Ethiopia PM warns anti-hunger effort at risk

April 30th, 2009 | by addis portal |

Ethiopia’s prime minister has warned that a British-backed effort to stave off starvation in the country is in danger of collapse without a dramatic increase in international aid.

Meles Zenawi, the strongman who has ruled the African republic for 18 years, represented Africa at the G20 summit in London last month. He led calls from African countries on international officials that met in Washington last weekend to quickly hand out the $500 billion (£342 billion) pledged in London for developing countries.

“The economic downturn means there is no cash to give more support to the vulnerable,” he told The Daily Telegraph at his offices in Addis Ababa.

“We need the global economy to pick up and the resources promised at the G20 from the IMF to be made be available immediately to help with the balance of payment problems many African countries like ours are facing.”

Mr Meles has played a key role for Western governments, most notably as a member alongside the singer and campaigner Bob Geldof, of Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa.

The G20 has further entrenched his role as Africa’s spokesman. Mr Meles has said that some African countries “could go under” as a result of the global downturn. He pointed to a foreign exchange crunch in Ethiopia and the troubles caused by a halving of economic growth as Africa suffers from the global recession.

Asked about the parlous state of Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme – which receives £25 million a year from Whitehall – Mr Meles said that “it is in a more serious situation”.

The half-cash, half-food scheme supports 7.2 million Ethiopians on the brink of starvation. But after five years the programme has fallen short of its original aim of helping millions escape from dependency on hand-outs.

A spokesman for the Department of International Development (DFID) in London said that it had demanded a “rapid payout” for Ethiopia and other distressed economies at the summit.

Officials believe the Ethiopian programme needs a drastic overhaul even if it survives the crisis. Just three per cent of recipients have been weaned off assistance, far short of the 50 percent hoped for when the scheme was launched in 2003.

“The government has been too optimistic,” said Melakamnesh Alemu, a DFID adviser on the scheme. “We need to design the system to respond to a major shock.”

Andrew Mitchell, the Conservatives’ international aid spokesman, said that Ethiopia must be pressed to reform its economy as well.

“We in the West will not allow Ethiopians to face mass starvation again but at the same time Ethiopia is not doing enough free up its internal market to create jobs and livelihoods that would provide long-term security and prosperity,” he said.

Ethiopia is the third largest recipient of British overseas aid. Relations with Addis Ababa were damaged by a violent response to pro-democracy demonstrators in 2005 and obstruction to international famine relief efforts last year.

The enhanced global role undertaken by Mr Meles has emboldened the 54-year old ex-guerrilla to grab more control of the Ethiopian economy. In recent weeks the government has seized the country’s “Black Gold” – the coffee crop – from private merchants. Coffee traders have been threatened with prosecution for hoarding by holding back stock sales in the hope that the price would rise.

A foreign aid worker in Addis Ababa said: “Meles was a star at G20. He is still put as an example of success in Africa. He’s pretty confident of what he can get away with as a result.”

The long-serving leader has hinted he will hand over to a successor after a general election next year. Mr Meles rejected a suggestion that he had failed to entrench democracy while conditions were stable and the economy was logging robust growth.

“I disagree with the premise. I have done a lot for democracy and the elections will be free, fair and transparent,” he said.

“When I withdraw, the system and the constitution will continue – it is a given.”

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