© Helvetas

This is How Addressing Hunger Means Understanding Subnational and Local Realities

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 15. March 2020
© Helvetas

Story highlights: 

  • Conflicts, inequalities and frequencies of climate change are strong drivers of hunger. Since the 1984 famine of Ethiopia, one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 20th century, these factors have demonstrated the complexity of producing, accessing and consuming food.
  • Ethiopia has come a long way in improving the level of hunger, for example, in the substantial decline in the proportion of undernourished population and under-five mortality rate.
  • Yet, a sustainable achievement of low level of hunger by 2030 requires understanding subnational and local realities. In practice, this means looking at the governance and economics of food production, how this affects natural resource use, as well as how food impacts on individual/community health.


This blog is inspired by the 2019 Global Hunger Index. In fact, my interest in the subject is deeper. I was born and raised in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, a region most affected by a series of droughts and famines. Historically, famine occurs every 6–8 years in northern Ethiopia and every 8–10 years for the whole country.

Here I look back at Ethiopia’s food systems since the 1980s and assess where the country stands at a time of rising hunger in South Asia and Africa South of the Sahara. Protracted conflicts, widening inequalities and high incidences of climate change have shaped – and will continue to do so – the production, access and consumption of food.  

Ethiopians have come a long way

I vividly remember the 1984 famine. The raging civil war aggravated the situation, making it one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 20th century. I’m reminded of the sufferings of many whenever I hear the ‘We Are the World’ song produced to help victims.

Fast forward 40 years. A lot has been achieved compared to the 1980s. Ethiopia is a good case of the positive gains, a fact the 2019 Global Hunger Index alluded to. Some years back, the country was an example of hunger and was used as the poster child for humanitarian aid.

Over time, the quantity of food consumed per adult equivalent and calories consumed have increased considerably. With the end of three decades of civil war, extensive nutrition-sensitive safety nets and well-targeted, pro-poor growth initiatives like the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) have contributed to improving hunger and undernutrition. The proportion of undernourished in the population fell from 52% (1999–2001) to 20.6% (2016–2018). Under-five mortality rate also substantially decreased – from 14.3% (1999–2001) to 5.9% (2016–2018).  

We all might think that Ethiopia has moved on since the 1984 famine. Sadly, many people – more than 820 million of them to be specific – still go hungry both in Ethiopia and other countries. Some face severe food insecurity and don’t have food to eat for a day or a little more. For many, access to food is uncertain, forcing them to skip meals or sacrifice other basic needs as a coping strategy. Still for others, even if food is available, it lacks essential nutrients for a healthy and active life.

In the four decades of ups and downs that the country has passed through, conflicts, inequalities and incidences of climate change have been strong drivers of hunger. They demonstrate the complexity of producing, accessing and consuming food. Achieving Zero Hunger by 2030, one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) commitments, is difficult without a concerted effort to address the factors that contribute to hunger.   

Understanding patterns in food production, access and consumption

During the famine of the 1980s, about 85% of people in Ethiopia relied on food production and livestock for their livelihoods. To date, this hasn’t changed that much despite the share of agriculture to gross domestic product (GDP) has decreased from 60% in 1980s to 30% at present. Since 2000 there has been substantial growth in terms of area cultivated, yields and production of cereals, which occupy three-quarters of the total area cultivated.

When I was born, we were about 30 million people in the country (including Eritrea which became independent in 1991). Now, by good estimates, the population more than tripled, passing the 100 million mark and making the country the second-most populous in Africa. On the flip side, there isn’t much change to the low-input, low-output rainfed and ox-drawn agricultural practice by smallholder farmers.

Not surprising that yields are low by regional or international standards, taking also into account increased climate variability. The main cause for the death of close to a million people in the 1980s wasn’t solely the lack of food due to climatic conditions. Institutions failed to allow food to those affected by the famine. The civil war and the use of ‘food as a weapon’ played a role.

Of course, I don’t want to naïvely ignore how the poverty was, and increasingly is, an important determinant of accessing food in the country. Amidst plenty, there’s hunger because so many people cannot afford to buy nutritious food. The country has arguably a fast-growing economy, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) described a ‘remarkable progress’. Yet, GDP doesn’t always connect with the level of economic development; inequalities are widespread across regions, gender and social status. Weak economic resilience means complex shock is a major source of hunger to millions of people in rural and urban areas.

One thing that hasn’t shown a remarkable change over the past 40 years is the nutritional composition of the Ethiopian food supply. Agro-ecology, socioeconomic levels and livelihood strategies have shaped what people consume. Food basket in the country consists of a wide variety of grains and other staples. What people eat is high in carbohydrates and low in protein and micronutrients. The dietary diversity for an average person is 1.45 out of 10 food groups. While family members, mainly women, resourcefully devise ways to diversify food intake, income and cultural values/traditions greatly influence consumption patterns and choices. The level of education matters in feeding practices for infants and children.

