UNDP-EUE: Farming Life in South Welo, 1983 - 12/98

UNDP-EUE: Farming Life in South Welo, 1983 - 12/98

Personal Reflections on Farming Life in South Welo

The experience of three farming families in rural Ethiopia, c. 1983 to the present day

By Ralph Klingele, Field Officer, UNDP Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia


Ethiopia is an agrarian country, with a rural population of over 80 percent. Its national economy widely depends on agricultural production. The secondary sector (industrial production) is still at an embryonic stage, while, in urban centres, the predominantly unproductive service sector has known a certain boom in recent years. For lack of alternative employment, a large proportion of the population growth in recent years has had to be absorbed by the agricultural sector, provoking increasing competition for limited land and other resources with all the well-known negative effects this implies.

For many years, much effort in terms of development and humanitarian assistance has focussed on the rural population, with many studies undertaken to improve the general understanding of rural life. Despite these efforts, the overall understanding of the dynamics of rural economy in Ethiopia and the day-to-day realities faced by farmers remains low, and the professional skills of subsistence farmers widely underestimated.

This paper is intended to help improve the general understanding of day-to-day farming life in a disaster prone area of Ethiopia and to illustrate some of the ways in which farmers cope. Based on a short survey undertaken in South Welo, it presents the result of interviews held with three families from different agroclimatic zones and weredas. Following the chronology of the last fifteen years, it shows the impact of events on farmers, their households and their subsistence capacity and reveals something of the actual development trends during this time. The period of concern includes the 1984/85 famine, which is estimated to have caused the death of up to a million people.

Though a sample of three cannot be considered as fully representative for the area, it is believed the paper presents a realistic picture of the continuous struggle for subsistence in this part of rural Ethiopia, identifying the factors favouring growth, impeding development or worse, leading to a vicious cycle of increasing impoverishment. The chronological approach enables the presentation of events in the context of their impact over time on individual households. Seen from a wider perspective, such an approach could positively complement the household food economy analysis undertaken by Save the Children Fund, UK, by documenting longer-term trends in different areas of concern.

Short Review of Events

In Welo, our period of interest has been preceded by droughts in 1953, 1966 and 1974. The early 80's showed a progressive onset of drought with insufficient to bad harvests in different areas of the country. In 1984 there were no belg rains all over the belg producing areas of Ethiopia, while the following meher season registered 30-60 percent less rainfall than normal in 12 of 14 regions of the country, with Welo being the most affected area, registering a yield reduction of some 80 percent.
After issuing a first warning of impending crisis in late 1983, the former Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) held meetings with donor agencies and launched several urgent appeals in 1984 (March, August, October, December). Despite the fact that the donor community was well informed about the increasing gravity of the situation, they only started to pledge relief food for Ethiopia after the culmination of tragedy, once the world media reported the horrible facts to the public in October 1984. Finally, the 1984/85 drought is thought to have caused the deaths of around one million people, a terrible disaster the extent of which was made much worse by the twin factors of the delayed response of the international community and the civil war then raging in the north of the country.

Welo was, as during the 1973/74 drought, by far the most severely hit area, registering in 1984 1.8 million people at risk representing 28 percent of total population affected, in 1985 2.9 million people or 27 percent and in 1986 1.6 million people or 23 percent. With two major droughts in a ten year period, many farmers in Welo were never able to fully rehabilitate themselves, remaining ever since in a more or less vulnerable stage.

The years following these repeated droughts have been characterised by a high incidence of climatic hazards, some pest infestations and endemic crop diseases, with only a few normal to good harvests. Apart from natural calamities, the structural food deficit is steadily growing, making South Welo one of the most vulnerable zones of the country. With very few activities undertaken to alleviate the structural food deficit, South Welo has become an area in permanent need of relief.

A Farming Family in the Highlands

Household inventory 1982

By the end of 1982 the family was composed of the family head and his wife, five children, a farm labourer with his wife and child, as well as a maid. The family head and the farmer were cultivating the land, while the labourer's child worked as a shepherd.

The farm labourer living with the family received (o) of the harvest plus clothing once a year, while his child got twelve Maria Theresa Dollars (worth around 36 Birr at the time) per year for shepherding.

