With a practiced ease, Keddo Umar gathers up a shiny can of vegetable oil in a bright blue shawl and slings it casually over her back. Making her way through the crowd of hundreds gathered today at a small warehouse in the town of Chelenko, Ethiopia, she walks with a mix of relief and celebration. In a country where the complete failure of the short rainy season this year is threatening more than 12 million* people with food shortages, there is cause today for both.
As a participant in the Ethiopian government's Productive Safety Net program, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and Catholic Relief Services, Keddo knows she is among the lucky ones. Safety Net provides households with a way to survive the lean months when food is scarce because of dry weather.
"During the screening time, I was very poor. My husband was ill and he was not in a position to work, so I was shouldering the burden," Keddo says. Then she was selected for the program in 2005. "Since then, I have gradually been improving my income. I bought some livestock, and I have plans to improve my house."
With the vast majority of Ethiopia's farmers depending entirely on increasingly sporadic rains for their yearly harvest, hunger has become a season across much of the countryside. Millions like Keddo face gaps in their household food supply each year. Many are forced to sell precious household commodities such as livestock to survive each season, creating an inescapable cycle of poverty and hunger.
The two-pronged goal of CRS' approach is to support Safety Net by providing monthly food rations to families during the leanest 6 months of the year. In turn, families can work toward escaping poverty by saving the money they would have spent on food and using it instead to buy livestock, educate their children or start a small business.
"Before the Safety Net program, we ate only twice a day—breakfast and dinner with no lunch," Keddo says. "After the Safety Net program, we could eat three times a day."
With her husband still unable to work after a debilitating injury, Keddo relies heavily on the food she receives through CRS' partner agency, Hararghe Catholic Secretariat, to feed her six children still living at home.
The six yearly distributions of wheat, dried peas and vegetable oil coupled with the money she has saved from her small business have enabled Keddo to feed her family during lean times. She bought an ox and a cow, and has used her income to expand her small-scale trading business. She can now afford to transport produce to town from the countryside.
Although she owns only sixth-tenths of an acre, formerly the sole source of her family's food, she can now use that land exclusively for more marketable high-value crops such as tomatoes and potatoes.
"The food I collect from this Safety Net program covers my household needs, so I can sell the little food I grow for cash," Keddo says.
With a few assets now available as collateral, Keddo got a government-supported microfinance loan. She bought three goats she plans to breed, hoping to increase her household income even further. Perhaps more importantly, Keddo says the money she has saved through the Safety Net program has allowed her to put all of her children in school, something she was unable to afford before.
"I am sending all six of my children to school," Keddo says. "Before the Safety Net program, I used to only send three of my children because I had no resources."
After gaining her financial footing with six years of distributions, Keddo will soon graduate from the Safety Net program—the ultimate goal for all of the more than 302,000 recipients currently receiving food.
Safety Net also allows program participants to contribute labor and some materials to local projects such as schools, agricultural terracing and roads. The program tackles poverty at all levels and allows people like Keddo and her family to not only survive the lean times but flourish.
"The most important contribution of the Safety Net program has been that it covered our food gap so I was able to send my children to school," Keddo says. "I am proud of that investment, because now they will have a bright future."
*This figure includes more than 7.5 million people the government identified as chronically hungry and more than 4.5 million recently identified as newly affected by the drought.
David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.