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As an Ethiopian woman who has spent most of her adult life working in humanitarian aid, my work has given me an insight into the grinding poverty suffered by millions of my compatriots and helped me appreciate the complexity of the problem which makes it difficult for them to break out of the vicious circle in which they are trapped.

Whenever the question is asked: “when is Ethiopia is going to feed itself?”, I feel very frustrated as no-one, least of all an Ethiopian, chooses the indignity of dependence on others unless they find themselves in a desperate situation.  Ethiopia's cycle of drought, famine and disease – occurring every four or five years – has a devastating effect on farming communities struggling to recover from the desolation and loss of livelihood visited upon their already-inadequate plots of barely fertile soil in a previous year.

What I find most shocking, and what made me determined to do something for my fellow Ethiopians, is to witness the stress-migration of drought-affected families.  Having sold their ox, their goats, their chickens, their pots and pans and their few possessions to buy enough meagre rations to keep themselves alive, they abandon their homes and their fields, walking for days to reach a road where they sit and hope to be found by a kindly passer-by or, with luck, an aid agency.

My career in humanitarian aid began during the 1984 famine in Ethiopia and I remember well the good work done by so many international aid agencies, such as Band Aid, with funds raised from the Live Aid concert, and the many kind and generous donations from around the world.  Despite this generosity, and the many lives it undoubtedly saved, it did not restore people to where they were before the drought.  It didn't return the lost animals, the cooking pots they sold or the homes they abandoned.  What it did, was... it kept them alive.  The road back to self-sufficiency is very long and strewn with difficulties for people with no resources.  Each drought, flood, disease or infestation sets back Ethiopia's ‘sub-subsistence' farmers many years and forces them, time and again, to begin building a new life in a devastated land.

I believe that, if Ethiopian farmers can improve their farming practices with basic machinery and better tools, they might be able to increase the efficiency of their farms and will be able to produce a surplus which will spare them from becoming food dependent at the time of drought, or earn them an income which will allow them to buy other basic necessities for their families.  If they also have the means to develop basic irrigation systems, they will still be able to grow some crops when the rains fail, as they surely will.

Simple medical equipment, such as beds, ventilators, diagnostic equipment, etc., which are no longer needed in the West, can be put to good use replacing the obsolete equipment in our delapidated hospitals and health centres.  And our rural schools could benefit well from simple chairs and desks, writing materials and books.

Grants from institutional donors and foundations, however large they might be, are time limited, with no guarantee of continuity, and are often linked to the priorities of the donor.  I strongly believe those who are likely to bring about change which makes a lasting difference to the lives of those trapped in poverty are ordinary people who empathise with the situation and who are willing to lend a hand in whatever way they can, either by offering their time and skills or by providing modest, sustained, financial support.

Although I am mindful of my own limitations, I feel that with the support of like-minded people it is possible to reach out to some of those in need and make a difference.  It was with this in mind that our small group of friends set up International Development Partnerships with a view to concentrating our efforts in Ethiopia, a land we all know well.

I know of no other organisation that works in such an integrated way as IDP, supporting local community initiatives to build capacity right across the social and economic spectrum of need – sustainable farming, clean water and sanitation, education and basic health care, as well as cultural and environmental conservation.  Experience has taught us that addressing only one aspect of people's needs in isolation won't bring about self sufficiency, but addressing each element of the problem will, slowly but surely, build a strong foundation allowing these determined and capable people the opportunity to lift themselves and their future generations out of the turmoil in which they have existed for many generations.

I believe that, even with small, but regular, contributions it is possible to support the efforts of Ethiopia's rural communities to achieve a sustainable standard of living which will give them the possibility of coping with environmental calamity in the future.  I am also convinced that, without access to schools the next generation of Ethiopians will be doomed to a life of extreme poverty and I feel I have a duty to do what I can to support the effort of parents to educate their children so that some of the opportunities which were available to me will also be available to them in the future.

Twenty-first century philanthropists are not only those with wealth and privilege, or those who walk the corridors of power.  Nor should celebrity endorsement be the motivating factor for participation.  For the price of one cup of coffee a week, for example, it is possible for ordinary individuals, working collectively, to make significant changes to rural communities in Ethiopia.

As we claim to live in a global village, we cannot afford to ignore the disparity which exists in our world and those of us who are able must surely do what is possible within our power to change the situation of those less fortunate.

The amount we give doesn't even have to exceed what we spend, without a second thought, on things like a weekly cup of coffee or magazine.  Individually, we might not be able to achieve much but if we come together with families and friends, and with genuine commitment, we will be able to make a big difference.

There is immense satisfaction to be gained from contributing to the transition of a community from dependency to renewal and self-sufficiency.  The ambition of children and young people to make something of themselves is too strong to ignore, especially when so much can be done even with small contributions from those who seek to empower others to take care of their own lives.

Martha Mulugeta-Berihun
Founding Trustee
International Development Partnerships

 

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