Monday, July 09, 2012

Divided Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a country of contrasts and contradictions.  Most Ethiopians live in brutal poverty, their per capita income among the lowest in the world. One in 10 Ethiopians is chronically food insecure, and nearly one in five go hungry in drought years. With almost half its people under the age of 15 and an average fertility rate of nearly five children per woman, Ethiopia's population is the fifth fastest-growing in the world. Ethiopia is a nation where small farmers struggle to eke out a living on tiny, degraded plots of land: in the densely populated highlands, roughly half the land is significantly eroded.

Yet it is one of the so-called "African lions:" its economy grew at a brisk 7.5 percent last year, more than twice the rate of emerging economies as a whole. Ethiopia is also the target of aggressive "land grabs." Since 2008, the government has leased or sold nearly 10 million acres of prime farmland in the less-populated lowlands to investors from China, India, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. According to Oxfam International, Ethiopia now supports the export of fruit, vegetables, and flowers worth $220 million a year. Those exports boost the nation's foreign exchange, but they may also undercut the food security of poor farmers and reduce production for the domestic market. One displaced farmer told Human Rights Watch, "We want you to be clear that the government brought us die....They brought us no food, they gave away our land to the foreigners so we can't even move back."

It is helpful to remember that there are many Ethiopias. Ethiopia's regions are as distinct as, say, Arizona and Minnesota. It is also helpful to set aside any preconceived notions about population and food. Malthusians argue that population growth inevitably leads to hunger, as the resource "pie" is divided into ever smaller slices. The most obvious flaw in this theory is that technology has thus far allowed the size of the pie to increase. Another is that food and other resources are not distributed equitably; some people get much larger servings than others. The pie as a whole may be big enough for everyone, but only the slices of the poor continue to shrink.

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