The latest report assessing Ethiopia’s progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) released in October 2015 commended Ethiopia for being on track to attain five of the eight targets while achieving its target of reducing child mortality by two thirds ahead of time.
However the progress report, the fifth since the MDG was first announced in 2000 and the more detailed as well as broader in coverage, advised Ethiopia not only to work harder on the goals the country is lagging behind – mainly ensuring gender equality and empowering women (MDG3) and improving maternal health (MDG5) – but also highlighted the problems of extreme poverty and the need to deal with it.
Although Ethiopia has managed to register encouraging results in the eradication of extreme poverty (MDG1), the number of people who are living under the globally agreed upon poverty line (which is very close to US$1.25 a day on food and non-food items), and who are unable to satisfy their daily basic needs remains unbridgeable.
In 1996, the population living below the nationally defined poverty line (which is also called the incidence of poverty) was 45.5 percent while the poverty gap and poverty severity were 12.9 percent and 5.2 percent respectively. Using a conservative estimate, the incidence of poverty declined to 29.6 per cent in 2011 and is estimated to have declined further to 25.1 per cent in 2014 and 23.4 percent in 2015, according to the review. However, about 22.6 million people are living under the poverty line as of 2013/14.
The rate of decline in poverty indices is higher in rural areas than in the urban areas. The incidence of poverty, the poverty gap and poverty severity in rural areas declined by 13.4 per cent, 31 per cent and 41 per cent respectively between 1995/96 and 2010/11, but in the urban areas these variables declined just by 4.7 per cent, 24 per cent, and 36 per cent respectively over the same period.
Major cities in Ethiopia, particularly the capital Addis Abeba, which hosts 30 per cent of the country’s urban population, according to UN Habitat, are known to be crucibles of staggering contrasts where the two extremities of poverty and wealth are evident.
Inequality in Ethiopia is largely an urban problem. Because of the more or less egalitarian land distribution, income inequality in rural areas is low as compared to urban areas, the assessment report added.
Starving in Addis Abeba
Misrak Chora Elementary is a public school located in Yeka Sub-city in the capital where the majority of its students come from low income families residing in the area known as Shola. Some families who send their children to the school live under extreme poverty that at times they can’t afford to provide food for their children. An alarming report in a local FM radio station aired in early 2015 revealed the story of school children who collapsed while attending lessons because of what was later discovered to be hunger.
Extreme poverty in the midst of a sprawling Addis
Dereje Hailu is an eighth grader at the school and head of the students’ media services. He recalled what happened with a grim look stamped on his face. “I don’t exactly remember when it started happening. But younger students, those that were under grade 4, started collapsing and at some point it became a common occurrence. They pass out because they come to school without having breakfast. Most of the time they said they hadn’t had dinner on the previous night as well”, he told this magazine.
The parents of many of those students are street beggars relying on alms to support their families according to Dereje. Other parents are occasionally employed in informal and often meager paying jobs such as washing clothes; they lack permanent jobs and stable means of income. Dereje said that there haven’t been any such cases in the school in this academic year which is way into its fourth month. While some children from extremely poor parents have received support from non-governmental organization, Dereje says he personally knows other students who have quit school.
Hanna Ali’s children are among those who have managed to get some support to sustain their education. Hana, who has never been legally married, is raising three children: Tinsae, Yabsira and Dagm, by herself. She moves from houses to houses to wash clothes for the people in her neighborhood. “In good times I earn as much as 850 ETB (about US$ 40) per month. But a lot of times it is a lot less than that,” she told this magazine. Her income is marred with irregularity, sometimes being forced to go without work for days or even weeks. “I tried to work as a day laborer in construction sites,” she says, “that was when my kids quit school. I have no one to take them to school and bring them back.”
As of late Hanna’s children are back to school but she is still struggling to find a job. “Sometimes there is no food at home but I have no alternative than to send them to school without food. It is not that I was convinced they would learn well while hungry. There was nothing else they could do at home.”
So Tinsae, a 4th grader and Yabsira, who is in grade one, collapsed twice in school. “It was so embarrassing. I felt helpless.”
For now, thanks to a financial and material support from a non-governmental agency, Hanna has managed to send her children to school. “I receive 350 ETB each for two of my kids, edible oil and wheat flour per month.” Her youngest, Dagm is in Kindergarten.
Hanna still tries to get a decent source of income as she is not sure what will happen to her children if the support they are getting is suspended. “God forbid! We can’t go back to starvation.”
At 17.5 percent as of 2012, urban unemployment in Ethiopia is one of the highest, according to United Nations Development Program (UNDP). According to a 2011 Urban Unemployment survey by Ethiopia’s Central Statistics Agency’s (CSA), 36.5 percent of the total employment in urban areas is in the informal sector often lacking secure means of income.
The monthly income of 60% of employed households in the Addis Abeba does not exceed US$68, states UN Habitat’s profile of the city. This low income is further aggravated by a dependency ratio of 28 percent: for every 10 employed people there are nearly three dependent persons of age less than 15 years or older than 65 years of age. The city is characterized by a high rate of unemployment (31%), concentration of slum dwellings, and poor housing, infrastructure and sanitary development.
For Hana the greatest challenge she faces is the skyrocketing food price. “No matter how much I tried to increase my income, the price of everything, especially food, increases even faster. Now it is better since I have my kids’ support. But still I have to pay house rent which also increases every few months,” she says.
Food insecurity: not just a rural problem
According to a 2014 research paper by Tsefaye Birane and his colleagues on Urban Food Insecurity in the Context of High Food Price, food insecurity in Ethiopia is not only a rural problem. Urban food insecurity is a growing concern due to the toxic combination of high rates of urban poverty, high dependency of urban households on food supplied by the market, and fluctuating food prices.
“Households in Addis Abeba not only don’t have a sufficient amount of food to eat, their diets are largely cereal based, lacking an adequate diversity of food to yield good nutrition,” they argue. Their statement is supported by World Food Program’s 2014Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA). Nationally, 40% of households are food energy deficient. (The analysis used the threshold of 2,550 kilocalories per adult per day). At 50% Addis Abeba is home to the highest prevalence of food energy deficient households.
Tesfaye and his colleagues recommend that in order to tackle urban food insecurity, which is a bitter reality to the likes of Hanna and her children, subsidization of common food commodities should be strengthened to improve access to the poor. Emphasis should also be given to household heads engaged as daily wage earners, public employees, and to those who have little to no education.