4 Ways to Help Turn the Tide on Ethiopia’s Drought

Fatuma uses shoat (sheep and goat) fattening techniques to increase the value of her livestock. / Sarah Berry, USAID

On a trip to southern Ethiopia, a region facing a historic drought made worse by El Niño, I met an impressively self-reliant woman named Fatuma.

Although the drought has outpaced the coping capacity of millions of poor households who have no choice but to seek food assistance for survival, families like Fatuma’s are managing to withstand the crisis. With USAID’s help, they diversified how they make a living — avoiding complete dependence on rain-fed agriculture.

However, our work helping families reduce reliance on food assistance is not enough to stop this crisis. More than 10 million people need relief food assistance — three times the number in need last year; 6 million need help accessing water and sanitation and hygiene services; and 2.6 million suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition and need treatment.

Here are four ways we can turn the tide on Ethiopia’s drought:

Beneficiaries leave a relief food distribution site with their food rations. Because of the drought, many families in Ethiopia are dependent on this assistance to put food on the table. / Sarah Berry, USAID

1. Continued action and focus

Donors must do more to respond to the drought to protect development gains and prevent a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. The United States has already provided more than a half a billion dollars for the drought emergency in Ethiopia and will soon provide additional support. We continue to sound the alarm for other stakeholders to do more.

If the response on the ground does not rapidly improve, we can expect the staggeringly large number of people in need to grow, along with potential for loss of life. Development gains will slip, and the road to recovery will be long.

2. Advanced planning

The worst of the drought may lie ahead. The summer, traditionally the “lean season,” is quickly approaching, which means the window to get aid in place is rapidly closing. On my trip, I talked to people waiting in line at a USAID-funded relief food distribution site. All were farmers who had no harvest the last two years because of failed rains. All were dependent on food distributions for survival, as were most of their neighbors.

While they thanked the United States for food support, they were eager to get back to growing their own crops. They urgently need seeds to plant before the June rains, now just weeks away. We can’t control the rains, but we can prepare for them. We must get seeds into the hands of more than 1.7 million farmers to help them return to self-reliance.

3. More humanitarians

International humanitarian and development organizations need to mobilize more people so we can effectively deliver assistance to those in need. Despite substantial efforts, food assistance is not reaching enough people fast enough; as a result, health centers are becoming overwhelmed by the spike in numbers of malnourished children requiring treatment.

I went to a health post with one worker trying to serve 88 mothers with malnourished children. Each child was registered, examined, treated with ready-to-use therapeutic food, weighed and measured — all by one health worker. The families had been waiting for hours by the time we arrived at 4 p.m., and prospects for the health worker to reach them all before nightfall looked dim.

4. Additional support from Ethiopian government

The Ethiopian government has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the response and will need to do more before this is over. The government can help the international community respond by reducing bureaucratic red tape and adjusting protocols to allow for more rapid distributions of food and other supplies. It must also expand the number of people providing aid directly to those in need and accept more help from international agencies to increase staffing and improve efficiencies in the response chain.


While these steps will help respond to the crisis now, we also need to think about the long-term plan. As a member of USAID’s Resilience Leadership Council, formed in 2012 to assess what we can do differently to reduce the impact of ever more frequent climate shocks in highly vulnerable regions like the Horn of Africa, I was eager to see what “resilience building” looked like on the ground.

Fatuma stands with her two sons in front of the new home she built with her diversified income. / Sarah Berry, USAID

The success of families like Fatuma’s is in part due to USAID’s Graduation with Resilience to Achieve Sustainable Development program. It targets households depending on food assistance from the USAID-supported and Ethiopia Government-led Productive Safety Net Program and helps them “graduate,” or in other words build enough assets so that they are self reliant.

Organizing remote households into community associations, the program offers them training in on- and off-farm income generating activities and expands their access to financial products and services. It connects them to commercial markets so that they can access better seeds, fertilizer and credit.

Besides growing crops in a garden plot, Fatuma became self reliant by earning money from running a small shop and tea stand, renting a donkey cart to neighbors, and using shoat (sheep and goat) fattening techniques to produce more milk and meat and sell livestock at a higher price.

Dr. Fikadu, a local agro-dealer, introduces new seed varieties and situates his shop near farmers who need to make smaller-scale seed purchases. / Sarah Berry, USAID

The community associations also run a collective savings account from which members can draw funds for emergencies — giving them confidence that they can handle a crisis without outside help.

One member told me, “We will take care of each other and weather the storm until the next harvest.

Although more than half of participating households (over 33,000) have graduated from needing food assistance in the first four years, which is impressive progress, this does not come near the scale of food insecurity. Almost 8 million Ethiopians receive regular food rations through the Productive Safety Net Program.

USAID’s resilience programs strategically link protracted food assistance responses to development efforts in order to reduce the need for humanitarian assistance. We are building an evidence base of what works, but the frequency and scale of shocks we face may outpace our success.

I return from Ethiopia convinced that we must work with donors and host governments to accelerate and scale up our efforts to build resilience, so that we can address the underlying risks that keep marginalized communities entrenched in a cycle of food insecurity and poverty.


About the Author

Dina Esposito is the Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID.