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ETHIOPIA: Interview with Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF

Photo: IRIN
Addis Ababa, 10 December 2002 (PlusNews) - Carol Bellamy is the Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). She has just ended a two-day visit to Ethiopia to witness at first hand the scale of the drought there. Here are excerpts from her interview with IRIN, during which she talked about HIV/AIDS, the drought, genetically modified food, land distribution and the responsibilities of the
government and donors.

QUESTION: How important is the relationship between drought and HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia?

ANSWER: I think it is a very important connection. I don’t think we are seeing in Ethiopia what we are clearly seeing in southern Africa, in countries like Malawi, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Lesotho, where you have prevalence rates of 20 and 25 percent across the board, and higher in some areas.

HIV/AIDS is real in Ethiopia, it has to be taken seriously, and now is the time to deal with it rather than letting it get out of hand, but it is not the ‘perfect storm’ that unfortunately we are seeing in southern Africa. On the other hand, the number of people involved in the drought here in Ethiopia because the population is so large is as large as much of the population in southern Africa.

Q: How does the current drought compare to 1985, and is the international response sufficient?

A: I have heard a number of people over the last couple of days say this situation in Ethiopia now has the potential for being equal to the scale of the mid-eighties crisis, given how much of the country is affected. I would argue that there should be some differences. If there can be interventions earlier, one doesn’t have to let it get to that stage.

To the credit of everyone, I believe in this case, [that on the part of] the government and the external donors, there is an earlier intervention now in Ethiopia than perhaps in 1985, although people tell me they have seen a very serious deterioration in a very short period of time here. So it is moving rapidly, and the perception is [that] by early 2003 it could be very serious.

On the bad side, there are more humanitarian emergencies in the world today, so if I have a worry, it is that donor fatigue or crisis fatigue is really setting in, and each crisis gets its five minutes in the sun. This one is competing with southern Africa, with Iraq, Afghanistan, Cote D’Ivoire.

Q: What were your impressions of your visit to Afar [Regional State]?

A: What I saw was distinctly and definitely affected. This was a partly pastoral and partly agricultural area, and clearly one saw the irrigation ditches not only dry, but dust dry – bone dry. There was a significant presence of dead animals. I saw the delivery of water - UNICEF is supporting water trucks coming in, we are working with some NGOs, I visited some programmes where we are working with the World Food Programme. It’s quite serious. It was only one day [that I was there], but it is certainly quite serious what I saw.

Clearly families are affected. They are first losing their livestock, secondly their crops. Thus far, the human life component had not been as dramatically affected as the crop and livestock [components], but the crops and the livestock are what will sustain human life.

Q: What is your view of a regional response, because you have the same problem in Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan?

A: I think there can be some elements to a subregional approach, but the lead in all of this has to be taken by the government - the long-term response to what is occurring here, looking at crop diversification, irrigation, food reserves, and health systems delivery. I think there can be a subregional approach in the sense of donor support for both [in the] longer term. While the governments have to take the lead, the donors' funding mechanisms are quite rigid, and they are rigid when it comes to [an] emergency, and they are rigid when it comes to development.

Q: Is aid working in Ethiopia given that the country still has high mortality rates, poor quality of education and falling per capita incomes?

A: The indicators in Ethiopia are still quite low, although I believe there has to be some recognition of improvements. The quality of education is an issue in every country in the world from the richest to the poorest, but this is a country that is starting to make some inroads that have to translate into quality, which is one of the reasons [that] we will put [in] additional resources to support girls' education.

The war did not help the situation here, because this is a poor country, and those limited resources could probably have been better spent on health and education and other kinds of productive investments; investing in conflict does not produce a return.

There is also a pretty significant population growth that clearly is having an impact here to the extent that there is economic growth, but it is not keeping up with the population growth. So issues like population growth have to be taken seriously as well.

[Despite] the fact that the indicators are low, I don’t think [it] is a case of saying the leaders and government have done everything wrong; on the other hand, I think it is a wake-up call to the government to recognise there still is a great deal to be done, and for the donor community to recognise that as well. That is why approaching this drought crisis both on a
short- and long-term basis so [development] begins to have a little bit of sustainability is very important.

Q: What is your view on genetically modified [GM] food?

A: The position that UNICEF takes is the following. We are part of the UN. We are absolutely quite comfortable with the fact that World Health Organisation, which is the normative health agency for the UN, has been quite clear and quite definitive; there is no fuzziness in the statement that they have no evidence whatsoever - no scientific evidence - that there are any health consequences to genetically modified food.

So, from our perspective, from a health perspective, GM food or non-GM food, there is no difference whatsoever. The other side is the mixing the seeds. This is an issue where the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organisation] is the normative organisation, and there are some regulations in some European countries that are more strict on GM food. So, what we would say is if you are concerned about GM food from a health perspective, there is no basis for that.

If you are a major exporter to European countries, and those European countries have restrictions on GM mixing, then what should happen is not a rejection of the food, but something worked out to try and ensure that you are able to segregate the food. It may be [by means of] milling, it may be something else, but you are able to segregate it so it will not get mixed with your regular food.

Q: Do you support the prime minister’s view to change the food strategy is to try to relocate people from drought-stricken to green areas?

A: Land use policy is perhaps the most political and controversial issue of any kind of government policies. As I understand it, you are dealing in the eastern part of Ethiopia with a great percentage of the population being pastoralists who move for a reasonable time, so it is hard to relocate and require them to stay. But I suspect some element of land distribution and land usage has got to be part of a long-term strategy here.

I don’t by any means underestimate how difficult and how political that is, but clearly some of the lands are just recurrently very difficult and challenging, and either you have to figure out some ways of better irrigation or there will have to be some kind of land policy involvement in the long-term planning.

Theme (s): Children,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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