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Locals using one of the village's working pumps
Locals using one of the village's working pumps
Dr Allister McGregor, Director of the ESRC WeD Group at the University of Bath
Dr Allister McGregor, Director of the ESRC WeD Group at the University of Bath

Press Release - 12 December 2005

Aid projects need better understanding of local issues, say researchers

Some of the aid projects designed to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people may not be having the desired impact because of a poor understanding of local ‘realities’, researchers have found.

In a report out this week, they describe the case of an Ethiopian village that has seen investment in some of the best irrigation facilities in the country but is still suffering food shortages because of poor coordination between local agencies.

Broken promises, unsuitable initiatives and a failure to plan for the longer term left just one in ten households in the village with adequate supplies of staple food products last year, compared to 23 – 63 per cent in other similar sized villages elsewhere in Ethiopia.

Despite attempts over the last 40 years to improve irrigation in and around the village, the government, landlords, international donors and non-governmental agencies have repeatedly failed to coordinate irrigation initiatives in the local area.

The issue was discovered as part of a study involving some of the poorest communities in the world by the ESRC Wellbeing in Developing Countries (WeD) research group at the University of Bath.

The researchers are now calling for a better understanding of the local 'realities' before these kinds of schemes are introduced into a region.

Their warning comes as government ministers meet at the Hong Kong World Trade Organisation this week (13-18 December 2005) where they will discuss recommendations made in a report by the Commission for Africa into tackling poverty in Africa.

“Aid is an incredibly beneficial tool in the fight against poverty but it is vital to consider local histories, power structures and development trajectories in the design and implementation of future development interventions,” said Dr Allister McGregor, Director of the ESRC WeD Group at the University of Bath.

“The failure to take these into account in the past has resulted in a disconnection between the people who are trying to help and the local realities that confront poor people.

“It will be a major challenge for those charged with taking forward the recommendations in the Commission for Africa report to find ways of re-connecting them, but in doing so we believe there is a greater opportunity to deliver sustainable development.”

By talking to local people in the village, the WeD researchers discovered that farmers first began irrigating the land by hand when a new landlord planted orange trees along the banks of a nearby river in 1964. (See case history below.)

The following years saw investment in technology that, when damaged, could not be fixed by local craftsmen, and an inappropriate irrigation initiative that washed all of the top soil away.

After several years in planning, the villagers are still waiting for two promised irrigation schemes to come into effect – both of which will cover some of the same land.

The researchers have chosen not to name the village, because they are working closely with the agencies involved to improve the situation there.

“Superficially, and in comparison to the rest of rural Ethiopia, this community would be classified as being relatively well-supplied with irrigation facilities,” said Dr McGregor.

“Paradoxically this has not translated into the more positive outcomes envisaged by those involved in implementing the irrigation schemes.

“Irrigation has largely been brought to this community by outsiders: a feudal landlord, a government-organised international organisation, an international NGO, and most recently by traders of private pumps.

“In all cases, only a proportion of farmers benefited. Overall, the community has moved forward in terms of the provision of irrigation, only for that to be reversed as a consequence of failed or inappropriate interventions.

“As a result, households have found themselves in a more vulnerable position than before.”

“If the Commission for Africa Report is to become anything other than one of those eminent documents which are launched to great fanfare, but then sit on bookshelves and become a historical curiosity, then further steps are required to deal with the types of disconnected initiatives that we have highlighted.”

This WeD research was highlighted at a Policy Forum 'Africa after 2005' which took place at Church House, Westminster on Friday 9 December. The WeD, all African panel was lead by Dr. Anna Tibaijuka, (Commission for Africa, UN Habitat).


Case history: 40 years of irrigation attempts

The timeline below describes the irrigation history of an Ethiopian village discovered by the ESRC WeD research group. The village is located in rural Ethiopia, next to a river and has 253 households.

1964: a powerful settler landlord from another region of Ethiopia plants orange trees near the river and local tenant farmers water them by carrying water from the adjacent river.

1974: the incoming military socialist government (the Derg) gives land-use rights to peasants. They are organised into ten groups of around 25 people each and distribute the orange trees equally among the groups. They continue to water the trees by hand.

1986: the government introduces a producers’ cooperative. Members are given the most fertile land, including that on which the orange trees are growing.

1987: a major international agency gives the cooperative a generator to power a water pump. Members diversify production and grow bananas, papaya, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, onions and green peppers in addition to the oranges. They share the produce and report making good incomes during this time.

1991: the Derg falls and the producers’ cooperative is abolished, although land remains in the hands of the state. Farmers again form ten groups, sharing both the land on which the orange trees grow and the other irrigated land. But two years later, the generator is damaged by the river flooding and falls into disuse. Nobody mends the generator and all the irrigated crops, including the orange trees, die.

Also in 1991: a major international agency establishes a project, giving 1.6 million birr (£100,000) to the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RCC) to construct a new irrigation system for the area. The digging of canals is started under a food-for-work scheme but takes three years to complete. Three generators are installed to pump irrigation water for 152 hectares of land. But the canals have been badly designed and the water “flowed very fast down into the Awash river washing the soil down the big canals”. The Ministry of Agriculture refuses to take over responsibility for the project from the RRC until it is shown to be working. The system never becomes operational and the RRC leaves without handover to the Ministry of Agriculture.

1994-2000: only rain-fed agriculture is practised and with frequent drought the community suffers famine and comes to rely on (unreliable) food aid.

2000: an international NGO provides a generator and pump which now irrigates 40 hectares of land divided among 130 irrigation cooperative members. These people grow vegetables and report, “Our lifestyle is improving a lot”. In order to apply for a limited number of places in the cooperative, villagers have to pay 70 birr. Many are not successful in becoming members and those excluded from membership are now often employed as daily labourers on the irrigated plots.

Also in 2000: 60 hectares are set aside for irrigation to be provided by a local NGO, 15 hectares of which are allocated for the NGO’s use. By mid-2005, the NGO has still not installed the irrigation pipe and the uncultivated land has become infested with weeds. The removal of these involves arduous work, requiring months of weeding ‘campaigns’ run by local government officials and involving one member of each household one day a week, with a fine of 10 birr for absence.

2002: a few of the wealthier farmers with land close to the river start forming groups and buying pumps on the market.

2004: when much of the harvest dies due to drought, local government officials say they will try to rehabilitate the RCC scheme. In January, engineers say this is possible, but in March they announce that there needs to be a new scheme. Simultaneously, the local NGO says they will soon start construction of their long-promised pipe. However, the two schemes are proposed to cover some of the same land.

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