Rising from rubble

An African nation refuses international aid and sets up a highly ambitious agenda to stand on its own feet

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Rising from rubble

A lone tree bears testimony to (Credit: Photographs: D Hinrichsen)ERITREA has taken the international community by surprise in its refusal to accept foreign aid. Having broken away from Ethiopia, a country infamous for droughts and famine, it is resolved in avoiding reliance on foreign aid and has adopted a policy of sustainable development. This determination to build on the rubble of a ravaged ecology and a battered economy is a new phenomenon in a continent mired in debt-trap and increasing international dependence.

The damage caused by 31 years of civil war is not restricted to human and economic losses. Much of Eritrea is now besieged by an enemy more relentless than Ethiopia: the desert. Once forested highlands are now barren. Hardly a single tree dots the landscape.

Rampant deforestation and destructive agricultural practices have further impeded attempts to raise crop yields and conserve fragile soils. In 1950, nearly 20 per cent of the country was covered with forests. By 1996, forest cover had been reduced to less than half a per cent. Consequently, the soil lost the capacity to soak up and hold moisture during the infrequent rains and release it slowly during the 'dead season'. This led to widescale soil erosion. The climate has become hotter and drier.

The war ended in 1991 at a human cost of 50,000 dead.and 10,000 disabled. Many towns still have piles of rubble as reminders of the war, along with hundreds of cripples and arnputees. Coupled with this is the galloping population, which is estimated at 3.6 million and is growing by just under three per cent a year - enough to double the size of the populace in a generation. The average family size remains large: most women have 6-7 children. The propensity to have large families has a lot to do with 13 infants out of every 100 born not living to see their first birthday. As many as 1,000 women die for every 100,000 live births.
The will to act - independently Confronted with a ruined environment and a rapidly growing human population, the challenges facing Eritrea would make most countries bring out the begging bowl. But this is not the case with Eritrea. In 1993, the people voted overwhelmingly for an independent, democratic state; the constitution was ratified by parliam ent in May 1997, with the first general elections sch(;@ duled for 1998. The interim President, Isaias Afwerki, who also led the war of independence, recently declared that Eritrea "must stand on its own feet" and not get mired down in foreign aid.

' "It is a poor country, but one that works reasonably well and does not encourage outside assistance," says Pamela de Largy, the United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) country representative for Eritrea. Moreover, it has none of the vicious crime of Nairobi or Addis Ababa and, despite being divided almost equally between Muslims and Christians, none of the religious strife that has sundered Sudan.

The government's position on international assistance is unique among developing nations, particularly in Africa, a continent sinking deeper into debt and environmental bankruptcy every year. "UNFPA has a number of very exciting grassroots programmes and projects being implemented, but the government has made it clear that it doesn't want to be dependent (on international assistance)," explains De Largy, who has spent a decade in Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea. "The goal is that every programme must become sustainable, using national resources, as quickly as possible," she adds.

This policy makes Eritrea stand out among developing nations. Recently, the Italian government offered a massive loan to rebuild a crucial rail link between Asmara and the port city of Massawa on the Red Sea and Asmara. President Afwerki turned the Italians down and called railroad workers out of retirement and recruited volunteer student labour to rebuild the line. "We will do it ourselves and for a fraction of the cost of a foreign loan," he reportedly remarked. The railroad tracks now reach halfway to Asmara and the antique engines and cars are rolling again. This philosophy of independence runs deep in this poor country, where the average income is us $150 a year. Eritrea is in the process qf putting flesh to the bones of sustainable develop, ment, even as most developed countries are still struggling to grasp the concept. "Operationalising it will not be easy," comments Yohannes Haile, director, department of employment, ministry of labour. Haile has few illusions about the future. "We have the possibility of rebuilding the country and learning from the mistakes of others," he asserts. "The entire leadership is behind the concept of a self-sustaining development agenda, one we can afford and carry out ourselves."

Local heroes for local tasks
At the heart of this 'do-it-your- self' approach is an agenda grounded firmly in community development. At a converted warehouse in Keren, a formidable woman known only as Hedat has just finished lecturing a large group of women about the advantages of small families, in an effort to promote better health and nutrition through reproductive health and family planning. Because of the sensitive nature of the task, Hedat - the head of the local women's association - often has to find creative ways to present her case. "In most rural villages, where family planning is not accepted yet, I approach the subject by encouraging birth spacing,stressing that this results in healthier babies and gives women time to recover their health as well," she indicates. "Close to 70 per cent of the women in this country suffer from chronic anaernia due to heavy work- loads and too many births too close together," she says.

Hedat believes that most of the training material she uses are useful and effective, but adds that there are problems. "Nearly 90 per cent of all Eritrean women are illiterate and this means that some of the posters and teaching materials are not appropriate for them," she observes.

Government initiative
The 4ktermination to build on the rubble is evident even in government efforts, especially in the field of fisheries and coastal development. Eritrea has two basic aims behind its efforts to manage fisheries and coastline sustainably, says Yo@sef Kahsay, head of marine development in the ministry of marine resources. "First, we want to promote the development of our fisheries, especially as a badly-needed source of protein in Eritrean diet. Second, we want to generate foreign currency through targeted exports," he explains.

Sustainable coastal development is a living concept for Kahsay and his colleagues. In 1996, the fishing licence of an Egyptian commercial trawling operation was revoked by Eritrea because they were caught over-harvesting and taking under-sized fish. "Throwing out the Egyptian trawler was a firm warning to any foreign operation in our waters. We will not be exploited by foreigners. They must honour agreements," insists Kahsay. "It's not as if we don't have enough fish. The Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated, our annual sustainable catch at around 80,000 metric tonnes (mt). Last year (1996) our tiny fleet, consisting mostly of small-scale fisherfolk, brought in no more than 3,000 mt. We are going to manage our Red Sea fisheries intensively," he points out.

Sustainable fishing
Across the port from the ministry's building is a wharf for small -scale fisher- folk. Mohamed Yasin, now in his late 40s, has returned to the sea after three decades of fighting. His small sambuk (boat), sporting an outboard motor, carries a crew of four or five. He stays aboard for three to four days at a time, fishing mostly with hand-lines in' the Dahlak Archipelago about 100 km offshore. He practises his own system of sustainable fishing, which he terms 'selective fishing'. "I fish only for certain high-value species like grouper, jack, coral trout, sea bass and red snapper," he says.

"I can usually land between 500 and 600 kg of fish on each trip. And now that the United Nations Development Programme is helping us develop markets for these species, 'we expect to be able to make a comfortable living from the sea, just as I did 30 years ago," he says.

Development experts continue to be amazed by Eritrea's determination to 'do it their way'. If it succeeds, the country may well be a model for other developing countries struggling to manage growing populations with shrinking resources. "If a country like Eritrea can develop sustainably, given all its resource problems and shortages of skilled manpower, then think what this may mean for other, better-off African countries like Kenya, 11 observes one Western diplomat in Asmara. "It is a beacon in a devastated landscape, truly a light at the end of the long African tunnel."

Don Hinrichsen is a United Nations consultant on population, environment and development Fisherfolk unload the day's catch at Massawa

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