Beware the drought, the MDG successes are at stake

Ethiopia is rising and poised to reach middle income status after a decade, according to World Bank. Ethiopia is experiencing the worst drought in decades and now has almost 10% of her population under emergency aid.

Those two are facts that describe the East African rising giant.

I find the current drought to be a concerning setback. What makes it concerning isn’t the loss in the annual agricultural output or a likely drop in the expected economic growth rate. In fact, not even the food shortage. I said that not because that’s not such a bad thing but because it grabbed the main focus of all and is currently being addressed with intense relief works.

What keeps me up all night is rather the long-term impact of the drought. The focus of the government is on ensuring people-in-need get the basic required amount of food to survive the drought, and rightly so. In such a situation, however, other considerations and efforts for human development will most likely take a back seat, at least temporarily. This temporary shift in focus is what I fear to pose risk of a lasting regression in Ethiopia’s substantial progress in the social indicators of the Millennium Development Goals.

The performance of African countries on reducing hunger varies markedly. Since the millennium, many gains have been made: the number of people living in extreme poverty in the developing world has shrunk from half of the population to a quarter; Enrollment in primary education has increased to 88%, with the largest gains being made in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia; And the deaths of children under five has continued to decline. However, in the battle against hunger, unforeseen difficulties keep arising, such as the ever-changing climate situation, which this year has thrust the fastest growing horn of Africa region into humanitarian crisis. We are seeing that drought years are coming more and more frequently, often successively, making life increasingly difficult for people living in drought prone areas.

Ethiopia on its part has registered tremendous progress in the millennium development goals. According to reports from international organizations Ethiopia registered significant reduction with respect to the goal to “Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” that it is now only 5 percentage points away from reaching the target. The significant reduction in poverty in recent times in Ethiopia and Rwanda has been attributed to the rapid growth in agriculture. And with respect to the target of halving the prevalence of underweight children [below age 5] Ethiopia reduced it by about by 25 percent.

However, this success is now under threat. The successes of the MDG are not irreversible, or at least not free from regression. Many of the goals Ethiopia has shown progress are vulnerable to the impacts of drought.

One of the MDG goals, poverty reduction, will likely be hampered due to reduced agricultural output that leads to loss of farm income and also the loss of livestock and farm animals that will pull especially the pastoralist back to poverty. In addition, a possible food inflation could rob consumer’s disposable income and savings affecting the progress in poverty reduction. A slowdown in the rate of economic growth following a reduced hydro power energy output could derail the potential growth in industrial and service sectors.

The most serious of all are malnutrition and health problems related to poor water quality which are the most likely impacts of a drought of such magnitude. Malnutrition is basically characterized by a wide array of health problems, including extreme weight loss, stunted growth, weakened resistance to infection, and impairment of intellect. Children suffer from the effects of food shortage faster than adults.

According to recent studies on Ethiopia, children aged five or less in drought-prone areas are 36 percent more likely to be malnourished and 41 percent more likely to be stunted if they are born during a drought year. This is estimated to translate into some 2 million ‘additional’ malnourished children. This shows the seriousness of the issue under discussion. In addition, Food price hikes that usually follow droughts is another key factor that hampers progress in nutrition levels. These could severely derail the achievements in the goals to reduce child mortality and the prevalence of underweight children.

The relationship between food shortage and poor education, bad health is dynamic and long lasting, creating a vicious cycle that often propagates pervasive linkage. For instance, malnourished children have weak immune systems and die prematurely from communicable diseases that are usually preventable and treatable, such as dysentery, malaria and respiratory infections. They start school late, learn less and drop out early. Malnourished mothers are also at a greater risk of dying in childbirth and of delivering low-birth-weight babies undermining the huge progress Ethiopia made in this regard.

Fortunately, there is a health-nutrition system that seems well funded and to be working well especially in battling child malnutrition. Recent media visits into drought affected areas has revealed the much lauded health extension program is working well with respect to under-five children, shielding them from the impacts of the drought that the adults are well experiencing. There was, however, a visible gap in children above the age of five who seem to have fallen into the crack of the system as they are not covered in a scheme designed with the aim to reduce infant mortality and halving the prevalence of below age five underweight children. That is something which requires immediate attention.

It is crucial that we be wary of relief efforts shifting attention away from the development goals we were committed to achieve. We should in fact strengthen the system in place with equal priority as our relief works. If Ethiopia is to get through this setback and continue its development march, losing focus of the MDG’s is not an option.


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