Challenges of keeping up with drought response

Mark Goldring is Chief Executive of Oxfam GB. Mark has decade’s worth of experience in international development work. Prior to joining the Oxfam, Mark was the chief executive for Mencap for five years. Before that, he was chief executive of VSO and also worked at the UNDP in the same field for many years. He had also worked at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in the same field. Mark read law at Oxford University and also holds a master’s degree in social planning from the London School of Economics. Recently, Mark was in town to oversee Oxfam Ethiopia’s activities and visit some of the drought-affected areas. Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter caught up with him for an interview. Excerpts:       

The Reporter: Given that Oxfam is involved in humanitarian work in Ethiopia and elsewhere, I am sure one of the things on top of your agenda while you are in Addis Ababa is the current drought. So, what is your candid assessment of the current drought conditions and the impending crisis should conditions persist?

Mark Goldring: I think the clearest overall assessment was done by the government and the international community a month or so ago and it showed that 10 million people are in need of extra food assistance and five million need access to water as a result of the drought. These are just two examples although it is of a very substantive scale resulting from failure of three courses of rain but also as a result of the impact of climate change.

With regard to the humanitarian response the government is saying that it is doing everything in its power to avert any loss of life due to the crisis. Nevertheless, help from the international community is particularly sluggish and this is putting strains on it resources. Why, do you think is the response from the global community is slow?

I think, last year, the international community was slow to respond and I think it is because it takes time to mobilize new money and in Ethiopia’s case you would not want to shift money from existing development programs unless you absolutely have to. I think Ethiopia still needs better health services, more education and better economic opportunities; those development activities still remain important for the country. So, what I have been seeing this week is a very strong response by Ethiopia supported by international donors. I have witnessed assistance reaching some of the remotest and most affected areas in Somali Regional State; I have also seen better access to water and to some extent animal feed for the livestock. So, we have seen a situation which seems to be tightly managed. But the real challenge we saw is the possibility of keeping that for an extended period of time. Of course, the rains might come in March but that does not automatically mean that people would have enough to eat. In general, at the village level, local leaders are describing a situation which is slightly better now compared to a month or so ago when they we getting less assistance. However, they remain very worried as to the long-term prospects. What I gather from my discussion with government officials, including the deputy prime minister, is that the government is responding to the crisis and reaching people with the help of the international community. Nevertheless, the real challenge, they said, was continuing this for many more months to come since the people will be in need of assistance; and the resources to keep this up are not there at the moment. So, one of things that I will be doing on return to Britain is trying to speak to the international community to mobilize longer-tem support to the assist the Ethiopian government in this response.

Assuming that help from the international community remains unchanged, do you think that the Ethiopian government can sail out of this crisis on its own?

I cannot really answer that but the effort of the Ethiopian government so far has been very dynamic. Just comparing it to the situation in 1985, the drought conditions back then were not worse than now but the difference in the ability to respond and the resulting difference in loss of life. All credit to the government and the international response, the damages and ability to respond are completely different this time around. Although I cannot speak as to the financial capacity of the government, what the deputy prime minister has told me is that the government will continue to respond but the longer the response, the more impact it will have on other development activities the government has to finance. And he also assured me that the government continues to respond to the humanitarian crisis but also the government does not want to impact the country’s long-term development; yet humanitarian crisis would have to take priority.

What is the role of Oxfam in responding to the recent humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia?

Oxfam has been working in Ethiopia for many years focusing on a range of long-term development programs such as water, sanitation and people’s livelihoods; and we will continue that work. I have visited some of these Oxfam programs in parts of the country which are not affected by the drought. Especially, on our water programs, we want to scale up the programs and reach more people. I have visited water programs in Somali region where Oxfam is assisting in water supply. Now, water trucking is definitely not a sustainable solution but we had to increase water trucking since a lot of people who need water are moving into centers where they can get the assistance. We are also involved in helping with access to food and animal feed for the livestock population there. We have been engaged in buying weakened animals off people so that they people can get some value for their livestock before they die. And we have been using these animals we have bough to feed other vulnerable people. We have also been donating some cash to people so that they could buy some of the basic necessities like edible oil and salt and other foodstuff to go along with WFP’s food assistance. But, Oxfam is not doing enough; and when I get back I intend to seek public help to scale up some of these assistances. In general, I am pleased and proud of what we are doing in collaboration with government and international donor communities.

But the odd picture here is that both government and the organizations like yours are engaged in development programs most of which have the target of building resilience to shocks among smallholder farmers. Nevertheless, the moment the El Nino started to take effect, the so-called resilience seems to have faded away. How could one explain this contradiction?

I would say the whole resilience fades away. I think Ethiopia overall has a success story to tell. I would argue that had the situation been like that of 1985, there would be a famine and a number of people would have died. This is one factor that shows how resilience is working. I visited people living an hour away from those severely affected by the drought where the combination of irrigation, boreholes, channeling water and the promotion of other forms of agriculture meant that people are actually living with a level of dignity and with an appropriate level of food, and that they are earning income levels which are more than what they used to earn a year or so before. So, in these areas, one can see that resilience is working. However, resilience cannot do everything as the extent of calamity is massively great; the shortage of water occurred over an extended period of time. So, boreholes which are deep might be deep enough now but they will be a lot better than not having them. So, let’s credit resilience and let’s credit preparedness but still respond to the immediate needs. 

