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The complexity of being compassionate

August 14th, 2009

As we sat in the airport lounge in Heathrow waiting for our connecting flight back to Belfast from Addis Ababa, Patricia was flicking through the current edition (September 2009) of House and Garden. She pointed out a new labour-saving feature in a modern kitchen-a pot-filler tap over the hob so that saucepans and pots can be filled with water without being carried to the sink. It comes in polished chrome or matt platinum and retails at a mere 1,o35 pounds.

A few hours previously we had stood among a crowd of people who had traveled several hours with their jerry cans to a tap beside a road, and who faced a long wait before their cans could be filled with water. Then they had the long walk home again with their water. Given that context, it seemed decadent, if not immoral, that modern gadgets in the West mean that one does not have to take even two or three steps between hob and sink in order to fill a pot.

While we see the discrepancy and the injustice so clearly, we have also come to see that the task of bringing food to the hungry and water to the thirsty is not an easy one. For one thing, it is incredibly hard to decide who gets the food and water, and to manage its distribution in a fair and just way. It requires careful assessment of needs and intelligent management of the resources. But in all the projects we visited, we were encouraged to see that these issues were being addressed by capable and intelligent people, and were being carefully monitored.

We learned that simply to give people access to water or food without addressing other issues did not meet their long-term needs. Several projects wisely make the provision of water and food part of an integrated programme of education about health and sanitation, as well as addressing community and environmental matters that accompany a food or water distribution scheme.

The underlying causes of poverty in Ethiopia are exceedingly complex. The climate is erratic and the effects of climate change are being felt by people who depend on the rains coming at exactly the right time. Most farmers depend on the “small rains” from February to April. Without these, they must plant again later in June or July and then those living at the higher altitudes face the possibility of their crops being ruined by frost in October or November before they can be harvested. The small rains are also needed to renew grazing for many livestock. In recent years these small rains have just not come.

Deforestation has meant that much of the land has become degraded and fertile soil has simply been washed away. There is a programme of re-forestation, but that is a long-term issue that does not address the immediate needs of the country.

Land tenure is another big debate. Like much of Africa, rural land is not held privately in Ethiopia. When Haile Selassie was deposed, Ethiopia was transformed from a feudal state to a Marxist one. Landholding passed from the feudal landlords directly to the tiller, through the benign intermediary of the state. But like many other experiments in Marxism, it became dominated by a self-serving elite, with a carefully manipulated ideology exalting the peasant while at the same time crushing him. The famine of 1984 and 1985, coinciding with the excessive celebration of the arrival of the workers’ and peasants’ paradise, sealed the fate of the Derg regime.

The new EPRDF government, however, did not change the land tenure system. Some argue that keeping the land in state hands means it is divided fairly and that people can work together on terracing, tree planting and water harvesting because the land belongs to everyone. Others say that the land divisions result in plots too small for a household to survive on, and the peasants feel insecure about keeping their plot and so don’t invest as much in it. Resolving this matter is complex.

The development and support of self-help groups (SHG) by Tearfund’s and Christian Aid’s partners is a particularly impressive way of helping individuals improve their situation without the injection of additional funds. Members of the SHG save a small amount of money (normally 5 pence per week) and then members of the group may borrow from the fund to buy seed for their field, or to develop a small income-generating business like selling grain or kerosene, or buying an animal. These groups are supported by facilitators who are well-trained and insightful. We saw many examples of people who had benefited from this strategy.

By supporting individuals and small groups, lives and communities can be changed and transformed. As one SHG explained to us by using a piece of drama, if they have the wrong advice, inadequate resources and try to do it alone, they make no progress. But with the right support and by working together, significant changes come about.

So while it is complex to be compassionate, it should not stop us from addressing the issues. For millions of people in Ethiopia it is a matter of life and death.

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