Following the land reform undertaken by the Derg regime in the late 1970's, he was left with 1.25 hectares of arable land, (o) of it being used as pasture. Around his homestead he grew some eucalyptus trees, while keeping some scattered acacia trees on his farm land. During the belg, the main agricultural season in that area, he grows barley, oat and wheat and during meher some peas, lentils, horse beans, teff, barley and oat. At that time he was able to produce around 15 quintals (1 quintal = 100 kilogrammes) of grain in a good year.

In terms of livestock he owned 4 oxen, 3 cows, 3 horses, 3 donkeys, 2 mules and 60 sheep. With practically no communal land left for grazing, livestock had to be mainly fed on on-farm pasture and crop residues, not enough to maintain that number of animals. As crop production since the land reform became insufficient to cover the annual food needs of the household, he had to sell part of his livestock assets to cover basic expenditures, while simultaneously practising some destocking.

He considers himself to have been at that time part of the middle wealth group.

Chronology of events 1983 to 1998

In 1983, the harvest from both agricultural seasons was low, forcing him to sell more animals than usual to meet the essential needs of the household.

In 1984, both the belg and meher seasons failed. By the end of the year he remained with one pair of oxen, 1 cow, 1 horse, 2 donkeys, 1 mule and 25 sheep.

In 1985, again the entire crop production failed and by the end of the year he was left with 1 ox, 1 cow, 1 horse and 1 donkey.

In 1986, the belg season failed again, while he could get some harvest from the meher. By the end of 1986 he owned no livestock other than the one horse.

During the whole period the farmer was able to remain with most of his family on his land. Many farmers were not as fortunate and had to migrate in search of food. However, the farm labourer living with them, his family as well as the maid had to leave, as the household couldn't afford to feed them any longer. One son had left the household before the disaster, while one daughter migrated to town because of the drought.

Relief activities finally started in 1985, after many people had already starved. He remembers a tragic event of that year, when out of several thousands of people gathered in the open around a relief store awaiting assistance, as many as 2,000 died in one night, after a heavy rain storm. During the relief period, people received monthly, sometimes every two months, one kuna of cereals (~8kgs). Relief assistance was insufficient and the family could only overcome the critical period by selling their productive assets (livestock, eucalyptus), trading small amounts of grain in Dessie market and through the continuous support of their two children living in town. Relief activities stopped at the end of 1986 and the internally displaced farmers who survived the disaster returned back to their land.

In 1987, the belg rains were normal, but much arable land was left fallow for lack of oxen to plough and seeds to plant. Also people still suffered from food shortages. With the rehabilitation programme starting, farmers who still owned an ox could benefit from seed distributions, to be given back in-kind after the harvest.

As his daughters were married meanwhile, our farmer could borrow oxen from their respective husbands to plough and seed half of his land for the belg as well as for the meher season, which turned out to be again less than normal. During that period he also received a female calf from his children.

During this five year period, the composition of household members gradually changed, the parents now remaining with one son and four grandchildren. As the children that married and left the household were girls, the farm size remained unchanged (1.25 ha), with father and son cultivating the land.

In 1988, the belg harvest was less than normal, while the secondary meher season showed a good performance. That year he could benefit from the ongoing rehabilitation programme, receiving, like other farmers without livestock, one ox and two sheep.

In subsequent years the problems persisted and he was forced, like many other beneficiaries, to sell the animals received through the rehabilitation programme. In 1991, with the return of many settlers to their respective place of origin following the end of the civil war, further land redistribution deprived him of two fifths of his land holdings, leaving him with just 0.75 hectares. Meanwhile, the calf grew up giving successively birth to four calves. The first one he kept to be used later on as an ox, while the other three offspring were sold, generally in September, to overcome the stress period before the meher harvest. In 1996, when selling a one year old calf, he was able to buy a young donkey.

Following the 1984/85 drought the situation has deteriorated progressively. Frequent climatic hazards, decreasing soil fertility, lack of productive assets (especially livestock) are the main causes for the erosion of the subsistence capacity of farmers mentioned by our interlocutor. Most farmers of the area were not able to rehabilitate themselves, becoming dragged into the vicious cycle of impoverishment. Only a few households recovered fully, small families and those who were able to save some animals over the drought.

Household Inventory at the end of 1998

While the survival of his family during the famine was only possible with the help of the two children in town and some relief assistance, he is henceforth dependant on the regular support of his daughters, married in the countryside, to subsist. In 1998, twelve years after the disaster, he owns 0.75 hectares of arable land, one ox, one cow, one donkey and one horse. He considers his actual social status as being below the middle wealth group, remaining dependant on external support to subsist, as farm and animal products as well as small trade activities are mostly insufficient to cover all essential needs of the household.

