A conference of African finance and development ministers in Addis Ababa is examining ways of alleviating the impact of a worldwide rise in food and commodity prices. VOA's Peter Heinlein reports the head of the U.N. World Food Program is attending, and is looking at an innovative project aimed at easing the burden on Ethiopia's urban poor.
Terunesh Mengesha, 41, is chattering with other women about skyrocketing food prices as they stand in line to receive a 50-kilogram sack of wheat for the Ethiopian equivalent of about $9. At regular stores in Addis Ababa that same bag, enough to keep her husband and four children fed for two months, would cost $20.
After having her coupon stamped, she receives a big white bag imprinted with a red, white and blue American flag. The wheat subsidy program is run by the Ethiopian government, and funded by the U.N. World Food Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Speaking through a translator, Terunesh says the $9 she pays is almost her entire two-month income doing laundry. Her husband makes slightly more as a factory guard. She says all her neighbors are enrolled in the wheat subsidy purchase program, because it is the only way to balance their budgets.
"No one has a choice," she said. "They all come here because the price is much easier for them to buy."
Berhane Hailu, director of the Ethiopian government agency that operates the subsidy program, says it shields millions of urban poor people from the impact of commodity price hikes.
"Up to now, 825,000 heads of families are registered and hold the coupon and are users of this program," he noted. "If we calculate five members in a family, 4.1 million people are benefiting from this program."
Finance and development ministers from most African countries are at the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa conference this week to discuss the impact the global rise in oil and food prices is having on struggling African economies.
World Food Program Director Josette Shearan is at the conference, and while in Addis Ababa she went to see how the wheat distribution center operates.
"We are very concerned about the high prices globally," she said. "It is having different effects in different countries, but we do think that this pressure will continue for some time, and it is important that we find ways to alleviate the pressure on the most vulnerable. Those who make less than $2 a day or $1 a day have less resiliency."
Shearan says in today's globalized economy, there is a growing need to protect impoverished countries like Ethiopia from price spikes caused by crop failures in other parts of the world.
"We are looking for innovative solutions to help countries and to partner with countries in alleviating the pressure on the most vulnerable people," she added. "And so these price increases got aggressive globally about a year ago, and no country has been immune from those pressures."
U.N. Undersecretary-General and head of the Economic Commission for Africa Abdoulie Janneh told the ministers' conference that high oil and food prices challenge the continent to ensure essential goods are affordable, while not stifling the role higher prices play in increasing production.
The conference issued a statement Monday noting that rising prices of staple goods had been blamed for social disturbances in at least four African countries this year - Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal and Mauritania.