Feeling the Pain of Hunger in Ethiopia

Global inflation, the war in Ukraine and ongoing instability in Tigray are placing enormous burdens on humanitarian and pastoral efforts in Ethiopia, where hardships once contained regionally are extending throughout the country. 

“We are not able to do what we planned earlier,” said Argaw Fantu, who directs CNEWA’s work in Ethiopia. “So, everything is now being diverted and redirected.”

The needs have increased dramatically since his 2022 program budget was approved, he said.

Inflation — in addition to ongoing natural and manmade calamities — has caused greater need for basic assistance and less purchasing power to address these needs, he said. Among the challenges are the ever-increasing costs involved in trying to access remote areas in the country’s northern, war-devastated Tigray region. 

“For these reasons, the approved grants are not enough and institutions are not able to properly address the needs of the beneficiaries,” he said.

In Alitena, for instance, a remote village in Tigray experiencing food scarcity, the Daughters of Charity redirected CNEWA-funded provisions intended for a nutritional support program for school children to feed the most vulnerable among the general population, including those internally displaced by the war, the elderly and people with special needs. But these funds are insufficient for the need, said Mr. Fantu. 

A woman drives donkeys to transport  water in the drought-stricken district of Higlo Kebele, Ethiopia.
A woman drives donkeys to transport water in the drought-stricken district of Higlo Kebele, Ethiopia, on 8 February. Catholic priests, nuns and church agencies are providing some relief in East Africa’s drought, which scientists and experts describe as the worst in 40 years. (photo: CNS/Michael Tewelde, World Food Program handout via Reuters)

While humanitarian organizations were granted access to deliver aid to Tigray two months ago, the challenge to reach people in the region’s remotest villages in areas he described as “inaccessible” remains, even for the largest humanitarian organizations. 

Getting aid to those who need it most is further complicated by the lack of communications infrastructure in Tigray, which has not yet been restored. Aid is not reaching these areas as quickly as it was before the war in Tigray, said Mr. Fantu, and in some cases food or cash do not arrive “in time.” 

Mr. Fantu said he had to find alternative ways to transfer funds to these remote areas, where CNEWA provides support to six schools, a major seminary and the clergy.

As well, with the current humanitarian truce in Tigray, the priests who were evacuated at the height of the conflict are returning to their parishes. However, many rectories and church buildings were destroyed and the church is seeking assistance for reconstruction or repair. Many schools, too, need rebuilding, but funds are very limited. 

“The only way is to do as much as possible with what is available, to try to respond at the minimum. … What we are trying to do is just to share their pain. What can we do more than that?”

“We really feel the pain because we are not able … to deliver the support,” he said.

The war in Ukraine has only exacerbated the situation, added Mr. Fantu, citing the rising fuel prices and their impact on the cost of all consumable products and the transport of goods. 

Sanctions against Russia and Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s sea ports have limited exports of wheat, gas and oil, affecting supply worldwide. However, countries already experiencing food scarcity, such as Ethiopia, are hit hardest. 

At the end of this General Audience on 1 June, Pope Francis appealed for an end to the blockade of grain exports from Ukraine, “on which the lives of millions of people depend, especially in the poorest countries.”

The United Nations also appealed for an end to the blockade and for the food and fertilizer produced by Ukraine and Russia to be “brought back into world markets.” 

With the inflation rate for food items in Ethiopia reaching an unprecedented 43 percent in April, the impact is countrywide and families who could provide for themselves previously now need basic assistance. Parents can no longer afford tuition fees and schools are absorbing the cost, leaving them without the means to justly compensate teachers, said Mr. Fantu.

“Everything is interrelated,” he said. “The situation is getting worse across the country.”

The current drought in the Horn of Africa — the worst in 40 years, according to the United Nations — and the 200-percent increase in the cost of fertilizer, which is a Russian export and beyond what most Ethiopian farmers can afford, do not paint a hopeful picture for food security in Ethiopia in the foreseeable future.

A malnourished child is held by his mother at a camp for people displaced by drought in Gode, Ethiopia.
A malnourished child is held by his mother at a camp for people displaced by drought in Gode, Ethiopia, on 26 April. The United Nations reports Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region has been hit by three consecutive below-average rainy seasons, worsening the already deteriorating humanitarian situation for more than 3 million people, more than half the local population. (photo: CNS/Tiksa Negeri, Reuters)

Without the assurance of more funding from donors, Mr. Fantu is left managing the shortfall. 

“The only way is to do as much as possible with what is available, to try to respond at the minimum,” he said.

“What we are trying to do is just to share their pain,” he said. “What can we do more than that?”

While some planned building projects have been postponed or simplified, cutting programs altogether, especially food assistance and education, is not an option, said Mr. Fantu. 

“If we cut, our pain will be more,” he said. 

“And so, we hope. We always have to be people of hope.”

CNEWA is raising funds to help meet the needs identified in this update. Click here to give.

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