From Pearse Street to Ethiopia: breaking the cycle of charity

Challenging stereotypes to create positive, permanent change in Ethiopia


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.

Similarly, Farm Africa is giving women goats they can use as an asset for the family. “It’s not a grant. They have to repay [us] in the form of kid goats,” she says. But they can milk the animals and then trade that for honey. Or they can move into beekeeping or growing fruit and vegetables.”

The aim is to get women moved up the food production and value chain – “graduated is the terrible terms we use” – and also to be able to withstand extreme weather events. “If people spend all their income, when there is a drought then you have wasted your time,” she says.

Winthrop, who also worked on food security in Indonesia and Nicaragua, is halfway through a two-year project, supported by €250,000 in initial funding from Irish Aid. Her aim is to “demonstrate how change can happen permanently”.

Experience is encouraging: a similar project was trialled in Tigray about 15 years ago, and the irrigation infrastructure built with farming income is still operating and some of the women to whom goats were given have become village leaders.

In Ireland, however, pressure is being put on the Government to reconsider whether to continue supporting such work. Spending on overseas aid was cut in the budget by 3 per cent to €602 million. It was the sixth budget cut in a row and leaves the aid budget down 35 per cent on 2008.

Speaking at a conference for World Food Day last Wednesday, Gorta chairman Sean Gaule said earlier this year that the Government had reaffirmed its plan to lead the fight against global hunger. “However, this cut in funding raises questions as to just how committed they are,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said it did not anticipate the budget reduction would affect hunger-related activities, to which more than 20 per cent of all aid spending was directed. “We recognise that the right to food and adequate nutrition is one of the most fundamental of all human rights,” she added.

Leaving aside any moral arguments, NGOs claim cutting funding is a false economy. Hunger costs $3.5 trillion (€2.6 trillion) each year through lost productivity and direct healthcare costs, according to the United Nations food and agricultural organisation. That’s 5 per cent of global GDP and it’s estimated that investment in micronutrient deficiencies could have a benefit to cost ratio of 13 to 1.

“We don’t do aid, we do development,” Winthrop says of her project. “Those people who we worked with 14 years ago don’t need our help anymore. If anything they are helping us help other people. So we feel every penny spent is breaking the cycle of charity.”

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