Posted by: Home Strange Home | January 20, 2010

The Politics of Food in Eritrea

The UN estimates that approximately 20 million people in the Horn of Africa are in need of emergency food aid due to the second year of poor rainfall in the region.  Drought was exacerbated after the November rains failed, with rivers drying up, crops dying, and livestock starving.

But the UN finds that while it has been able to help Ethiopia and Sudan, it has been unable to reach needy Eritreans because of political issues.  The Eritrean government has turned down food aid, saying they don’t need help and claiming Eritrea is on a path to food self sufficiency.  Girma Asmerom, Eritrea’s Ambassador to the EU, said on television that Eritrea is accountable to its own people, not the international community, and Eritrea will be able to feed itself.  Allegedly, food will be moved internally from surplus to deficit regions to meet needs.

Reports on the ground contradict this claim, although it is difficult to verify the extent of the food shortage because access to the country is restricted.  Work permits are not being issued to UN staff, so they cannot get access or information about what is happening on the ground.  The repressive regime also places restrictions on the movements of its own people out of the country.  So, the only information that is leaking out is through the refugees fleeing the country for Ethiopia and Sudan.

Some of the refugees report that the government has been confiscating farmers’ harvests, paying them only a fraction of the market value (8 to 10%).  This government policy keeps food prices low, but it cripples farmers, and the amount people are allowed to buy at the artificially low price is too small, leading to a black market with much higher prices.  Eritrean refugees spoke about the difficult conditions back home, including the harsh national service requirements and the poverty.  The UN estimates that two thirds of the population are malnourished.

The government seems to deny all problems, including the existence of any refugees.  I am not sure how they explain away the fact that, on their last trip to Kenya for a tournament, the Eritrean football team ran away to avoid having to return home to Eritrea…

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