Performance and future prospects

Without handing over land to his children, his land assets have shrunk by 40 percent from 1.25 hectares in 1982 to 0.75 hectares in 1998. His livestock assets, important before the big drought, were largely lost during the famine due to distress sales. With the help of his children and a one time assistance from the rehabilitation programme, he was able to rebuild some of it, but livestock assets remain much below the level of 1982. While the loss of land might have been balanced by a smaller household size (from 5 adults & 6 children to 3 adults & 4 children), the loss of major livestock assets has strongly diminished his income potential and subsequently his capacity to subsist. Without the regular assistance of his children, he would be definitely part of the poor wealth group, owing no animals and forced to practise crop sharing on his land.

Once his son (still living with his parents at home) and grandson will marry, each of them will get one third of his land, leaving him with 0.25 ha. As he and his wife are slowly reaching an age of retirement, they will progressively concentrate their efforts on the well-being of their grandchildren, while being taken care of by their children.

While the grandson will get some additional land from his father, the son will have to start a new household with a mere 0.25 ha of land. Once his father fully retires, he can expect to get the remaining 0.25 ha and an ox, bringing his farm size to a maximum of 0.5 ha, much too little to support a growing family.

A Farming Family from the Midlands

Parents household

Until 1985 our interlocutor was still living with his parents, a household of two adults and six children. He was cultivating his fathers' land (1 timad) and sharecropping six timads of land (1.5 ha) belonging to people living in town. His father worked as daily labourer whenever he found a job, for the rest of the time he helped his son on the farm. In that area meher is the main agricultural season, while the belg rains are mainly used for land preparation and seeding of long cycle crops (mainly sorghum) and occasionally to plant some short cycle crops.

His father owned a pair of oxen, one cow and three goats. With little communal grazing land, animals were mainly fed on on-farm crop residues and hay, which could be bought cheap at that time.

Animal and crop production (from their own land and three-fifths from crop sharing) generally covered the household needs until June, followed by a stress period of around three months. The gap was filled by working for better-off farmers and/or borrowing money in town at an interest rate of 100 percent, to be paid back after the meher harvest. In bad times when they could not obtain credit, they had to sell livestock assets or even the roof of their house.

In 1984, the remaining available land in the area was partly allotted to individual farmers, partly assigned to farmer cooperatives. Through the land re-distribution the father was able to increase his landholdings to eight timad (2 hectares), while the son decided to join a farmer's cooperative, together with eight other people. To start the cooperative the members received from the government 9 hectares of irrigated land, oxen, ploughs and seeds.

In 1984, both belg and meher seasons failed. His father had to sell all his livestock, while the cooperative could keep its animals. Water for irrigation became scarce and the cooperative could only produce on a limited area of its land, growing mainly sweet potatoes and vegetables. The farmers of the cooperative received some relief food assistance from the government, but it was insufficient and sometimes they had no food at home. The father bought a house and a donkey from people forced to resettle and was fortunate to be able to sell the recycled wood for a fair price to a rich lady in town, who pitied them. During that time so many people in the community died, that it was even a problem to bury them. Also many animals perished.

When mass starvation and death reached its peak during the last months of the year, our young farmer was chosen to follow a six months training course in agriculture and left the area. During his absence the family still received his share of food production from the cooperative, while relief food started slowly to arrive.

In 1985, both agricultural seasons failed, but by that time relief assistance was finally in place and people could survive. During his absence for training, the father kept his son's share of relief food apart and bought him two calves and one goat from it. Soon after his return home, our young farmer got married and found his proper household, while still working in the farmer's cooperative.

Proper household

The young household had no landholdings being a member of the cooperative, but they owned some animals: one cow and one young ox from the wife's side and two calves and one goat from his side.

In 1986, the belg was not satisfactory while the main meher season performed very well. But much of the arable land remained fallow for lack of oxen and seeds. The cooperative enjoyed a good harvest, but with (by then) 76 members the individual share was by far insufficient. With the help of relatives from town, who offered him one ox and one calf, his father could cultivate all his land during the meher season. Relief activities which had continued through much of 1986 had finally stopped by the end of the Ethiopian year (September).

