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Life on the Edge | Running on Empty

In 2000, world leaders signed up to Millennium Development Goals, the number one priority being to halve poverty and hunger by 2015. In this film, Life highlights the plight of two young mothers living in two very different societies. Dawn lives in South Wales, in one of the poorest districts in the European Union, where over a quarter of all children live in poverty. She has a partner and three children. Asemu lives in northern Ethiopia where most of the people are farmers who cannot produce enough food to live on. She has a partner and two children. Both Dawn and Asemu are 22 years old. We visit both in the run up to Christmas 2006 and then again in April 2007 to find out how they are coping.

Eight years ago world leaders signed up to Millennium Development Goals, the number one priority being to halve poverty and hunger by 2015. In this film, Life highlights the plight of two young mothers living in two very different societies. Dawn lives in South Wales, in one of the poorest districts in the European Union, where over a quarter of all children live in poverty. She has a partner and three children. Her youngest child is David who is one year old. Asemu lives in northern Ethiopia where most of the people are farmers who cannot produce enough food to live on. She has a partner and two children; the youngest Mikiray is eight months old. Both Dawn and Asemu are 22 years old.

healthy diet is fundamental to preventing lifelongDavid and Mikiray are both at a crucial stage in their development where a healthy diet is fundamental to preventing lifelong problems linked to malnutrition. Each mother receives cash payments. In Meket district where Asemu lives there are a quarter of a million people and nearly half of them get money to help them survive. It is part of Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net programme funded by international donors, the biggest in Africa with nearly seven and a half million beneficiaries. Asemu receives the equivalent of 5.63 pounds per month during the seven lean months of the year. She buys food, clothing and seed to plant. Dawn also receives money. She gets 190 pounds per week which must cover food, bills, nappies and Christmas presents. The UK is one of the richest economies in the world but still one in four children live in poverty.

‘That’s 3.4 million children living in poverty in the UK,’ says Colette Marshall of Save the Children UK. ‘We’re really concerned about the million poorest who live in severe poverty which government policies just simply aren’t reaching at the moment. When we talk to families they say they’re really struggling. What they get on benefits means they have about £40 a week to feed two adults, two children, and that’s really, really difficult.’

In Ethiopia the cash aid means that Asemu’s husband can stay at home and farm rather than having to work away. For Asemu and her family there are worrying times ahead as cash payments are halted for five months while the harvest takes place. Donors assume that people’s harvests will keep them going through these lean times.

When we revisit Dawn in April she explains that she has got badly in debt to buy Christmas presents for her family. Seeing all the adverts on television for expensive toys made her feel bad and then people offered her loans, this seemed like a good idea at the time, but now she has to find a way to pay them back. Asemu has also overspent. She hosted the Women’s Association gathering as it was her turn. They have had no money since the last payment in October and her husband Debru is depressed as he has tried to earn money by working away but has had no luck.

health is sufferingBoth women are aware that their children’s diets are poor and that their health is suffering because of this. Asemu’s eldest child Bayou is small and seriously underweight with chronic health issues. Dawn’s youngest child David is not too small or underweight, but she recognises that she feeds him fatty foods because they are cheaper.

Colette Marshall comments: ‘The issue for these families is that many of the parents do know what a good diet is but don’t have the money to afford it so what they do is they use their money to buy high-calorie, high-fat items, recognising their low nutritional value but that’s the only way they can stop their children from getting hungry.’
Asemu’s family are vegetarians but not by choice. There is no fish or meat in their diet because they simply cannot afford it. The money they receive has not increased in line with inflation and the future looks bleak. Dawn can just about manage on the money she receives. Asemu and her family cannot.

In Asemu’s district the programme is supervised by Save the Children UK; there are 46,000 recipients who receive 6 birr a day. The programme started in 2004, and today the local administrator supports the opinion of recipients who say that the cash is just not enough.

The amount they receive has been devalued by inflation and by a dramatic increase in market prices. Four years ago the cash would buy fifteen kilos of wheat, now it buys six cups. Debru explains: ‘This income is very low. The cash cannot buy a sack of grain or even three baskets. Grain is very expensive. How could this little money be stretched for all this? It’s too small.’

Ken Caldwell, Director of International Operations, Save the Children UK, is aware of the problem: ‘What outrages us is that the programme has not been able to increase the payments in line with rising food costs. So that families are now struggling on the payments that are made available. That’s why we are calling on the rich countries to keep their promises providing the money that’s needed to enable programmes like this to succeed, and to revise the payments in line with rising food costs so that Asemu’s second child can grow up without that stunting.’

People prefer cash to food aid, but the cash must be sufficient to fulfil its purpose. Dawn can just about manage on what she gets, but Asemu can’t.

Save the Children and the Dutch Government want to pay more in Meket, but can’t because they only support half the people in the district who get cash. The other half are on the government’s programme, and there are 3.6 million on that programme funded by international donors. If the government were to agree to increase cash for all these people, the international donors would have to give more.

The international community has made a commitment to halve hunger by 2015. Asemu and Debru will tell you it’s failing.

RELATED LINKS:

To find out more about the Millennium Development Goals, visit the UN Millennium Development Goals website. Unicef explain why the Millennium Development goals matter most for children. Read Unicef’s pages on children living in poverty.

A useful source of links on poverty issues is the World Bank’s PovertyNet. See also the World Bank’s pages on Ethiopia.

Save the Children UK have pages on their work in Wales, and their work in Ethiopia. Children in Wales is campaigning against child poverty in Wales.

Read an article by Food First on Farmer Experiences with Food Shortage in Southern Ethiopia. The Dutch Government is supporting the food programme in Meket.

The International Food Policy Research Institute has a website on the Ethiopia Strategy Support Programme. To read about Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net, go here. The UK’s Department for International Development has published a case study on Guaranteeing food and money: A safety net for Ethiopia’s poor.

Read about the World Food Programme’s assistance to Ethiopia.

OneWorld.Net has an excellent Development Guide to Ethiopia. For general information on Ethiopia, visit AfricaNet’s pages on the country, Ethiopia First, or the Government’s Facts about Ethiopia.

Earlier Life programmes on Ethiopia were: The Right to Choose and The Coffee-Go-Round.

An earlier programme about poverty in Wales was How Green is My Valley.

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