Can’t win ’em all

I have not posted for a while because I have not known what else to write about and we have been too preoccupied looking for jobs and an apartment, in addition to completing my thesis. For all intents and purposes Peace Corps is over. The only vestiges of our Peace Corps experience that seem to be hard to shake off have been a compromised GI track and my thesis, both of which I have been trying to get rid of throughout my service. It is oddly fitting that they are the only two things remaining because I have enjoyed writing my thesis as much as I have enjoyed periodically pooping myself. The turbulent and unpredictable confluence of first-world academia and third-world bureaucracy has not made for a smooth ride before, during or after Peace Corps. I spent weeks trying to develop research projects that were small enough to not require thousands of dollars of research fees for the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority and the local government district, yet in-depth enough to meet the requirements for my degree. Broken promises and corrupt government officials resulted in a half-dozen half-finished research projects, which currently populate a folder on my computer named “DEAD.” My inability to complete a cohesive research project resulted in an eclectic 120 page monstrosity looking at numerous aspects of tourism and ecology in the Simien Mountains region.

This past week I was informed that I needed to rewrite my thesis – nullifying literally hundreds of hours of writing and research and requiring weeks of additional composition. I was also told that it was unlikely that I would be able to graduate with my degree until December; despite having completed all other requirements aside from the final paper. It would have made more sense to complete graduate school before or after Peace Corps instead of trying to stumble my way through the ambiguous and nebulous Peace Corps Masters International Program. It would have been cheaper, more direct, would have required far less work and would have resulted in a less stressful Peace Corps service.

Since much of my paper will never see the light of day and because I will be busy rewriting it, I will post some sections of the paper here instead of trying to write about my experiences back in the states – at least for a little while. I’ll start with a subject that I have briefly written about before in previous posts; Traditional Ethiopian agricultural and foreign aid. It is an unedited academic paper so read at your own risk. By the way, SMNP stands for Simien Mountains National Park. Please let me know if you have questions about my Peace Corps service, Ethiopia or my paper and would like me to write about it.

Agriculture and Food Aid

Almost 95% of the people in Simien are dependent on rain-fed subsistence agriculture (Zeleke, 2010). High crop yields from these rain-fed systems are completely contingent on the auspicious timing of, and amount of precipitation during, the highland rainy seasons. The rainfall over the past few decades has become more erratic and poor Kiremt rainy seasons are becoming more common. Changing climatic conditions and poor soil management mean that even in good seasons, on-farm crop production only supplies a maximum of 50% of the local population’s annual food requirements (Guinand, 2001). The dominant, traditional Ethiopian agricultural system relies on extensification, the horizontal expansion of cultivated areas, for increasing productivity instead of increasing production on previously cultivated fields (Bongers & Tennigkeit, 2010) Because all lands suitable for cultivation, along with many areas not suitable for cultivation, are already being cultivated there is no land left for traditional farmers to expand out into. Uncertain and generally poor growing conditions, poor soil quality and inadequate productive land for the growing population result in a highly food-insecure population in the Simien region.

Poor agricultural practices are common, especially in upland areas, such as Gich. The ratio of soil erosion to new soil formation is 10-15 times higher than the sustainable rate on the average cultivated slope (Puff & Nemomissa, 2005), and soil productivity is declining 3% annually due to the land degradation in the area (Guinand, 2001). Insecure land tenure discourages land users from investing time, money and labor on the land they cultivate or graze (Frankfurt Zoological Society, 2008).

Using dung as an energy source, and to a limited extent a construction material, instead of using it as a fertilizer causes significant agricultural and ecological problems. For every quintal (100kg) of dung used for fuel instead of fertilizer, a reduced crop yield of 18-20kg can be expected. Cumulatively, this can add up to a very sizable reduction, due to the large amount of dung used as fuel. In the Simien region, this crop loss can be as high as 180-400kg per household (Grunenfelder, 2005). Using ash from dung fires as a soil amendment is not common in the Simien Mountains. Some households sweep up and place ash in plastic bags instead of placing it outside. Ironically, wealthier people often throw used batteries and ripped plastic bags on the ground outside, and collect ash from cook fires to dump in latrines (simply for disposal) or put it in trash bags. Ash is often seen simply as a waste product and not a useful byproduct.

Poor investment in soil fertility, a lack of technical knowledge concerning highland agricultural management, uncertain climatic conditions and a history of food aid distributions have led to a high level of dependency on international food aid in the Simien area. Many people living within the park boundary or nearby the park are dependent on food aid up to six months out of the year (Frankfurt Zoological Society, 2008).