In 1987, the cooperative's landholdings increased to 25 hectares of arable land, 5 hectares of pasture and 10 hectares of forestry land, while its members increased to 91. Despite additional land assets and the possibility of off-season crop production through irrigation on nine hectares, the individual share from the overall production of the cooperative remained insufficient, even in a good year. Too little land or too many members, mismanagement and subsequent discouragement of members were the main causes for the shortfall in production.

But from 1987 to 1989, a vast food for work program (FFW), concentrating on road construction, afforestation and terracing, offered sufficient supplementary income for farmers to cover their essential needs. With a payment of up to 100 kgs of grain and one tin of oil per month, our farmer became self-sufficient in food and by selling some young animals he could even buy two oxen, clothing and cover all other essential needs. He describes that period as a time "when we could smile again".

By the end of 1989, the government announced that - at the will of their members - cooperatives could be maintained or dissolved. Consequently, the farmer's cooperative was dissolved and the property shared between its members. Our farmer, who has meanwhile become father to four children (including one child who died), obtained five timad of land (1.25 hectares) and 500 Birr in cash, which he used to buy an ox.

Since 1990, he is farming on his own land, but production does not cover all his essential needs, as the land is becoming less and less productive since the drought. With the FFW programme having stopped and the civil war reaching the area, he managed to complement his own production by sharecropping other people's land.

After the change of government in 1991, many settlers came back to their place of origin. The following land redistribution deprived him of one timad of land and he remained with one hectare, while his father lost two timad and remained with 1.5 hectares.

Despite the civil unrest, 1990 and 1991 were good agricultural years, allowing him to build a new house. To be able to cover it with corrugated iron sheets, not as a sign of prestige but for security reasons, he sold two oxen and one goat, remaining thereafter with two oxen, one cow and one heifer.

In 1992, belg and meher gave little harvests, not enough for subsistence. By using the stored sorghum from the previous year, selling two calves and "tightening the belt", they could manage to fill the gap without external support or credit.

In 1993, there was very little harvest mainly due to excessive rains. With no more grains in the store, he sold one calf and some teff as well as part of the teff straw, keeping some for his own livestock.

In 1994, harvest was even less than the preceding year. He could manage to fill the gap only by selling one calf, getting some grain from his father and again "tightening the belt". Being afraid of loosing all his assets, he did not want to take any credit. That year poorer farmers received some 12 to 24 kgs of grain per family during a short two month period of relief assistance.

In 1995, the harvest was again lower than in 1993 for lack of adequate rains. In addition, his two oxen fell sick and could not be saved, even by the veterinary service. Slaughtering and selling the meat within the community (a kind of traditional livestock insurance) saved him from a bigger loss and allowed him to recuperate 650 Birr to buy one replacement ox. His wife's family lent him another ox to plough his fields and some grain to overcome the bad year. But since the loss of his two oxen he could no longer practise sharecropping on other peoples' land, which he used to do for several years in order to increase his food production.

In 1996, the belg was again unsatisfactory, while the meher was characterised by too much rain for most of the season and a premature cessation. Crop production was better than the previous four years but still insufficient to cover his family's needs. To fill the gap he went to work for two months as a daily labourer. Moreover, the ox bought in 1995 fell seriously sick and also had to be slaughtered, fetching 400 Birr for the meat. Finally, he was left with only one ox borrowed from his wife's family.

In 1997, belg production was low, while unseasonal rains spoiled part of the meher harvest. During the belg season, after one month of daily labour, he quit the work in time to prepare his land for the planting of long cycle sorghum. Fellow farmers who stayed longer on the job could only seed short cycle crops, mainly teff, which was subsequently destroyed by the heavy unseasonal rains of October/November. The unseasonable rains also affected his sorghum and harvest was once again insufficient. By selling one heifer, crop residues and some sugar cane, he was able to complement the household food needs with maize and wheat.

In 1998, with the money raised from the sale of the meat (400 Birr) and the help of his sister living in town, who added 200 Birr, he was able to buy another ox. Still, for lack of sufficient draft animals, he planted no teff this year, only sorghum. Due to pest infestation (bollworm) he is expecting a low harvest of only four quintals.

Inventory end of 1998

Despite the many problems faced during this period, the farmer remains with one hectare of arable land, partly irrigated, two oxen, one cow, two calves and one donkey. However, for lack of sufficient draft animals (one of his oxen is still young) he is no longer in a position to practise sharecropping on other peoples' land.