Moving on to more general issues, an outstanding debate in the international aid politics is that overemphasis of aid agencies is more on the short-term relief work than long-term development activities. Experts argue that aid agencies perpetuate the aid sector instead of investing on a sustainable solution for development. How do you fare in this debate?

I think government and donors have been investing in long-term development programs in Ethiopia successfully. You can see that there are fewer people living in extreme poverty as a result of that and that feels right. So, as a humanitarian emergency comes, we need to mobilize additional resources to respond adequately. This week I saw really good work in Bahir Dar where Oxfam, government, cooperatives and local NGOs were working together to promote the local honey production and sell it in the local market and export markets. That helps people earn more, live a healthier life and send their children to school. Well that is working but when you have a crisis in the other part of the country we also have to respond to it and spend money. Both are responsibilities of agencies; it is not one or the other. You can’t tell people that we are not going to feed you now since we are trying to help you grow crops tomorrow. You have got to do both.

But one would argue that since it is in the best interest of the aid agencies they would continue to tilt investment in favor relief and humanitarian activities. How do you defend that?

Actually, Oxfam would raise a lot of money by saying there is a terrible crisis in Ethiopia, people are dying and respond now. But, we are not saying that; we will not say that. What we are saying is that there is a crisis in Ethiopia, food is short, and if we don’t get financial assistance everybody (the government and donors) will struggle to feed people for an extended period of time until the people grow their crops and restock their livestock. Now, that is the much more difficult story to tell and that is a story we want to tell about Ethiopia.

With regard to Oxfam’s program in Ethiopia, we understand that you do a lot of work in the crosscutting issues like gender and space for civil society participation. But, we also understand that such a program would involve a lot of awareness-raising and public sensitization work whose exact outcome is very difficult to measure. As Oxfam, how do you objectively measure the success of these programs?

The government of Ethiopia is very strict on what we spend money on. We have to account for every program and project both before execution and after in the audit report. But, let me tell you what I saw yesterday around Barih Dar. Five years ago in this particular sub-district, there were close to 1000 farmers producing honey and most of them were men and they were getting very low yield. Now, helped by Oxfam, there are 5,000 people producing honey and they are getting twice the yield and most the new entrants are women. That is because we have helped with the development of beehives. Now, you can measure how many beehives are there; you can measure how many quintals of honey is being sold to the cooperatives. The cooperatives at the union level are now engaged in exporting hundreds of thousands of cans of honey to Italy. So, we can measure the success starting from the macro level of the aggregate amount of money that is generated up to the micro level indicators where women are saying they were able to get enough money to buy goats and to fatten them and sold them for better earning; affording her income to pay for her children is education and to put decent food on the table. So, we can trace that; we put a lot efforts into tracing that kind of development outcomes. Regarding gender, for instance, we can look at how much money is generated by female heads of the family. You can also look at social surveys and see who is making decisions. It is possible to assess how women see their lives and how it has changed.

Another feature of Oxfam’s development programs in Ethiopia is the intertwined nature of physical development work and rights and political advocacy. Yet again this trend is quite important for many NGOs. Can you explain the logic of intertwining the two since most of the time this puts you in direct conflict with governments?

The first thing is that Oxfam always tries to respect the laws of the country that it is working within. We work according to what the government agreed that we can do; we don’t fight against the government and against the law. However, there is a real difference between advocacy and political campaign. Advocacy is about saying, for instance, one cannot improve honey production unless you improve the supply chain. Or we can advocate saying one cannot change the ability of people to make a living unless you identify irrigation needs and work on them; it does not mean that Oxfam is doing it but one can advocate like that. These types of advocacy work can be done by local groups and community representatives. However, Oxfam does not do these types of advocacy; what we focus on is global issues like climate change. The logic here is that we cannot change avoid the impact of climate change in Ethiopia by devising some technical projects and by advocating better use of energy since most of the climate change that is affecting the country is been generated at global level. So, when we do campaigning, we speak to the big economic powers and leaders of the developed world about this injustice. We say look how carbon generated by the one percent of people is affecting the rest 99 percent. That is a type of advocacy we will be involved in and yes that is highly political, but not about a particular country; it is about the global political power. That said, we do also work on policy issues on specific countries but that is different from political advocacy.

But when one speaks of space for local civil society, it is a pertinent political issue for countries like Ethiopia. I am wondering how you can advocate more space for civil society in a country like ours and yet manage to keep it out of the local political agenda?

We always believe a society is stronger when its citizens have an organized voice. Sometimes, this can be achieved through a formal political process while sometimes it could local beekeepers or savings and credit groups who want to get organized. We see it as our job to help them organize and exercise their voice. So, if the local savings groups want to go and talk to the local administrators at whatever level, we believe that is what they should do. Hence, from this point of view, civil society space is important but we do respect the law of the country that we work in.

