In a recent interview with foreign journalists in Asmara, President Isayas Afewerki's top economic adviser, Dr Woldai Futur, spoke about the severity of Eritrea's drought, which is affecting two-thirds of the country's population, and addressed donor concerns regarding the political situation in the country. Following are excerpts of the interview.
QUESTION: Why is the drought in Eritrea so severe?
ANSWER: This part of the world has been drought prone for quite some time. When I was growing up here in Eritrea we used to have five to six months of rain. This seems to have been reduced now to two to three months of rain. And we don't really have crop varieties that we know of that can mature in that time span. Three months is really a minimum [for a good harvest] ... The rains either come late or too early, and they are also very erratic, in terms of their distribution.
Q: Your critics would say that Eritrea's policies do not encourage foreign investment. How would you respond?
A: I think if you look into our policies, our macro-economic policies, investment policies, trade policies, you don't find a problem. They are really state of the art. But policies by themselves do not attract foreign investment or private investment. You need to have institutions that are responsive to implement and enforce those policies. In those areas we are very much disadvantaged. Our institutions are weak. So it's not a matter of will, it's not a matter of vision, it's not a matter of making policy statements, it's a matter of taking those and operationalising them. And in that area, I think we have weaknesses.
Q: Do you think donors understand that position?
A: I think there are donors that understand and there are donors that do not understand. If someone lives in Eritrea and sees how stretched the situation is, you cannot avoid understanding it. Anybody can understand what is going on. But if you appraise this country from remote places, from what you read on the internet, you may not understand it. So it depends on how positions are made by our donors.
Q: How do you explain the low donor response to the food appeal? Why do you think it's only running at a quarter of what was hoped for?
A: This is very difficult to say. Basically one has to ask each donor and ask why they are not responding, that is the only factual answer. But you can surmise. There are issues that are being raised about the political aspect of the country. There are issues that partners are raising about the facts, how much is the need.
Q: Is there a responsibility on the part of the government of Eritrea to respond to donor concerns?
A: This is a country that the population here collectively will decide what we want to do. And then we will relay it to our partners. It is not our expectation that we will get 100 percent endorsement from our partners. If there are misunderstandings, we need to resolve those. But if it becomes a disagreement in principle, then the Eritreans will stick to their side, and our partners will of course stick to theirs. But I don't think there are disagreements in principle. Who would not believe in good governance? Who will not believe in freedom of press? Who would not believe in human rights? Tell me why the United States is arresting people and putting them in jail because they are a certain colour? You cannot be heavy handed. This is a very small country. There are matters of national security. You take [actions] for national security purposes. What we are saying is we should be subject to the same standards that the rest of the world is under.
Let me give you an example, and I think this is important for the Europeans. Compare Ethiopia and Eritrea. There are people arrested here, put in jail. In Ethiopia, people demonstrated and were massacred. The European Union found it important to take a position against Eritrea and reward Ethiopia.
We didn't massacre people, we put people in jail. There is a difference. So the double standard is there. Human rights are being violated in a number of countries - even by the partners that are telling us we are violating human rights.
Q: Do you see a link with what's happening in Iraq and the significant focus on the war there?
A: Yes, of course. But there is the issue of budgets for our partners, because there is so much need globally this year. It is not only Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is the whole of southern Africa, western Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan - everywhere there is need for aid, and as a result our partners have to allocate their resources according to their priorities. That is understandable.
Q: But in the past, organisations like the EU and some of the foreign embassies have complained about internal political issues in Eritrea and then linked that to their development aid - though not specifically food aid. How do you respond to that?
A: Well only our partners can determine their priorities, and we can only explain why we need their support. It is very clear that the European Union has withheld resources for development purposes for political reasons. We know that. They have said it. But they have never said that they are also using humanitarian assistance for political purposes. So I don't want to second guess them.
Q: So you suspect that there is a double game being played. Can you respond to the substantive issues that they raise about the detention of dissidents and civilians?
A: All of those issues exist globally, in the biggest nation, with many checks and balances. In the United States, see what is happening. Human rights are relative to me, they are relative. All countries have human rights issues. Is Eritrea the worst in these terms? I don't think so.
Q: What do you see developing in Eritrea should the needed assistance not arrive in time?
A: This is a country that for almost 40 years now has struggled. People have survived with very little for 30 years until liberation, because we were not able to access partners for food. Only NGOs with their own means came to assist us. We believe that the best way is to do the best to survive within our means. So we'll use whatever we can to prevent disaster. It's still my hope that basically our partners will respond to prevent disaster. But we know that our resources are not enough, the challenge is much greater than what we can handle. That is why we are pleading to our partners.