From 1986 until 1991 he considered himself as self-sufficient, being part of the middle wealth group. Thereafter, his situation worsened gradually, with increased frequency of climatic hazards and misfortune regarding livestock. Now he has lost his ability to be self-sufficient through farming alone, being increasingly dependant on daily labour and family support to cover the essential needs of his household. With the prospects of a low meher harvest in 1998, he is facing serious problems for the year to come. Already, he is discussing with his wife ways and means of filling the anticipated food gap and cover the expenses for their two children now going to school (new school uniforms, shoes, exercise books, etc.). Wishing to send all of his children to school, he is now struggling to enable at least the two of them to continue their formal education, by either selling the cow or one ox, a decision which will either way strongly weaken his subsistence capacity.

Performance and future prospects

When founding his own household in 1985, during the big drought, he had an exceptionally good start. Though with no proper landholdings of his own, he was yet a member of a farmer's cooperative with irrigated land and owned already some livestock by himself. In following four years of its existence, the cooperative's share was insufficient for the subsistence of its members. By working time and again in the ongoing FFW programme, he was able not only to fill the gap, but to realise some growth, extending his livestock assets.

In 1990, after the dissolution of the cooperative, he owned 1.25 hectares of land, 4 oxen, 1 cow, 1 heifer and 1 goat. Having enough draft animals, he was able to cultivate his own as well as sharecrop other people's land, becoming a comparatively well-off farmer.

Under the prevailing circumstances, realising a big investment to cover his new house with corrugated iron sheets by selling part of his livestock assets, seemed a bearable risk. But meanwhile he lost 20 percent of his landholdings due to a land redistribution and the following four years were characterised by poor harvests, making him finally dependent on his father's assistance to subsist without taking credit. In addition, misfortune with livestock deprived him of own draft animals for some time, requiring additional assistance from his wife's parents. Simultaneously, he lost the capacity to sharecrop other people's land.

At the present time, he is no longer able to be self-sufficient through farming alone, being dependant on daily labour to fill the annual gaps. Considering the anticipated problems arising from another low harvest and lack of cash to assure the schooling of two of his children, he may well be forced to sell his cow or one of his oxen. Either way, it will weaken his capacity to reverse what appears to be a downward trend and future prospects look rather bleak.

A Farming Family from the Lowlands

Household inventory 1982

At the end of 1982 the farmer's household was composed of his parents and four children. Together, they owned 0.75 hectares of arable land, where they grew meher crops like long cycle sorghum, teff, chick peas as well as some few cash crops (berbere, nug & sesame). The main problems with crop production at that time were related to scarcity of land, aridity and pest infestations, mainly stalkborer.

The farmer owned a pair of oxen, four cows, three calves and ten goats. He also produced honey, owing 15 beehives. While in former times livestock grazed on bushland, communal grazing land became scarce after the land reforms of the 1970's and animals subsequently had to be fed mainly on crop residues.

In a very good year crop production could cover the annual food needs of the farmer and his family, while in an average year it would last only until July. During the following stress period until the meher harvest could be brought in, he would sell the offspring of his animals, honey and eventually borrow grain or take some credit to fill the gap.

At that time he considered his socio-economic situation as somewhat acceptable, considering his household as self-sufficient despite some seasonal difficulties.
Chronology of events 1982 to 1998

1982 was a good year, the best meher season he remembers ever since. 1983 was less good than the preceding year, but still somewhat acceptable.

In 1984, severe drought hit the area and farmers were unable to harvest anything. Under such extreme circumstances all usual coping strategies failed. Not able to borrow grain or obtain credit, he was forced to sell his livestock and all other assets, even the skins they were sleeping on. To make matters worse still, with the generalised disaster livestock prices collapsed. An ox whose market value might have reached 500 to 600 Birr some months before, could only be sold for 20 Birr. By the end of the year, after so many people died and relief finally started, he was left with no animals.

In 1985, he was completely dependant on relief assistance to feed his family. Alarmed by the catastrophic situation in the countryside, a friend of the family living in town took two of his children with her to bring them up in her own household.

In 1986, the agricultural season was not bad. But having been forced to sell his oxen, he had to practise crop-sharing on his land in order to get it ploughed. Also, he had to contribute half of the seeds, which he borrowed from better-off farmers at a price of 8 Birr per tassa (1.5-2 kgs). Until the meher harvest they received monthly relief rations composed of cereals, some oil and beans. The relief food provided was not sufficient, but they somehow managed to survive.