Working towards ‘smart’ food systems  

‘Can Ethiopia achieve a low level of hunger by 2030?’ I posed this question to several people during a visit to Ethiopia at the end of 2019. Many were strongly optimistic about what has so far been achieved and their resilience in the face of adversity. Ten years ago, I was travelling in the southern part of the country. I saw a simple roadside poster that nicely symbolizes the aspiration of communities to achieve low level of hunger:

‘Shame on us [Ethiopians], that we beg for food, but we are able-bodied, and we have fertile land! Let’s wake up!’

The above call to action is a development narrative in a small local community that also echoes at the national level. Aspirations aside, if Ethiopians are to build on what they’ve so far accomplished, then we need to be clear-sighted about approaching agriculture from a holistic viewpoint of food systems. For all of us this practically means looking at the governance and economics of food production, how this affects our natural resource use, as well as how food impacts on each of us and our community as a whole.

Going back to where I started by talking about the drivers of food production, access and consumption, I want to pick up two issues that are critical for achieving a low level of hunger in Ethiopia by 2030.

The first one is responding effectively to climate change through climate-smart agriculture (CSA). When I was reading the 2019 Global Hunger Index, my eyes caught what Rupa Mukerj highlighted in her contribution to this publication. She said, building climate-smart agriculture needs a different ‘framing of climate change’. Simply stated, what she meant is the issue isn’t just about ‘biophysical challenges’ such as carbon emissions, but also an ‘outcome of consumption, economic growth and societal choices’.  

What does CSA mean in the Ethiopian context? This’s an important and a practical question. If we look back to what the government did in Ethiopia, it is clear that there were priorities for economic growth and increased resilience. I wouldn’t say that this was a mistake; they were good intentions.

However, the increasing challenge of climate change requires a broader focus on the ‘triple objectives’ of sustainably increasing productivity and incomes, adapting to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible. The country has an ambitious Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) Strategy. Within this, the objective isn’t to have ‘triple wins’ or to greenwash unsustainable practices. It’s rather about reducing trade-offs and promoting synergies, which I think is possible if actions are matched with localized vulnerabilities and impacts.

My proposal is: let us not start all over again, but build on what has already been done. For example, it’s important to enhance the lower adoption of CSA practices and technologies (e.g. conservation agriculture and agroforestry) among smallholder farmers. While speaking to different stakeholders, I felt that the public institutions’ dominance of agriculture needs to change by bringing in more participation from private sector enterprises. This offers opportunities for addressing constraints like access to improved inputs, equipment and credit and insurance schemes.

A related problem has been how land tenure security prevented rural smallholders from investing in on-farm climate-smart and sustainable land management practices. This has changed thanks to the introduction of land certification program by the government. What is required is the continuous updating of land certificates as well as sensitization of farmers and microfinance providers on the costs and benefits of investment.

The second critical issue that I would like to emphasize is the need to revitalizing agriculture for better income and jobs. Even though poverty fell in Ethiopia from 56% in 1999 to 27% in 2015, most rural households live in extreme poverty. Productivity and income are still low. A large number of young people still live in rural areas while there’s also an increasing trend of migration to urban areas. This suggests that we need to bring agriculture closer to 70% of Ethiopians who are under 30 years of age. This’s strategic: inequality and joblessness are acute among the youth population, and empowering young people is key to addressing hunger and malnutrition.  

I think the argument that agriculture has ‘an image problem’ among the youth in Ethiopia is more symptomatic than a real constraint. Even if young people want to plough the land like their parents used to, barriers to owning land due to fragmentation is a serious problem. Obviously, the focus therefore should be on how to productively engage the youth without grossly overselling the idea that agriculture is the solution to addressing rising inequalities and unemployment.

I believe there’s a way out if innovative solutions are taken seriously. An example is the growing productive manufacturing and service sectors that offer good potential – packaging, transportation, processing, marketing, quality assurance. In other words, there’s increasing off-farm employment and income generation potential within the food systems.

In addition, technology drives smart farming for increasing the quantity and quality of agricultural products. For this to happen, skills development (from hard skills to lifelong learning) and entrepreneurship (agribusinesses) support mechanisms (from technical to business and financing) are crucial. These are barriers that keep young people from seeing the future potential of agriculture.

The discussion is also no longer about rural versus urban. We need to recognize that agriculture is rapidly shifting in space with the expansion and importance of productive manufacturing and service sectors. They're now more exchanges and mobilities. Along this shift, secondary towns have closer links to economic activities in nearby rural areas, and therefore they have become important players in food systems and economic growth (employment and income). A recent study by HELVETAS shows that ‘small and medium-sized towns are important for connecting rural and larger urban areas and have the potential to play a more effective role in inclusive and equitable regional development. Yet the development potential that they offer often goes unnoticed and unplanned.’  

All the above forward-looking solutions assume the current insecurity and ethnic tensions, which have led to the displacement of many people, don’t evolve into another round of civil war.

Further reading

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies