacity development components, all of which contributed to the response to the food crisis.

The GHA Report praises the work of the PSNP RFM, arguing that it provides “comparative advantages over traditional humanitarian responses to food insecurity” and that it demonstrated this capacity in its response to the 2011 crisis. According to the report, the PSNP was also considerably more cost effective than the UN and NGO-managed response during the crisis, spending an estimated $53 per person rather than $169 per person.

Where the PSNP RFM has been implemented, it has also reduced reaction time between identifying the crisis and responding to it, from the typical 8 months when traditional humanitarian actors are involved, to 2 months.

PSNP faces challenges

There are many positives to PSNP, however, Ethiopia still faces several challenges regarding food security. Vulnerability to drought and volatile food prices is still an issue for Ethiopia, and the wider region, and attempts to prevent rising food prices amidst famine can deter farmers and traders. Moreover, while the PSNP has led to some improvements for those living in food-insecure areas, the programme struggles to deal comprehensively with particularly severe shocks such as the 2011 crisis, meaning emergency humanitarian assistance is still needed.

Additionally, given a history of Ethiopian leaders allegedly manipulating international aid for political objectives, the internationally-funded PSNP requires consistent and careful assessment and monitoring.

Despite these problems, the burgeoning successes and hopeful potential of Ethiopia’s PSNP suggests that resilience building can be an effective way to combat the deep-seated roots of food insecurity. It may not suit every country at this specific time – Somalia, for example, arguably lacks robust enough institutions to implement such a programme, and international funding priorities should be based on case-by-case analysis – but if countries are to generate their own food security, resilience building will be crucial.

In the meantime, prompt, fully-funded and effective emergency relief will still be necessary. It is crucial therefore that the international donor community address both shortfalls in overall funding as well as carefully assessing exactly how that money is best used.

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