From Pearse Street to Ethiopia: breaking the cycle of charity
Challenging stereotypes to create positive, permanent change in Ethiopia
Michelle Winthrop: “Those people who we worked with 14 years ago don’t need our help anymore... they are helping us help other people.”
It’s understandable that World Food Day came and went this week with little fuss, Michelle Winthrop admits. It’s not just that hunger hardly registers with well-fed Westerners but there is charity fatigue around the issue.
“Donors want to know they’re not throwing good money after bad,” says Winthrop, who grew up on Pearse Street in Dublin city centre and now lives in northern Ethiopia. Nearly 30 years after the famine that killed more than 400,000 people, and which sparked Live Aid, Ethiopia remains stubbornly underdeveloped.
“Back then, the problem was largely political,” says Winthrop in reference to the Ethiopian government’s disastrous handling of the 1984/85 droughts. “Now it’s lack of access to markets and to some extent the role of women”, along with barriers to their participation in the economy.
“A lot has changed,” she says. “The days of flies in the eyes of starving babies are gone. The government has put into place a strong social protection system; it’s all externally funded but people can expect the state to support them if they are at the point of starvation.”
Winthrop is speaking by phone from London on a short visit to the headquarters of her employer, the non-governmental organisation Farm Africa. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin who completed a master’s in development studies at University College Dublin in 1998, Winthrop first went to Ethiopia with another agency 10 years ago and “turned into a lifer”. She met her husband there and they now have a four-year-old son.
Like others working in the field, she is keen to get across a nuanced message, acknowledging the positives and framing the negatives in a way that challenges stereotypes about African passivity in the face of poverty and hunger.
“Ethiopia has the fastest- growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa and is aiming to be a middle income country by 2030,” she says. Land management has improved in Tigray. “It used to look like the moon, now it’s quite green.” But 40 per cent of the population still depend on social safety nets, and nearly half of children under-five suffer stunted growth due to malnourishment.
Climate change is not helping, with reports showing poorer countries are worst affected by extreme weather conditions such as drought.
Food security has improved since 1990, but Ethiopia still ranks 71st out of 78 countries for severe hunger in the 2013 Global Hunger Index, published this week by Concern Worldwide and other agencies.
There is no magic bullet to solve the issue. In 2007, in a bid to improve crop diversity, Concern introduced the potato to the district of Dessie Zuria, combined with micro-finance and irrigation schemes. The crop is now becoming a main source of nutrition in the area, benefiting 10,000 farmers so far.