Recent research in Ethiopia suggests that food aid can be a disincentive for local food producers at certain levels and in certain policy situations (Tadesse & Shively, 2009). Some argue that withdrawing food aid in Ethiopia can ultimately improve aid recipients’ welfare by spurring domestic food production instead of suppressing it (Gelan, 2007). When food aid is expected, but arrives late it reduces beneficiaries’ abilities to develop coping mechanisms to local food shortages. Instead of finding local alternatives or even migrating many people in the North Gondar Zone continue to rely on food aid even when it usually comes too late to be beneficial (Rami, 2002). Additionally, aid has been shown to hasten population growth and simultaneously reduce investments in human capital in Sub-Saharan Africa (Azarnert, 2008). A well-intentioned, yet poorly conceived work-for-food program in Dabat Town, located just south of Debark, directly contributed to increased fertility rates among beneficiary households. Larger aid allowances for larger families motivated families to have more children so that they could receive more aid (Rami, 2002). An analysis of free food aid distribution programs in Ethiopia revealed that food recipients often had a higher perceived famine risk after they began receiving aid. This is possibly due to the receipt of aid being seen as an indicator of a decline in food security for beneficiaries (Gilligan & Hoddinott, 2006). It is also at least partially due to recipients’ desires to continue receiving food aid. It would be simple, and shortsighted, to state that food aid is always detrimental to all recipient communities. Food aid has been shown to provide considerable benefits to recipients when the assistance is well-targeted and properly timed, however, it often is not. For example the depression of local cereal prices can benefit poorer community members by making food more affordable (Levinsohn & Mcmillan, 2007).

While humanitarian reasons are the primary basis for food aid, especially in Africa (Ball & Johnson, 1996), there is a growing body of evidence that suggests food aid is also largely motivated by political and economic gains for the donors (Awokuse, 2011). Kirwan and McMillan (2007) found that food aid deliveries to Ethiopia were primarily driven by wheat prices in the United States and had very little to do with the level of grain production in Ethiopia. Recent evidence has shown that food aid policies are often driven by benefits to farmers in donor countries instead of aid recipients in food insecure countries (Levinsohn & Mcmillan, 2007). This combination of altruistic and self-interested reasons for providing food aid means that food aid will likely be a development issue in the Simien Mountains region for the foreseeable future. International tourist attractions in developing countries, such as the Simien Mountains, often have the additional potent combination of high local need and high visibility for foreigners. This combination further diminishes the likelihood of food aid distribution being slowed in the area any time soon because potential food aid supporters are put in direct contact with potential food aid recipients. Ironically, foreign visitor support for food aid distribution may help weaken the tourist-attracting features of the area that had brought them to the Simien region to begin with. The most apparent example of this is the road that was built directly through park, which was primarily constructed to facilitate food aid distribution.

In an unfortunate case of one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Emergency Unit for Ethiopia (UN-EUE) were found on opposite ends of the aid issue. While UNESCO has vehemently and consistently called for the relocation of settlements inside and adjacent to the park, the UN-EUE was a strong supporter of constructing the road through the park  to facilitate food aid distributions to the same people (Guinand & Ugas, 1999)(Guinand, 2001). The road has also accelerated settlement inside the park as transportation into and out of the park has become easier. I have personally spoken to several people who moved inside the park because they expect compensation from the government or a foreign donor if a resettlement program is ever carried out within the park boundary. The road through the park is a completely uncontrolled means of transportation for people and materials through the park and multiple ecological problems with the road were identified in the park’s general management plan (Frankfurt Zoological Society, 2008). After the road was completed the UN-EUE did an abrupt about-face and acknowledged the damage from this “food aid highway” (Rami, 2002; pg 7). The organization now acknowledges that the road not only causes direct ecological damage through erosion and wildlife habitat fragmentation, but that it also “destroys the resources of eco-tourism, which is one of the few, if not the only dollar-earning industry in this part of Ethiopia” (ibid).

Since the predecessor of USAID began giving aid to Ethiopia in 1952, millions of dollars have been provided to the Ethiopian government every year. Between 1952 and 2011 Ethiopia has been “gifted” over $9.8 billion. USAID gave Ethiopia over $678 million in 2011 alone, which is actually down from the $839 million given in 2010 (Spevacek, 2011). Ethiopia has remained one of the primary recipients of non-military aid from the U.S. for years and receives millions of dollars more from other countries for development assistance and humanitarian aid. In 2011 the British International Development Secretary announced that despite “reports that huge sums of money had been wasted or simply been stolen on the ground,” and cutting aid to twenty other countries, Ethiopia will become the largest recipient of foreign aid from the UK by 2015 (Chief Reporter, 2011).