Another outstanding issue in Africa is development assistance tied with policy conditionality. While assistance is offered on the basis of solidarity among human beings, as a development professional, do you see conditionality tied aid to make sense?

I think this is an outstanding issue across the world. As Oxfam, we are not about conditionality. Having some laws amended in change for assistance is not our approach. What we want to do is build economic opportunities for all people. So, naturally, if we are supporting education. We want to do it for those people who are further away from education. If we are supporting gender rights we try and support women to have the same opportunities as men. In terms of supporting different group we would try to find most marginalized groups and offer our assistance. Now, if the government says we cannot support in projects that involve women then we find it very difficult to work. If they say we do not allow you to lobby for a certain law that is their prerogative since they are the government of that country. So, it is less about Oxfam lobbying for a particular human rights issue but we are trying to tell a global story about people leaving in solidarity with one another and that means less discrimination against certain groups.

That is from Oxfam’s point of view, but what about from the bilateral and multilateral development assistance perspective? How do you see conditionality and assistance?

Well, I think, it is absolutely reasonable that people who are providing money want a conversation about the underlying issues. I see no point in simply giving money which is Band-Aid unless it is for humanitarian cause; in humanitarian condition there is a very reason. However, for development assistance, the donor has to look at what is going to change; and what is going to enable people enjoy good health; good hygiene; access to water in the long run. And if that is an issue of discrimination, the donor would want to be engaged in a conversation. Otherwise, there is no point in doing that. The thing is that as such conversation is very different from conditionality. Conditionality is very different since it entails financial dictatorship. For me, the main issue is the discussion and the negotiations. It is about having the meeting of minds and agreeing upon what is needed to help the people. And it is absolutely right since both sides have to be held accountable for keeping their respective end of the barging; but first there has to be an agreement between the government and the donor as to what is needed to be done.  Otherwise, there is no rational a in providing the assistance from the perspective of the donor.

Another hot issue in the development sector is the dollar value of aid money and how it was spent. The matter is becoming serious especially from the perspectives of financial donor and contributors to NGOs like you. How does Oxfam rate the dollar value of aid in Ethiopia and Africa as a whole?

Before everything else, we have got to try to be effective and efficient.  Being effective involves choosing the right area for your development intervention; one has to ask what would make the biggest difference. And, being efficient is doing the chosen development work at sensible cost. So, for Oxfam it is the balance between the two that matters. We ask what would make the biggest difference to poor men and women in Ethiopia and how can we do it most efficiently. Both our donors at home and the government of Ethiopia require us to make report on both of those things. It is very closely scrutinized; but one has to be honest not everything works. Any agency that tells you everything they are doing is working are lying. Some of the things we have tried in building resilience for example did not work because climate change has gotten so much worse. We have to learn from experience and the best way to do that is by listening to people, not governments only. So, one can’t judge effectiveness on the basis that everything works. Otherwise, you would not try anything.

With regard to climate change, you have told me earlier that it is one of the areas that Oxfam is campaigning in on the global arena. How do you evaluate the current system of global climate justice? And does the existing system compensate developing countries enough for the climate change impact they are suffering from although they had very little contribution to the problem?

The existing global system is very unfair. The rich world pollutes and the poor world pays the price. You take a look at deforestation, temperature change and fishery activities; this has been the case for the past half a century. Oxfam is not really a specialist environmental agency; we are not climate change scientists either. However, what we are trying to do is tell the world leaders how climate change is impacting the life of poor people around the world, whether it is people fishing at lakes in Ethiopia or those suffering from reduced rainfall across the Sahel or people suffering from flooding in Bangladesh. So, our job is to tell these stories and influence discussion, ranging from carbon tax through to what fuel is being used for the next generation of power. But, we do that less by being the technical specialties but more by saying this is what is happening and what are you going to do about it? Oxfam’s particular expertise on this is trying to influence financial flows at one end and the adaptation that is how poor people adapt their lives to changing environment. At the moment, the world is trying to pledge funds for the big macro picture but not for the adaptation. So, poor farmers are losing out faster than the world is changing for the better.

We also understand that Oxfam is active in pastoralist areas in Ethiopia. With regard to assisting the pastoralist communities there seems to be a division of opinion between governments and aid agencies on the point of approach to the assistance. One argues that these communities would have to start to settle somehow so that services can easily be delivered. Meanwhile, NGOs argue in favor of preserving the pastoral life style. How do you see the issue?       

I don’t think there is a fundamental difference in the two approaches. There could be difference of degree. Just as an example, Oxfam is preparing to help the pastoralist communities with the restocking of their livestock after the end of this drought. But, we will also assist people with irrigation system and water system for pastoralists who want to settle. For us, it is wrong that the people are forced to do one thing or the other but we do agree that we can’t simply say that we do support pastoralists in way that preserves their lives across the board as climate change makes life for people tougher and tougher; and as population growth makes things tougher. So for us, it is not one or the other; it is respecting people’s abilities to choose and giving them help to access resources where that is possible.