IOCC mobilizing to stave off looming disaster in Ethiopia

On the shores of scenic Lake Tana, in northern Ethiopia, young people are learning how to improve food production through urban garden plots. The training they receive may one day hold the key for the food security of Ethiopia, a land known for its natural beauty, its monasteries and its droughts.

Memories of the famine that claimed nearly 1 million lives in the mid-1980s are still fresh in this country with an ancient Orthodox Christian heritage. And, once again, Ethiopia is faced with serious food shortages in the wake of two consecutive years of drought. An estimated 12.5 million people are said to be in immediate need of food aid, provoking a growing humanitarian response on the part of governments and relief agencies.

International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the official humanitarian aid agency of Orthodox Christians, is mobilizing to address both the short-term and long-term food needs of Ethiopians. IOCC Executive Director Constantine M. Triantafilou plans to meet with His Beatitude Patriarch Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church this summer.

“Africa’s people face tremendous need because of food shortages that threaten millions,” Triantafilou said. “Over the long term, that’s where IOCC should be focused, while continuing to support traditional Orthodox countries and our local partners.” Prior to joining IOCC, Triantafilou worked on welfare and development projects in Kenya and Tanzania for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Mission Center and the Orthodox Church of East Africa. “Food insecurity remains Ethiopia’s most deep-rooted problem,” according to a recent report by former Ohio congressman Tony Hall, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food agencies. “Of the country’s 67.2 million inhabitants, almost half live in deep and long-term poverty and are vulnerable to drought, acute malnutrition and even, at extreme moments, to starvation.”

So far, outright famine has been averted, but concerns over a shortfall in food grain donations - about 1.3 million tons are required through December - and the cyclical nature of Ethiopia’s problems have forced humanitarian organizations to rethink the best ways to respond. Exacerbating Ethiopia’s food shortage is the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Other factors in Ethiopia’s food crisis include its war with neighboring Eritrea, the failure of the two rainy seasons in 2002, the lack of top soil, and poor land management. IOCC consultant Xenia Wilkinson, who traveled to Ethiopia with an IOCC team in 2001, said Ethiopians cultivate farmland that in many cases is not owned by them.

“There’s no guarantee that their heirs will get the same land, so they don’t have much incentive to take care of it or work to avoid land degradation,” Ms. Wilkinson said. “Even with massive amounts of food aid, you still have to reform the agriculture system and do more integrated rural development before they have sufficient food security.”

In December 2002, IOCC and the other members of the Coalition for Food Aid, an alliance of U.S.-based relief agencies, launched a campaign to raise awareness about the food crisis in Africa. Joining in the coalition’s “Baltimore Declaration” on Africa, IOCC renewed its commitment to Africa, to mobilizing on behalf of its people, and to partnering with Orthodox Christians to help stave off the looming disaster.

IOCC began implementing small-scale agriculture projects in the northern Amhara region in 2001, in partnership with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission. The monastery-based projects seek to improve people’s ability to support themselves through agricultural pursuits such as beekeeping, gravity-flow irrigations systems, fruit orchards and vegetable gardens.

IOCC hopes to continue its relationship with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church through a series of community-based development programs, including grain grinding mills, improved water systems and a reforestation project.

Triantafilou said the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is a key partner for IOCC, along with the Orthodox Churches under the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Christianity in Ethiopia dates back to the fourth century. Today, as many as 30 million Ethiopians - about 45 percent of the population - are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

IOCC also has proposed a vocational and agricultural training program in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, on the shore of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. IOCC’s partner, the Jerusalem Community Development Organization, was founded during the devastating 1984 famine in which large numbers of children were orphaned. Later, as the children grew older, the organization got involved in job training as a way to reintegrate the orphans into society.

The project proposed by IOCC, once funded, will train young people in new agricultural techniques, food production and animal husbandry, as well as woodworking and other trades. An agricultural extension service to surrounding rural areas also is planned.

“We’re trying to prevent future famines in Ethiopia by training young farmers in better production techniques, for both crops and livestock,” said IOCC consultant Dirk Van Gorp. “We’re working toward the future.”