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July 29, 2008

More aid goes to quick-fix needs than to agriculture

Hussein Ibrahim walks solemnly past tidy rows of bright green cabbages, vines bursting with tomatoes and trees weighed down with plump avocados.

This modern, thriving farm - a rarity in drought-ravaged Ethiopia - filled Hussein with envy. Like so many other farmers across the Horn of Africa, he has no hope for his own crops this year.

"We are behind all the other people in the world," said Hussein, who tends his land in southern Ethiopia the way his ancestors did hundreds of years ago - with rain, if it comes, and oxen, as long as they're healthy.

To break out of endless cycles of drought, poverty and hunger, experts say, Africa desperately needs to modernize its age-old farming techniques. But the vast sums in foreign aid to Africa go toward feeding the hungry, and very little is left for improving farming so that Africans will cease to depend on handouts.

The situation is not impossible. A decade ago, a "green revolution" helped millions of farmers in Asia and Latin America emerge from poverty with basic innovations such as fertilizer, improved irrigation and hybrid seeds.

But Africa's farms, which employ more than half the labor force, remain one-fourth as productive as their counterparts around the world.

Ethiopia drew international attention in 1984 when a famine compounded by communist policies killed 1 million people. The nation is now gripped by a drought that has left 4.6 million people in need of emergency food shipments.

Drought is especially bad for Ethiopia because farming employs more than 80 percent of Ethiopians and accounts for half of all domestic production and 85 percent of exports. Yet, it is not that Ethiopia is incapable of growing food, as this experimental farm 100 miles southwest of Addis Ababa demonstrates. It just needs the right tools.

The farm, part of a government-run research center, beats the drought with smart irrigation systems, higher-yielding seeds, and fertilizer and pesticides correctly applied.

Hussein and dozens of other farmers were invited to the farm in late June to learn about modern agricultural techniques.

The 640-acre center employs nearly 350 workers, nearly 60 of whom hold advanced degrees in agriculture. It was set up in 1969 in the dying days of Ethiopia's monarchy, survived a decade of Marxist dictatorship, famine and wars, and continues to point the way to food independence.

But all it can do is point. It costs the Ethiopian government about $1.1 million a year to run the farm. The average Ethiopian works two acres, has little education and earns about $800 a year.

Also on the visit to the center was Mitike Abebe, who farms wheat, barley, lentils and other crops in southern Ethiopia. She depends entirely on rainfall, sturdy oxen and her overworked soil. "We don't want food aid," she said. "We need tractors, we need seeds, we need farm machinery."

There's aid aplenty - Ethiopia alone got $1.95 billion in 2006 - but Africa-wide, less than 5 percent of it goes toward the sort of things Mitike needs. The United States, Ethiopia's largest donor, this year gave it more than $570 million, but just over 1 percent of that money is going toward developing agriculture.

In 2004, African nations agreed to set aside 10 percent of their national budgets for agricultural development. Ethiopia exceeded that promise, with 16 percent of its $3.4 billion budget. But experts say it is simply not enough for a country so dependent on the land.

According to the United Nations, nearly two-thirds of Africa's agricultural land has been degraded by erosion and misused pesticides. In Ethiopia, where bad farming practices have led to extensive erosion, 85 percent of the land is damaged.

"We've underinvested, and everybody appreciates this now," said Glenn Anders, who heads the U.S. aid program in Ethiopia. "Particularly in Africa, for the last few decades, maybe more."

The continent's other needs often offer a quicker fix for donors, he said.

"You give a kid an immunization and that kid's better. Agriculture's much more indirect than that and also requires a lot more time. It's not a quick fix at all."

Baltimore Sun

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