In 1987, he continued crop sharing, adding some maize to the sorghum field in order to benefit from a green maize harvest during the lean season. Apart from three months of food for work activities organised through local farmer's associations, there was no rehabilitation effort in the area. Farmers had to participate in some road maintenance and other small works, earning around 20 kgs of grain per month, much too little to help rebuild their productive assets.

Since 1984, when he had to sell all his livestock to survive, the farmer has remained with no animals and crop sharing has become the only means of cultivating his land. Bee-keeping is the only cash generating activity left, but due to the frequency of climatic problems he lost part of the apiary, while the output from the remaining beehives diminishes, as a substantial part of the honey has to be left for the bees in order to keep them from migrating.

In 1991, the government took some of his land for redistribution, leaving him with just 0.5 hectares. With no means to rehabilitate himself after the drought, increasing climatic hazards and shrinking land assets, he is victim of a constant negative trend, having no proper capacity left to escape progressive impoverishment.

Now with a reduced family, grain production and cash income from the apiary are sufficient in a good year to meet the family's subsistence needs, while in an average to bad year the farmer has to borrow grain and money, hoping for some relief assistance to supplement his income. Having an active social life, participating in local self-help groups and leaving the crop residues to the sharecropping farmer, he is well respected in the community and farmers are eager to collaborate with him. Through these socio-economic alliances and common friendship, he is able to obtain loans of grain and cash whenever needed and without interest, a very precious advantage in his situation of poor economic performance and with no guarantees (livestock), except for his personality.

Inventory end of 1998

At present, the household is composed of the parents and their youngest daughter who is not yet married. For subsistence they depend on the cereal production of half of their land (0.25 ha, due to sharecropping) and the yield of six beehives. Having considered his economic status as acceptable some fifteen years ago, he now feels himself to be part of the poorer wealth group.

The two children who were brought up by a friend in Addis Abeba finished twelfth grade, but are of no help to their parents. The girl quickly married in a local Welo town having her own financial problems, while the boy remains mostly jobless, partly dependant on his parents for subsistence. A third child is meanwhile widowed and practises, as her parents, crop sharing on her land. The youngest daughter will soon marry, getting half of her parents land. She is the only child from which the parents can expect some support in the future.
Performance & future prospects

Even without handing over land to his children as is the common practice, his land assets have shrank by 33 percent to half a hectare. His livestock assets vanished during the big drought, with no possibilities of rehabilitation thereafter. The lack of draft animals deprives him of cultivating his own land and subsequently of half of his annual cereal production. With no other animals in his possession except the beehives, he has become very vulnerable, lacking much needed cash income, especially during periods of stress. Also in his case, the safety net of kinship has been inefficient so far, making him strongly dependant on good social relations within his respective community and the goodwill of people and eventual relief assistance during bad times.

Become aged, much of his and his wife's well-being will depend on the future prosperity of their youngest daughter, who will get half of his land at marriage, to give them the necessary support.


For farmers of all agroclimatic zones, landholding, livestock and their own capacity for labour are the main productive assets to assure subsistence and realise eventual economic growth. With the progressive congestion of the agricultural sector, individual landholdings are shrinking and arable plots have to be cultivated very intensively, lacking essential agricultural practises like fallow, rotation and manuring. Even very marginal land is cultivated, while the natural vegetation of shrubs and trees is vanishing. Erosion and flood damage are on the increase, further reducing soil fertility in higher elevations, while washing away fertile land at lower elevations.

Our sample farmers have all lost between 20 percent and 40 percent of their landholdings, without even handing over land to their children. They all complain about decreasing soil fertility, while cowdung, normally used to manure the fields, is either in short supply or is used as fuel.

The importance of livestock assets can be clearly seen from the accounts of the three sample farmers. The possession of oxen is vital for farming, or as one farmer expressed it: oxen equal ingera (local bread). A farmer without at least one ox is no longer a real farmer, he has to get his land ploughed by others, losing at least half of the production. With the already very low average size of arable land per farm household, this generally means that those farmers without draft animals lead a life well below the poverty line. Reproductive livestock assets, mainly big and small ruminants, are also important for food security and to cover other essential needs of a household. Shrinking landholdings and high incidence of climatic hazards in recent years have increased the importance of cash income from animal products. Transport animals like horses, donkeys and mules are important not only to facilitate the transport of harvest, water, etc., but also to generate some income through small trade.

