ASMARA, Eritrea — Eritrea has a history of severe poverty and hunger. During times of famine, Eritrea is only able to produce enough to feed one quarter of its people. The rate of malnutrition in Eritrea varies depending on the brutality of its droughts, which tend to be every three years. However, the United Nations in particular has managed to forge an important relationship with Eritrea amid difficult political circumstances in order to counteract impending threats to food security.
Due to an isolationist political stance by Eritrea’s longstanding president, Isaias Afwerki, the exact figures for malnutrition in Eritrea are difficult to ascertain. A particularly crushing drought beginning in 2002 left over half of Eritrea’s population in danger of starvation.
Eritrea is one of the poorest countries in the world and more than 60 percent of its people live in poverty. In previous years, the Eritrean government has been inconsistent in its approach to alleviating its economic and food shortfalls.
Droughts are the leading cause of malnutrition in Eritrea because the majority of Eritreans make their living through agriculture, as other livelihood opportunities are scarce.
Even when there is no drought, Eritrea can only provide 60 to 80 percent of the food that its population needs.
The lack of food security based on environmental factors makes children particularly vulnerable. Child malnourishment can reach as high as 20 percent in some regions depending on the effects of cyclical droughts.
Eritreans have responded to their government’s self-reliance program by having some of the best health indicators in the Horn of Africa region, such as high rates of immunizations.
However, UNICEF projects that $5.5 million is needed in 2015 to prevent Eritrean child malnutrition.
The current agreement between multiple U.N. programs and the Eritrean government shows major progress from the time that President Afwerki halted food aid into Eritrea in 2007.
In 2012, Eritrea’s Ministry of National Development and the U.N. signed the Strategic Partnership Cooperation Framework. The Strategic Partnership is a four-year multi-pronged plan to address issues such as food security along with health and nutrition.
The plan allows for several U.N. agencies, such as UNICEF and the U.N. Development Programme, to work with Eritrea’s healthcare sector. Such an agreement allows for the Eritrean government to maintain the appearance of self-reliance.
The Strategic Partnership is not conspicuously labeled as famine prevention or food aid. Instead, the relief efforts are provided under the umbrella of Eritrea’s existing health policies.
UNICEFF’s nutritional assistance to children and expectant and new mothers is called “supplemental feeding.” One strategy of this program to guard against malnutrition is a bi-annual dose of an essential amount of Vitamin A to children under five years old.
Although Eritrea is in its beginning stages of creating a sustainable model to fight malnutrition, Eritrea’s collaboration with the U.N. is producing meaningful results.
Some agencies that have attempted to provide aid to Eritrea, such as the Red Cross, have had to contend with external obstacles from an international community hesitant to donate relief funds for a country with a repressive government.
Donors may look to the successes that the Strategic Partnership has had in the short time since its implementation. Hundreds of thousands of Eritrean children have directly benefitted from U.N. nutrition services.
Eritrea is one of a handful of chronically malnourished countries with a history of isolationism and conflict with the international community. As the Strategic Partnership develops, its achievements could provide a framework for future collaboration between other nations and aid organizations.
– Priscilla Moreno