Over 80% of the humanitarian funding to Ethiopia between 2005 and 2009 was for emergency food aid, while barely half a percent of the funding for the same period was for disaster preparedness (Global Humanitarian Assistance, 2010). This means that only a fraction of humanitarian funding flowing into Ethiopia, including the Simien region, goes towards actually reducing the country’s vulnerability to events that necessitate emergency food aid. It is also likely that governments that know food aid shipments can be relied upon in times of famine will choose not to invest in sustainable agricultural development (Kirwan & McMillan, 2007), which further decreases the country’s food security. The rapidly increasing human population within the SMNP boundary and the park buffer zone has resulted in widespread natural resource degradation, weakened traditional livelihoods and has threatened the region’s ecotourism potential. Even though the value of the SMNP managed for wildlife conservation, scenic beauty, natural heritage and tourism far exceeds the value of the park as an agricultural production area, agricultural production is given priority over all other management concerns (Bergman, 2011). Aid agencies must very carefully evaluate the effects of food aid in the Simien Mountains and determine what the best long-term solutions are for the residents of the region; even if that means the cessation of food aid deliveries.


Awokuse, T. O. (2011). FOOD AID IMPACTS ON RECIPIENT DEVELOPING COUNTRIES : A REVIEW OF EMPIRICAL METHODS AND EVIDENCE. Journal of International Development, 23, 493–514. doi:10.1002/jid

Azarnert, L. (2008). Foreign Aid , Fertility and Human Capital Accumulation. Economica, 75, 766–781. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0335.2007.00661.x

Ball, R., & Johnson, C. (1996). Political, economic and humanitarian motivations for PL 480 Food Aid: evidence from Africa. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 44, 515–547.

Bergman, T. (2011). Recommendations for the Management of the Simien Mountaisn National Park. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Bongers, F., & Tennigkeit, T. (2010). Degraded Forests in Eastern Africa: Introduction. In F. Bongers & T. Tennigkeit (Eds.), Degraded Forests in Eastern Africa: Management and Restoration (pp. 1–18). Washington, D.C.: Earthscan.

Chief Reporter. (2011, February 20). Ministers axe foreign aid to half the current countries. The Sunday Telegraph.

Frankfurt Zoological Society. (2008). Simien Mountains National Park General Management Plan 2009-2019. Frankfurt.

Gelan, A. U. (2007). Does Food Aid Have Disin-centive Effects on Local Production? A Gen-eral Equilibrium Perspective on Food Aid in Ethiopia. Food Policy, 32, 436–458.

Gilligan, D. O., & Hoddinott, J. (2006). Is There Persistence in the Impact of Emergency Food Aid ? Evidence on Consumption , Food Security , and Assets in Rural Ethiopia. Washington, D.C.

Global Humanitarian Assistance. (2010). Humanitarian financing to Ethiopia 2000-2010. Somerset, UK.

Grunenfelder, J. (2005). Livestock in the Simen Mountains , Ethiopia. University of Berne.

Guinand, Y. (2001). Towards integrated food security through subsidised employment and income generation activities (pp. 1–17). Addis Ababa.

Guinand, Y., & Ugas, M. (1999). Underdeveloped, drought prone, food insecure: reflections on living conditions in parts of the Simien Mountains. Addis Ababa.

Kirwan, B., & McMillan, M. (2007). Food Aid and Poverty. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 89(5), 1152–1160. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8276.2007.01076.x

Levinsohn, J., & Mcmillan, M. (2007). Does Food Aid Harm the Poor ? Household Evidence from Ethiopia. In A. Harrison (Ed.), Globilization and Poverty (pp. 561–596). Chicago, IL USA: University of Chicago Press.

Puff, C., & Nemomissa, S. (2005). PLANTS OF THE SIMEN (Vol. 37). Meise, Belgium: National Botanic Garden of Belgium.

Rami, H. (2002). Food aid is not development: A system that intends to improve food security when done poorly, achieves the opposite. Addis Ababa.

Spevacek, A. (2011). USAID and Predecessor Loans and Grants / Food Aid to Ethiopia. Washington, D.C.

Tadesse, G., & Shively, G. (2009). Food Aid, Food Prices, And Producer Disincentives in Ethiopia. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 91(4), 942–955. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8276.2009.01324.x

Zeleke, G. (2010). A Study on Mountain Externalities in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa.

About Derek and Claire

We are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in the first Conservation and Natural Resource Management program for PC Ethiopia. Now we are wide-eyed expectant parents living in small, town rural Midwest.
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