Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Tackling alarming drought, rising inflation

Even as Ethiopia is coping with the residual needs arising from last year’s El Niño-induced drought, below average rains in the southern and eastern parts of the country caused by La Niña and the negative Indian Ocean Dipole, another climatic phenomena, have left 5.6 million people in urgent need of food and non-food assistance. Livestock deaths have been reported owing to water and animal fodder shortages. In addition, many have been displaced from their homes in search of food. Although concerted efforts have been exerted to support children as well as pregnant and lactating mothers particularly, the response so far has fallen short of what is required.  Last year the government of Ethiopia, with the support of international donors and humanitarian partners, was able to sharply reduce the number of some 10.2 million citizens who were facing starvation during the worst drought in 50 years, demonstrating its ability to mount an impressive drought response. Nonetheless, the recurrence of drought at increasingly shorterintervals coupled with the reluctance of donors to loosen their purse strings is proving to be a testing challenge that is a cause for grave concern.

According to a recent report around 12.8 million people are facing severe food insecurity. Of these 5.6 million are Ethiopians, 2.7 million Kenyans, 2.9 million Somalis, and 1.6 million Ugandans. Somalia and South Sudan have already declared famine in parts of their territories. The vast majority of those impacted by the drought overwhelming East Africa are women and children.  While the focus now is on preventing deaths using home-grown capacity and the assistance of donors, it is of the essence to explore the means to end famine once and for all. Though the issue of why Ethiopia is repeatedly buffeted by drought is perennially raised, no definitive solution has found to date. The question that naturally follows is, “Why is the country still incapable of developing the ability to withstand the impacts of drought and soften the blow to the livelihoods of its citizens?” The situation cannot be allowed to continue and calls for a holistic evaluation of relevant policies and strategies as it has grim national security ramifications.

The southern and eastern pastoral areas of Ethiopia, which are particularly prone to recurring drought, are reportedly undergoing poor, delayed and erratic rains that curbed pasture and water availability. Semi-pastoralist enclaves also face a similar risk, albeit at a smaller scale. The number of people seeking assistance is projected to increase in the coming weeks. Given the declining donor appetite the government and relief agencies are likely to find it very difficult to reach in time all those in need. To make matters worse crop lying on 117,000 square meters of land in Oromia regional state was recently destroyed due to freezing temperatures, exposing over 163,000 families to hardship. Furthermore, on average 70 refugees fleeing the drought in Somalia are daily crossing into Ethiopia at a time when it is hosting over 800,000 refugees.All this exacerbates the pressure the country is facing and reinforces the imperative to seek long-term solutions.

Meanwhile the spiraling inflation continues to be a major headache for the masses. Frequent price increases, which lack any economic rationale, are making life an ordeal. Theseare primarily attributable to the absence of mechanisms aimed at addressing entrenched market inefficiencies including, among others, hoarding basic goods to justify an artificial price hike of astronomic proportions, flooding the market with substandard products as well as falsifying weights, balances and measures. The government is prohibited by law from setting prices. Nevertheless, it has the power to set a profit margin for specific commercial transactions. Unfortunately the market is perpetually lopsided in favor of unscrupulous elements just because the relevant agency is shirking its duties or takes rash step overstepping its authority.

The Ministry of Trade has vowed to take steps against traders whom it says engage inthe unlawful increase of the price basic goods on the back of the salary increment of public servants. While this may induce a relief in the short term it is obligatory on the part of the ministry to undertake a study into the structural problems afflicting the market with an eye to finding definitive solutions. The markets of Ethiopia are effectively under the control of an invisible network of corrupt individuals who enjoy political patronage. Undertaking shallow studies or passing decisions lacking tooth are of no value to consumers bearing the brunt of a backbreaking surge in the cost of living. It is primarily up to the government to ease the debilitating effects of inflationary pressure on the public. This calls for the commissioning of an in-depth assessment by independent professionals of the underlying causes of the phenomena, which by and large is principally associated with the illicit practices of certain market players. It is impractical to attempt to rein in malefactors through half-hearted measures that may well be counterproductive. Unless administrative and legal actions are pursued vigorously against them with a view to modernize market structures and thereby benefit consumers, the kind of public discontent that rocked the country for the most part of 2016 is bound to be repeated.

All in all the government the government is duty-bound to do whatever is in its power to tackle the alarming drought and rising inflation besetting the country. Failure to take decisive action is apt to engender dire consequences.

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