Focus on the Afar people

Inhabiting some of the harshest terrain in the world, the people of Afar are famed for their resilience, ferocity and pride. Yet, in the searing heat of northeastern Ethiopia, they are now earning another reputation – that of being the most neglected and marginalised ethnic group in the country.

The nomadic Afar have fewer hospitals, schools or social services than almost any other region in Ethiopia. They generally die younger and are less likely to be able to escape their cycle of deprivation.

The Sultan of Afar, Ali Mireh Hanfareh, recognises the severe problems facing the state. He told IRIN that education was the key to solving many of them. "Education is the most important thing for my people," he said from his home in Asayita, the capital of Afar State. "You cannot do anything without education."

But the sultan, who is the region's traditional ruler, said the entire state had just three secondary schools – one of which he had built himself. Only one percent of Afars ever finished primary school. Moreover, he pointed out, the miniscule educational component available was also serving to drive away the people who benefited from it, lured by higher wages and better lifestyles in other parts of the country or abroad.

As pastoralists, the Afar move over vast distances with their livestock, irrespective of borders. The lowland region, which covers 270,000 sq km, occupies one-fifth of Ethiopia, has a population of about 3.4 million, according to the last census in 1994.

Only about five percent of the Afar population have access to proper health care. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), two hospitals serve the entire population, which, it says, is grossly inadequate.

"Basic infrastructure such as electric power supply, transport and communications, are grossly deficient, which have posed serious roadblocks on the service delivery," a 2001 WHO report said. In almost every area of health, the Afar were well below the national average, the report added. No health outreach service has been offered for three years because of financial constraints and a lack of transport. Immunisations against disease were almost zero, it added.

In the sweltering capital of the region, Asayita, where temperatures often reach 45 degrees centigrade, electricity is only available - if at all - to half the town at any time. A 45-km dirt track links Asayita, which overlooks the Awash river, to the tarmacked Addis to Djibouti highway. A new capital, Semara, is being built on the highway, although no-one has moved there yet.

A main street in the Afar capital Asaita

The lack of basic services, like roads and electricity, pose real problems to NGOs trying to establish themselves in Afar. Few of them operate in the state. Only 13 NGOs are currently running programmes there. Six years ago, it was just two, but the World Bank and IMF are now targeting pastoralist projects, whose funds attract new development groups to the region.

A five-year World Bank-funded programme worth US $250 million known as the Ethiopian Social and Rural Development Fund (ESRDF) targeted rural areas, but often did not reach pastoralists. Now the Bank is launching a scheme to channel funds direct to the pastoralists. The scheme, the Pastoral Community Development Project, is far more "geographically specific" in its focus than the ESRDF from which it evolved.

Esayas Girma, head of Community Aid Abroad (CAA) - who started work in Afar six years ago – said historically the group had been outsiders. "There is no question over whether the Afar are marginalised," he said. "They lack basic rights. All the political decisions traditionally have been taken elsewhere. They should have basic health and education – these are primary rights which can’t be denied."

CAA is also seeking to empower women through literacy programmes and advocacy work. Esayas said the marginalisation of the Afar was in part historical - the divide between the lowlands of Ethiopia and the highlands, where the majority of the population live.

The Pastoralist Communications Initiative (PCI), a new organisation in Ethiopia, agreed with Esayas's views. Daoud Tari of the PCI said pastoralists across the Horn of Africa had been marginalised. "The production system they pursue is very different from the agrarian agriculture production system. The state in Ethiopia was formed around agrarian agriculture that looked at pastoralism as a backward mode of production, not worth investing in."

After Afar became a regional state in 1995 – it is supposed to control its own budgets and priorities – the problems were compounded. "That [transformation] has [engendered] a lot of problems, because there is no capacity. The regional state has a strong lack of capacity," Daoud said.

Many development agencies complain they are concerned over security as skirmishes can break out between rival clans. Almost every man wears the fearsome looking three-foot-long Jile sword. Most men carry semiautomatic rifles. Parts of the state are often out of bounds to the United Nations because of strict rules governing staff security. The sultan argues that the Afar are peaceful – but much of his time is spent settling disputes between rival clan leaders, who regularly call at his home.

But NGOs in Afar say the security issue is influenced by the regional state's political boundaries, Djibouti and Eritrea being places where many Afar, who do not recognise borders, also live. Daoud said that groups of Afar spread over three countries meant that they could often be used as political pawns by rival governments.

CAA believes that the clan system – often blamed for insecurity – can actually facilitate operations. "It is an advantage for NGOs. If you know exactly the architectural structure of the society, it is an opportunity for NGOs to work, not a source of frustration," Esayas said. "Like the land management system is done, which is based on a clan system. But when people who go there see plain lands [they] think nobody’s there. But somebody is managing that one. So if you understand the clan system, who operates [it] and who are really the power - I can’t see it as a problem."

On average, the region receives 300 mm of rainfall a year – an amount that can fall in a single month in the country's capital, Addis Ababa. But according to Farm Africa, which focuses on pastoralist development, lack of water is not the problem – it is poor management. Dr Seme Debela, head of Farm Africa, said gradual encroachment by large-scale commercial crop cultivation using the Awash river for massive irrigation was preventing the Afar from reaching the river bank to graze their animals.

"It is not really the water - the water is there," he said. "It is the land that is creating the problem, because these people migrate, and these commercial activities are in the way of the migratory route. It also means fertile land where crops are now grown are off-limits to the nomads, who are on an endless search of fine grazing lands. That has created conflict, and this is the issue of management – how to share resources," he said.

"The pastoral community was not well understood in the past. There were efforts by the previous governments, beginning with the Haile Selassie period up till now, but the kind of development programmes planned and implemented were not really appropriate to the pastoral community. As a result they could not really benefit from this kind of development," Seme noted.

There had been a number of livestock programme activities, but the approach had been more suited to the highland environment - highland agriculture rather than pastoralism, Seme said. "The kind of development plans initiated were not participatory, did not really appreciate the distinction between highland settled agriculture and pastoral activities, even agro-pastoral activities. So there was this dichotomy. Now we are learning: the government has even set up a pastoral extension system."

Farm Africa also trains the Afar in animal health, equipping them with medicines to tackle livestock diseases. Seme said many areas needed to be targeted and improved, particularly the ability of the Afar to run programmes once NGOs pulled out. "The social infrastructure is very weak," he said. "Unfortunately they don’t have the resources both human, financial and others. So there is a big need for the Afar region, like for most pastoral regions."

He noted that non-Afars held the available jobs in the region. "Who runs the commercial farms, who are the truck drivers, who are the accountants, storekeepers, secretaries? They are not Afar, and this human resource base is very weak now."