Getana is an independent farmer working a small plot of land in the hinterlands of the Butajira district of Ethiopia, 130 kilometers south of the capital Addis Ababa, and half a world away from Israel. Yet his flourishing crop of tomatoes, onions and chili peppers, set against an emerald landscape of verdant fields and forest-covered mountains, is benefiting greatly from expertise and technology developed in the Jewish state.
Through a pilot program funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), seven farmers have been provided with drip irrigation systems produced in Israel, having themselves invested in the program.
During a visit to his fields, Getana speaks about the benefits the new irrigation system has brought him, and its advantages over the ancient method of flooding fields with water that many Ethiopian farmers still use. It saves him money on diesel fuel since he now needs to pump much less water than he used to; reduces the amount of fertilizer he uses; and reduces his labor costs since the new system also delivers the fertilizer directly to the field and does so more efficiently than before.
This project is one of three agricultural programs being run by Jewish and Israeli organizations in the Butajira district that were highlighted during the recent state visit of President Reuven Rivlin to Ethiopia earlier this month.
Rivlin’s visit was hailed as a groundbreaking venture in not just combining diplomatic and business interests, but also for advancing international development cooperation and assistance and bringing together Jewish and Israeli development organizations to heighten the impact of aid efforts in the country.
One of the central organizations involved in bringing approximately 20 such groups to Ethiopia for the president’s visit was OLAM, an umbrella body for Jewish international development organizations. OLAM’s work is focused on maximizing the impact of resources invested by Jewish and Israeli development organizations by fostering collaboration and cooperation when they are working in the same region. It was the Society for International Development Israel that largely initiated this focus of Rivlin’s trip, and it asked OLAM to invite relevant organizations to participate.
ETHIOPIA HAS become something of a focus for Jewish and Israeli aid groups in recent years, and for several reasons. Such groups have been present in the country for some time due to the presence of the local Jewish community and the efforts to help them emigrate to Israel and assist them in situ as well.
OLAM executive director Dyonna Ginsburg says that because of the Ethiopian Jewish community and the significant number of Ethiopian Jews who now live in Israel, the two countries now have deep connections enhanced by a strong national Ethiopian narrative that its people are the descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Like JDC, Fair Planet, another of OLAM’s partners in the agricultural sector, has also been achieving impressive results in Ethiopia. It works with international companies that produce hybrid crop seeds and helps identify the varieties that grow well in a particular region and its conditions, including climate, local crop diseases and pests, and other factors.
Once the organization identifies appropriate seeds for a particular region, it provides seedlings grown from those seeds free of charge for trial plantings by small-holder farmers for an area of 1,000 square meters. If the new crop is a success and the farmers wish to continue using the hybrid seeds, they are required to buy new seedlings but continue to benefit from Fair Planet’s training programs, in which its employees and volunteers teach the farmers about correctly preparing the land for the seeds and how to fertilize and water them.
During a visit to a test field in the Butajira district, Mitiku, a farmer who has been using Fair Planet seedlings, spoke of how he had increased his yield of cash-crop tomatoes five times over and more than doubled his annual income.
Eshel Lev-Or, a full-time Fair Planet employee in Ethiopia, says the use of hybrid seeds constitutes a real revolution in agricultural practice and allows farmers to break out of their subsistence- farming practices and begin to earn income, which helps break the poverty cycle.
Fair Planet has worked directly with some 950 small-holder farmers, but, says Lev-Or, approximately 16,000 are now using hybrid seeds because news of their success spread widely by word of mouth. He adds that some farmers are reporting that the steady income provided by increased yields means they can now afford to send their children to school.
“It is sad that in 2018, our technology means that we have in Israel such an abundance of produce that 40% of it ends up in the trash, while there are people here for whom a tomato plant grows just five tomatoes,” he says. “Our goal is to bring and share this abundance and knowledge, and we can see the impact we’re having in helping take people out of the poverty cycle.”
Talking more broadly about the role of the Jewish state and the Jewish world in international development, Ginsburg, who was part of the delegation to Ethiopia, says that in recent years, a paradigm shift has taken place that might not be fully recognized, appreciated and internalized.
“Today’s Jewish community is blessed with unprecedented resources and is the most affluent ever,” she says. “We have a sovereign State of Israel, there are very few Jewish communities under repressive regimes, and many Jewish communities are very privileged and have power that is unprecedented in Jewish history – and with that comes a sense of responsibility.”
ISRAEL, FOR understandable reasons, has in recent years been something of a laggard in its budget for international development; even today, it allocates just 0.07% of its GDP toward its aid budget, one of the lowest in the OECD.
Ginsburg points out, however, that this was not always the case, and that many of the country’s founding figures such as David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin were ardent advocates for the Jewish state to provide assistance to developing countries, even at a time when Israel itself was akin to such nations, mired in wars with neighbors while absorbing large numbers of immigrants and facing food shortages.
It began fostering ties and providing assistance to numerous countries in Africa and South America through MASHAV, the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, established in 1958. It later became a leader in the field. But the Yom Kippur War in 1973 had a drastic effect on Israel’s ties to Africa in particular, with Arab countries pressuring numerous sub-Saharan nations to cut diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, a phenomenon that led in turn to Israel slashing its foreign aid budget.
That budget has never fully recovered, and a perspective took root that the country’s own requirements should take precedence over those of others.
Although its aid budget remains low, Ginsburg says the knowledge and expertise in different fields that Israel does provide is a uniquely valuable and critical contribution that is widely appreciated in African countries where Israeli and Jewish groups are present, and that “Israel’s added value to the field of international development is not measured in actual dollars.”
She remains hopeful that the government will begin to raise the funding it provides for international development.
Ginsburg also refers to what is often seen in Israel as a zero-sum game of budgetary allocations, and describes the Talmudic statement that “the poor of your city come first” as a “knee-jerk reaction” of Israelis to international development. She argues that this notion was never meant to exclude poor people farther afield, but rather to prioritize charitable giving, and says that helping developing countries is very much an important Jewish value.
She adds that investing in stronger ties in the developing world is not merely good for those in severe poverty, it helps Israel strategically, economically and politically.
“Part of what shifted 70 years ago when the state was established was that for the fist time since the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people had at its disposal engines of statecraft to do good on a broader scale,” she concludes. “We are doing a lot, and can do a lot more.”
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