Ethiopia is a desperately poor country. War, weather and myriad social and environmental factors have regularly combined to bring about famine in vulnerable areas. The media has brought us horrific pictures of starving children and the aid agencies have raised and distributed millions of dollars for famine relief. The fact that the famine has not always materialized as predicted may be a reflection of the success of the preventative work of the aid agencies but there is growing evidence that they may have hyped the situation to some extent in order to boost their revenue. Certainly, persistent dependence on food aid has done nothing to develop capacity in local economies.
Until we visit a country we are entirely dependent on the media messages we receive. Even when the rains are good, no matter what time of the year, a film crew could fly into any of the numerous refugee camps along the Somali border or northern Tigray and return with Michael Burke type images. The fact of the matter is that Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a burgeoning population that has wholly inadequate access to the basics: clean water, health, food production and education.
Now that the civil war is over (1991), changes need to be made at the government level to practice what they preach, open investment to the foreign field, devolve power to local communities, and implement wide reaching land reforms. Access to improved markets, agricultural tools and seeds are key – agriculturally Ethiopia is stuck in the middle ages, farming a limited range of labour-intensive crops and ploughing the land with whips and bulls.
Population growth has led to intense pressure on forests and wildlife and there is no doubt that Ethiopia’s natural resource sector is in crisis. Ethiopia has the largest concentration of highlands on the African continent with farmers farming steeper and steeper slopes. Soil erosion rates are therefore some of the highest in the world and a heavy annual rainfall simply compounds the problem. Famine is never far away and the country’s beautiful landscape is under threat. Economic growth is a dream for many rural communities except in one respect: tourism.
The tourist industry is a relatively easy way to generate much needed foreign exchange. We estimate that a tourist travelling round the country for 2 weeks would directly benefit around 40 Ethiopians and their extended families in remote, rural and urban areas. The multiplier effect of this injection of revenue is significant. Grassroots networks are stimulated, infrastructure improves, local trade and markets benefit. Tourism has huge development potential in Ethiopia as in many other poor countries, but it’s only just beginning. Visitors to this beautiful country are doing more than seeing it: they are beginning to understand and appreciate it, and they are investing in its future.