Alumnus, Oxfam America Address Starvation, Drought in Ethiopia

October 27, 2009
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

A Harvard Kennedy School alumnus is helping farmers in Ethiopia insure themselves against crop loss and starvation. Abera Tola MPA 1999 is Oxfam America’s regional director for Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia – an appropriate position for the native Ethiopian who has first-hand experience with many of the severe challenges facing people in that region.

Tola leads a project which allows – for the first time – approximately 200 Ethiopian farming households to purchase drought insurance that protects them against low rainfall, akin to the system that protects American farmers. Drought has ravaged Ethiopia in past decades and hunger remains a serious problem in the region. In addition to introducing safeguards such as the insurance, Tola’s work through Oxfam America seeks to update farming methods, specifically by implementing more advanced irrigation projects.

“The microinsurance is a weather index insurance focusing on reducing the risk of a farmer falling into food aid as a result of environmental variability,” said Tola. “Whenever there is insufficient rain in some part of the country, the GDP shows significant decline. More than 80 percent of our population depend on agriculture and live in rural areas.”

As a child Tola lived through a severe drought in Ethiopia. Even though his family was from the central part of the country where there was a good harvest, they had to sell their livestock and his brothers had to look for jobs as daily laborers in other towns.

“The majority of Ethiopians were affected by the outcome of the drought,” said Tola. “The price hike of main crops put the urban people in a very difficult situation. The rural people bore the brunt of the crisis. The drought of 1984-85 touched every house and every family in Ethiopia.”

Tola has emerged as a humanitarian leader from a life of extraordinary challenges. He was a 20-year-old management student in Ethiopia when he was jailed without charge. He remained jailed for 11 years and was not released until 1990. In that time, widespread deadly famine hit the region affecting hundreds of thousands of people – including prisoners who relied on families to bring them food. Following his release, Tola worked in human rights organizations, earned his Master’s in Public Administration at Harvard Kennedy School and later joined Oxfam America.

“The period I spent at the Kennedy School was transformational in my life,” he said. “It was during this time that I listened to many important debates and attended wonderful lectures and classes on poverty and leadership. I learned how to critically and systematically look into issues and provide leadership to strive for a solution. Oxfam America is the field and opportunity to translate what I learned at the Kennedy School in to reality.”

Ethiopian family

Medhin Reda lives with three of her daughters in Adi Ha where she makes her living as a farmer. Reda, along with 65 percent of all those who have signed up for the insurance, is a participant in Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program. Photo credit Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America.

Photo courtesy of Oxfam America.

Ethiopian family

Gebru Kahsay and his grandson inspect a field of teff in Adi Ha. Photo credit Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America.

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