December 01, 2009

Why Ethiopians remain hungry (Geoffrey York)

Africa Diary
Africa bureau chief Geoffrey York blogs about life across the continent, from Cape Town to the Sahara.

Why Ethiopians remain hungry

Geoffrey York

A casual visitor to Ethiopia’s capital city is quickly impressed by the smooth new roads and gleaming skyscrapers these days.

Sure, it has shacks and slums, but in comparison to most of Africa’s sprawling chaotic capitals, Addis Ababa seems to be a neat and tidy city, relatively well-organized and controlled.

Ethiopia’s new partnership with China is paying big dividends for the government. Not only is it providing the Chinese technology that allows Ethiopian authorities to block websites and spy on e-mails and cellphones, but it is also producing some of the smoothest new roads in Africa. Thanks to the Chinese-built highways, motorists can zip around Addis Ababa in relative ease, with few of the traffic jams that plague other African cities.

This is the city that the government wants you to see. But if you take a moment to ponder why the Ethiopian capital is so neat and tidy, you’ll understand why this country is still one of the poorest in the world.

With 80 million people, Ethiopia is the second-biggest country in Africa, and one of the fastest-growing. Yet its main city is smaller than Nairobi or Lagos or Khartoum or Kinshasa or many other African cities. An incredible 83 per cent of Ethiopia’s population is still rural, and most are living in near-medieval conditions, dependent on oxen-pulled ploughs and tiny plots of land, with almost no irrigation or mechanization.

Ethiopia has little of the urban migration that propels most big cities in the developing world. The rural population is, literally, stuck on the farm. Their farmland belongs to the state and cannot be sold. Most dare not leave their farms in case they lose their right to the land. The government discourages them from moving to the cities because it is afraid of urban unrest.

As a result, the rural population is trapped on the farms, highly vulnerable to drought and famine. Its residents don’t have the money-making opportunities that they would have in the cities. And as the population booms, its land is divided and subdivided into ever-smaller plots. Over the past 20 years, the average Ethiopian farm has gotten smaller and smaller, while per-capita farm production has shrunk.

The bottom line: an impoverished country where malnutrition is chronic, food emergencies are frequent, and almost one-sixth of the population is dependent on food aid.

Even China has learned that it cannot keep the peasants on the farms forever. After decades of restricting the peasants by prohibiting them from moving to the cities without a “residence permit,” China has begun to allow its farmers to move to the cities if they want. A massive migration to the cities has allowed China to avoid starvation and keep the economy booming.

If Ethiopia is shrewd, it will learn this lesson from China – not merely the lessons of Chinese spying and blocking technology.



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