The poor standard of life for most farmers forces them to regularly sell not only offspring and animal products, but even reproductive and/or draft animals, generally at below normal market prices, during stress or disaster periods. The subsequent erosion of these hard to replace livestock assets further accelerates impoverishment and increases vulnerability. Also, as stated by the sample farmers, veterinary services have decreased their activities, regular vaccination campaigns have stopped and veterinary stations are generally scarce, often far away and expensive. As a result, there is a high rate of morbidity and mortality, especially with young animals.

Labour is the only productive asset still widely available, but chronically underemployed. Job opportunities, even for daily labour, are scarce and farmers have difficulties to generate supplementary income through labour during slack time.

All these negative factors interact, potentiate and finally accelerate the vicious circle leading to increasing impoverishment. The negative trend in performance of the three sample farmers over this fifteen year period clearly reflects a general tendency, which can be observed not only in South Welo but in many other disaster prone areas of central and northern highlands.

A major factor, which helps people to subsist and partially veils the extent of vulnerability and impoverishment, is the importance of social cohesion and mutual self-help, including kin- and friendship ties. As can be seen from the accounts of our sample farmers, their socio-economic status would have dropped much lower, threatening even their mere existence, without the assistance of a network of relatives and friends.

The importance of timely and adequate relief has been sufficiently and tragically shown with the last two major famines in Welo of 1973/74 and 1984/85. An adequate relief response, however, is not only important during major droughts but also at times when the problems of production are more localised, as the capacity of farmers to cope with averse conditions is low and quickly leads to the further erosion of productive assets, as seen in the preceding accounts.

The drive to provide effective disaster relief and humanitarian aid has gained momentum all over the world since the Ethiopian famine of 1984/85. Much expertise, energy and time is spent on refining early warning systems, targeting methods, etc., while the necessary response to prevent disaster, break the vicious circle of impoverishment and enhance progress is generally far below the needs. In South Welo for example, the 1998 relief response covered a mere 32 percent of anticipated needs, while programmes to alleviate structural food deficits are practically non-existent, not to mention badly needed development efforts.

When asked about relief assistance, our sample farmers unanimously responded that it has been inadequate in amount and time, in the past as well as today. Considering the few people benefiting and the small amount distributed, there is a persistent doubt concerning the integrity food distribution arrangements, a distrust sometimes corroborated by the fact that relief food is sometimes found on the market even before any distribution took place.


The increasing competition for land and other resources in the agricultural sector exacerbates the structural food deficit and threatens future food security. The concomitant negative effects on the natural environment accentuates or even provokes natural disasters, which in turn affect again farmers capacity to subsist. The interaction of these dynamic trends threaten to engulf the rural population in a cycle of declining wealth, progressive impoverishment and high vulnerability. The major purpose of disaster prevention is to help break this vicious circle in order to enable people to progress again. Likewise, relief assistance should not only be provided with the intention of saving lives but furnished in a timely and adequate manner in order to halt the erosion of productive assets.

To address existing rehabilitation needs and structural food deficits, and in the absence of other employment opportunities, sustained labour-based programmes are needed to generate the necessary supplementary income for the rural population to rehabilitate themselves or to cover their food deficit and other essential needs. Such large scale employment generation will not necessarily need much in the way of additional funding if planned and ongoing programmes, especially in the road sector, are designed or reoriented accordingly. Such measures would naturally imply a firm national policy and strong commitment for a nation-wide campaign in favour of labour based/mixed approaches, which international donors and creditors would have to respect. Needless to say, that such a campaign would involve capacity building on behalf of labour based techniques, in order to assure required quality standards (concerning labour-based approaches to road construction, please refer to "Road Sector Development Program: Some Socio-Economic Considerations Regarding the Ten Year Program", Ralph Klingele, SDR, Addis Abeba, March 1996).

Concerning issues of long-term development, the complexity of the subject is far beyond the framework of this paper. It is perhaps suffice to lay stress once again on the importance of a diversified national economy, capable of generating sufficient alternative employment opportunities to relieve the present pressure on the agricultural sector once and for all.


The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

31 December, 1998

UNDP-EUETel.: (251) (1) 51-10-28/29
PO Box 5580, Fax: (251) (1) 51-12-92

Addis Ababa, Ethiopiae-mail:

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar,