The Razor’s Edge: Embezzlement, Corruption and Development in Ethiopia, a Novel (2022)

For anyone interested in learning what development work overseas entails and what work is like, there may be no better introduction than Robert Gurevich’s novel, The Razor’s Edge.  Thinly modeled on his own experiences in Africa, with his protagonist, writing in the first person, caught between the US Government’s Agency for International Development (USAID) and non-governmental organization work, primarily in basic education for kids.  The book follows the adventures of a westerner hired to lead an NGO’s (KAP) education program of schools, collaborating with parent-teacher associations, and building on models that have worked.

One reviewer on Amazon agrees:  “Any development worker contemplating taking a senior foreign posting, especially with an NGO, on a government-funded education project could benefit from reading this book.” The 2002 story is an easy read at 298 pages, with the subtitle “Embezzlement, Corruption and Development in Ethiopia, a Novel”. 

He starts the book as the new project director of a USAID-overseen project supporting 2,500 primary schools in Ethiopia.  The journey of the protagonist has formed experiences at each stage of his project work, from being proposed to USAID through to meeting staff, implementation, accounting, responding to evaluations of his program, and controversies that have arisen over the years which include observing staff turnover and allegations of fraud.  The author repeatedly debates how to interact with USAID – the main funder — regarding his choices, presentations, and reporting USAID is likely to accept or reject.  Though budgets are not discussed, key realities of development programs are milestones, timelines, and scaling.

Hunger and malnutrition enter the plot when there is a poor harvest, to which the NGO and their donors respond with school feeding. School feeding has been a large part of aid programming for decades, particularly as an incentive for girls to attend school.  Late in the book, Ethiopia suffers a drought, for which USAID provides new resources to KAP (“a large emergency grant”) to support school feeding programs to encourage children to continue attending school, help them have the strength to travel to school and nutrition to help pay attention and learn in the classroom. The protagonist observes USAID efficiently sought to “utilize an already existing project for addressing this emergency quickly.

In the telling, hot, cooked meals (i.e., “wet food”) were provided. “With wet food, we know for sure that the food is consumed by the child and not taken by an older family member at home.  By eating the meal at school , this makes all the children continue to attend.”

Other insights about the challenges of aid work appear in each chapter, such as “the major problem has been the use of cash payments to schools, along with lax scrutiny.  I am recommending each beneficiary school be required to open an account with the nearest bank, credit union… into which project funds can be deposited.”

Two choices families face are:  “For children to continue their schooling beyond the four grades offered in the village school, they would need to move to a town with a primary school offering eight grades, and, later, a secondary school.  These children would need to live with someone.” or “Parents need the labor of children during certain times of year, keeping them out of school at these times. But when the children fall behind their classmates, they become embarrassed and drop out.”

The author is an anthropologist, specializing in education, working in consultancies for USAID and the Peace Corps, Chairman and Member of the Board of Directors for the USAID-funded Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program. Among other technical achievements, in 2015 he evaluated the USG’s education portfolio in Yemen.

In his way, Gurevich pays homage to the 1944 novel of the same name by Somerset Maugham where the protagonist, also, travels far and wide seeking to discover transcendent liberation from human suffering.  It took its title from the ancient Upanishads verse “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus, the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”

“Love and Liberation” Captures Voices of Local Aid Workers in Famine Zone

Lauren Carruth’s important 2021 book, Love and Liberation – Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press) fills a gap in the literature about aid programs by listening to the perspectives of those personnel delivering aid on the front-lines who are not expatriates, but locals, who, by the way, represent the majority of staff for all aid agencies everywhere.  In doing so she discusses alternate ways of understanding crises, what “localization” actually means, inequalities in local labor hierarchies.

Carruth, a Professor at American University in Washington, DC, explores the reasons why the eastern region of Ethiopia is repeatedly beset by food crises that have compelled substantial amounts of food and health assistance by the World Food Programme, Save the Children, UNICEF and other aid organizations for decades.  This cyclical nature of the relief industry plays out in other countries as well.  An anthropologist, Dr. Carruth suggests a typology for places and peoples who suffer repeat or perpetual food insecurity.

The author’s interviews cover not only the conditions driving food insecurity, but the emotional lives of the local aid workers who are passionate about their work and emotional about the problems they see firsthand.  As she says “Drivers, logistics managers, translators, data collectors, researchers and field monitors and the like were all necessary to aid operations because, essentially, they make projects happen.”   She compares the expectations and experiences of locals working with the UN, with Non-governmental Organizations, and the Ethiopian government.  The book returns often to this theme:  “the global humanitarian industry depends on ample supplies of cheap, temporary, flexible and expendable labor from the localities where it intervenes — ironically to proffer a narrative of improving the lives of locals.”  She gives voices to the 95% of humanitarian personnel who are from the countries and communities in crisis.

Dr. Carruth’s focus is the Somali region in the northeast of Ethiopia, not the also-disaster-prone central and northern regions of Ethiopia or the recent warzone in Tigray.  The northeast region, past Jijiga is arid lowlands where many populations are pastoral herders, moving around, posing challenges for aid agencies to reach.  Drivers of conflict, the author explains, include both drought and inter-communal conflict.  The research for this book occurred during a confluence of these hazards:  “By July 2018, as I was conducting research for this book, there were over one million persons internally displaced in eastern Ethiopia, newly settled into makeshift camps and informal settlements near Jijiga and Dire Dawa and all along the Oromia-Somali regional boundaries.”

An example of the type of work the book draws on are mobile health and nutrition teams.  “Mobile teams have been active in the [East Ethiopian] Somali Region since 2005 during a measles and polio outbreak.  Most mobile teams are designed to provide vaccinations, a few essential medications, water treatment equipment referrals to higher medical facilities, supplies of ready-to-eat fortified BP-5 biscuits and therapeutic Plumpy’Nut peanut paste…  Typically communities qualify for mobile team visits based on local rates of acute malnutrition in children under five years or reported outbreaks of infectious disease in the local population… but ..most humanitarian relief targeted the lives and health of young children and their mothers and not the entire community.”

While describing the “affable characters” whom the author finds in the local humanitarian outreach, Dr. Carruth also documents the reciprocal exchange networks  by which the population copes, including trade over long distances.  For instance:

  •        “The decentralization of relief work with its focus on training and hiring ever more local staff and deploying them throughout the region — often on mobile dynamic projects — requires hospitality on the part of hosting family members, friends and recipient communities.  Hospitality is therefore necessary to accomplish the logistics and travel humanitarian interventions require.”
  •    Local staff are compensated in a range of ways.  For instance, “Food for work, training workshops in midwifery and similar interventions organized through governmental and UN relief programs are almost free gifts and …humanitarian handouts.”

Carruth does an admirable job describing the tensions between short-term relief (band aids) and longer-term systemic problems.  So many locals in Ethiopia have been saturated with surveys by NGOs who also promise assistance that doesn’t come.

She describes how local aid workers who are indispensable feel, nevertheless, that they are invisible. “The humanitarian industry continues to rely on the willingness of locals to accept temporary, precarious and flexible contracts, informal labor arrangements and small salaries and per diems [reimbursements] for less money than either Amharic-speaking Ethiopians or expatriates occasionally flying into the Somali [eastern] Region.  The informality of the aid work so often performed by locals and the popularity of tropes about the heroic local aid worker also leave unquestioned the consideration in which their labor takes place, and leave unquestioned the fact that it is often performed in unacceptable conditions with no benefits and no legal rights or recourse for workers’ emotional well-being, abuse, exploitation or injury.”

At 169 pages this book is readable, timely and relevant to anyone interested in how actual humanitarian work unfolds, telling a very neglected part of the story.

To follow the author’s research, see:

For further information about food insecurity in eastern Ethiopia, see:


reviewed by Steven Hansch, WHES board

The Gap in Funding for Programs to Stop Hunger

The nonprofit, Action Against Hunger, February 22, 2023 released their global report “2023 Hunger Funding Gap Report — What’s Needed to Stop the Global Hunger Crisis.”

It reports that hunger is higher today than any time in recent decades, and that 50 million people are on the verge of famine.  The hungriest countries, it says, are Afghanistan, CAR, DRC, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan.  Conflict, climate and inflation are drivers of increased hunger.

  • Action Against Hunger observes that as hunger increases, funding to fight hunger has decreased (as a percentage of appeals).   “The world already has enough resources to meet the UN Global Goal of Zero Hunger by
    2030. It would take $4 billion to fully fund the hunger-related appeals of the 13 countries in this report.  … the world can’t afford to wait — particularly in the hunger hotspots featured in this report.”

In preparing the report, AAH reviewed UN humanitarian response plans, refugee response plans, flash appeals and the FAO’s Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system.

The report can be accessed or downloaded here.


-S Hansch, WHES Director

U.S. Anti-Hunger Efforts Reflected by Congressional Hunger Center

On February 22, the Congressional Hunger Center hosted a gathering of 50 staff and Hunger Fellows to look at their achievements over the decades in addressing hunger in the United States.   A key topic was success in promoting local legislation to provide free meals in schools, and to build the momentum for free meals to be universal.  Successful messages included “hungry children can’t learn” as well as fighting stigma and helping children access the bounty of locally produced foods.

This webcast can be viewed at the CHC site.

The Congressional Hunger Center, based in Washington, DC, sponsors Hunger Fellows to be posted with a wide range of organizations involved in policy, research, advocacy, education and outreach.  Founded in 1993, it has trained and supported hundreds of Fellows around the U.S. and around the world.


Reviewed by Steve Hansch

Niger and Sahel use Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration Increase Yields to Improve Food Security

As described in this recent National Geographic article (see link below), farmers in Niger let cut trees regrow in their fields, leading to improved crop yields from retained soil moisture and fertilization by fallen leaves. Improved crop yields can improve food security.

Over the past 35 years Niger has added at least 200 million new indigenous trees and has re-established woodlands over at least 12 million acres, a bit less than the size of the state of West Virginia.

Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration to Increase Crop Yields, or FMNR, is an old approach that is receiving new attention from local farmers and is effective because it is cheap, it can be scaled easily and it meets individual farmers’ needs.

This FMNR approach can be scaled in the Sahel region and other pastoralist zones throughout Africa and on other continents where rainfall is decreasing.  The US Geological Service has verified these changes.  Click this link for the full story:

USAID Administrator Power discusses food insecurity with colleagues

At a meeting held July 18, 2022, sponsored by the think tank, CSIS, USAID Administrator Samantha Power and a panel of specialists discuss the current global food insecurity crisis, noting how it has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, climate warming, violent conflict, and the interruption of Ukraine food shipments associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in 2022.
Estimates of 276 million additional people have become food insecure globally because of these events, and these conditions are likely to worsen until the Ukraine war ends.   Samantha Power’s speech begins at around the 18 minute mark. 
click on this link for the archived video feed:

Resilience Book Review: Ending Hunger – The Quest to Feed the World without Destroying It

Anthony Warner’s 2022 book “Ending Hunger – the Quest to Feed the World Without Destroying it” (Oneworld Press) attempts to challenge the myths he sees in social discourse in developed countries about how to address world food problems.  Based on his popular blog “the Angry Chef”, he tries to replace pseudoscience with good science, along the way quoting credible scholars including Norman Borlaug.  For instance, he debunks the notion that eating organic foods helps address poverty or protects the environment.   He’s also skeptical of the health arguments for “paleo” diets.

Earlier in the book he retraces human history and the transition from hunter-gathering societies to agriculture, and then on to the green revolution of the 1960s.    Critical to human population growth was the shift to food crops that could be stored between seasons, namely wheat, barley, lentils, potatoes and rice.  He asserts that the reduction in malnutrition and hunger around the world during the past century is one of the most important achievements of humanity.

Ending Hunger looks at both how individual consumption can make a difference as well as how global solutions need to evolve.   Warner recommends that people shift to diets that rely less on animal products.  He believes that Animal product consumption accounts for almost 15% of greenhouse emissions and growing fast, set to double by 2040 by current trends.  He recommends shifting diets toward lentils, pulses, chickpeas and other plant-based foods.   He said that “We have to get away from the social notion that one has to have some meat at the center of every meal, and instead recognize how plant-based products can be delicious.”  Furthermore, he recommends a more open attitude toward genetic modification of foods, which can improve yields and nutrient density.

Warner warns that  current “agriculture is putting a strain upon the air, the land, the water, the soil and every creature on Earth. The production of food has more negative impacts upon the planet than any other human activity.”  Based on this he argues there is a pressing need for change, with government intervention in agriculture systems.  Organic farming, he writes, takes up too much land and there has been too much deforestation.  “On pretty much every single metric of environmental impact, you’re worse off using organic farming,” he writes.

Warner wrote previous books, such as “The Angry Chef:  Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating” 2017.

Interviews with the author can be found online, such as this from July 2022  —


-Reviewed by Steve Hansch

Hunger in Niger

Niger is one of the countries within the Sahel region on the southern border of the great Sahara Desert in West Africa.  Niger rests directly north of Nigeria, and is home to over 24 million people.  As the country enters April which this year is the month of Ramadan, it is sobering to observe the current food security conditions in-country.

Niger is bounded by neighboring countries that suffer from Islamist attacks and recent coups. Niger’s rainy and cropping season runs from roughly May-October, and Niger it entering its lean season.  This is before the annual harvest at the end of the rains, in October/November 2022. An estimated 4.4 million Nigeriens will be food insecure between June-August 2022 (according to the Cadre Harmonise monitoring system) and the number of food insecure individuals is estimated to be roughly double the numbers seen in 2021.  These critical numbers are expected to worsen in the coming months, as the war in Ukraine has already affected world grain supplies, resulting in higher basic food prices within Niger, as well as increases in prices of, fuel and fertilizer which are expected to rise significantly in the coming months.

Malnutrition rates in Niger have not improved significantly in the last ten years and acute malnutrition remains at approximately 10% of children under the age of five.  International aid agencies have been responding, including CARE and Catholic Relief Services which are in the middle of five year food and nutrition programs, funded by USAID, in Maradi and Zinder regions, respectively.  The World Food Programme has piloted vulnerable adolescent girls with folic acid, iron and school meals, with the finding of significantly increased retention and graduation from schools.  The European Union also provides food and humanitarian assistance to Niger.

Niger also hosts over 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees or other uprooted people, and these populations are also food insecure.  Niger’s national cereal production for 2021 of ~3.5 million MT decreased by 40% from the previous 5-year average, food prices for its staples of millet, sorghum and maize have so far all increased by ~15% from the previous 5-year average, and are expected to further increase in the coming months as Niger’s lean season progresses. The food supply, combined with low forage supplies for livestock and continued physical insecurity due to Islamist attacks and threats all paint a very challenging picture for the Niger Government and its international partners to respond to these domestic food and physical security needs.   The nonprofit Action Contre la Faim, or Action Against Hunger in the U.S., provides nutrition, health and water in southwest and southeast Niger.

Compared to its neighbors, Niger is an island of relative stability due to successful elections last year and a relatively lower Islamist threat than the neighboring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso, though conditions can quickly change.  Niger’s continuing food security challenges are similar to hunger challenges throughout the entire Sahel region.  Climate change adds to these continuing challenges, linked to land degradation, water access, lower and inconsistent rainfall, high human fertility rates, and low literacy rates, especially for women.  Niger remains resilient, but this relatively small country and region, a continent away from Ukraine and eastern Europe, show the far-reaching global effects that current conflict will have on both rich and poor countries, especially those that rely on imported food, fuel and fertilizer to mitigate national food insecurity.

Cadre Harmonise


Assistance to Press Freedom can Fight Famine

 “in the terrible history of famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press” 

                    – Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate and author of Poverty and Famines

On November 4, 2021  USAID announced new funding in support of a fund for protection of journalists, a step toward improving freedom of the press in poorer countries.  USAID Administrator Samantha Power, who began her career as a journalist, announced that the Biden administration was setting up a Global Defamation Defense Fund in her presentation at Georgetown University.  This initiative follows the precedent set by the UK Government in 2019, when then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt set up the “Global Media Defense Fund” co-funded at the time by Britain and Canada.  This fund is managed by UNESCO ( ) .  Among other things, this fund has been providing local financing to national organizations “supporting investigative journalism that contributes to reduced impunity for crimes against journalists, and enhancing the safety of those conducting this line of work.”

The Georgetown event was co-hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, and referenced at:



Locusts Add to World Hunger in Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia 2021

Original Contribution by Sharmin Sultana

Seeing a locust, one cannot imagine that a harmless member of the grasshopper family can become one of the world’s most devastating pests.  Yet, in 2020, within just a few months locust swarms destroyed more than 1.2 million hectares (ha) of crops and pasture in a region where people were already hit by droughts, floods and conflict. In general locusts swarm in different parts of the world.  However, since mid-2019 they have been active across the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa, pushing more than 20 million people at risk of hunger.

Around 23 countries: 9 in East Africa, 11 in North Africa/Middle East and 3 in South Asia have been affected by locusts and face  an unusual threat to food security and livelihoods according to a World Bank report. The UN Sustainable Development Goals list locusts as one of four threats to world food systems.  An adult locust eats roughly 2 grams of food daily. As a result, a large swarm eats enough food for 81 million people, equivalent to 1.8 million metric tons (MTs) of green vegetables.

According to reports by international aid agencies, the most recent locust swarms (2019–2021) caused 356,286 MTs of cereal loss along with wasting 197,163 ha of cropland and 1,350,000 ha of pasture-lands in Ethiopia alone. As a result of this one million Ethiopians required food assistance due specifically to damage from locusts, prior to the start of its civil war in late 2020. Around 20.2 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, and the United Republic of Tanzania faced severe acute food insecurity, exacerbated by these locust infestations.

These locust swarms  formed in the regions of East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Indian subcontinent.  According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), these swarms were the worst plague in Kenya in 70 years; in India in 26 years; and in Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years. They spread throughout counties within Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, Eritrea, India, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Usually, the reason for the quick spread of the swarms from one country to another is wind patterns. In this case, southeast monsoons blew in from the Indian Ocean to Kenya and carried the locust swarms to other countries. Specifically, Cyclone Mekunu in 2018 and the warm weather after heavy rains are thought to be the reasons for this particular outbreak.

Previous locust outbreaks in Africa from 2003-2005 led to an estimated $2.5 billion in crop damage. Depending on the cultivating seasons, they can destroy from 50 to 80% of crops. The potential hunger threat is huge in a region where millions of people are already facing chronic food insecurity. The impacts could threaten livelihoods, savings, and push vulnerable people further into poverty.

Typically, locusts are solitary pests.  However, in special environments, they become gregarious. The serotonin hormone in their brains is responsible for this transformation.  This transformation changes not only their body color and size, but also their behavior.  As a result, they congregate in groups instead of staying solitary.  This is how they enter the swarming phase, where they become migratory, traveling from one place to another and consuming huge amounts of crops on their way.

Locusts thrive after heavy rainfall and an abundance of vegetation.  Locusts breed after rainfall because they need moist soil to lay their eggs and an abundance of food for rapid growth. Even a small swarm of one square kilometer  holds 80 million locusts and eats the equivalent of enough food for 35,000 people in one day.  The swarms in east Africa in 2020 may have included a trillion locusts by some estimates.

Types of Locusts

Different parts of the world have different species of locusts. The desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) is considered the most dangerous of all migratory pests because of its ability to reproduce quickly and destroy crops, pasture, and fodder.  They are found in more than 65 countries of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Migratory locusts become swarms in Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.  In the 1930s, the High Plains locust was found in the American Midwest but is rare now.  The Rocky Mountain locust was once one of the worst insect pests but it became extinct in 1902.  Thus, North America and Antarctica do not have any locust species. The Senegalese grasshopper and the African rice grasshopper often show locust-like behavior.

History of major infestations

In the last two millennia desert and migratory locusts continued to appear at irregular intervals as outbreaks in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe and destroyed crops and caused famines which led to human migrations

In Kenya, one of the largest swarms was recorded to cover 10,000 square kilometers. According to the Bible and the Koran, humans were victims of  locust swarms that appeared from nowhere to darken the skies. Though the swarming behavior decreased by the 20th century, swarm formations can still be present.

In 1988, swarms originating in North Africa traveled to the Caribbean and South America, and amazingly crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Locusts easily move across countries in a matter of days. They routinely cross the Red Sea, which is a distance of almost 200 miles.

Challenges in control measures

  • Not having enough aircraft to spray appropriate chemicals on the pests.
  • Problems in maintaining supplies of these chemicals and pesticides.
  • Political instability: for instance, ongoing war has made Yemen or Ethiopia increasingly inaccessible to humanitarian assistance, which has slowed down outbreak response; furthermore, Yemen does not have funds for specially trained crews to spray pesticides that kill the insects.
  • Natural disasters make the breeding areas difficult to access.
  • Unpredictability in movement makes it harder to maintain funding, political will, and capacity building initiatives.
  • Lack of coordination in the efforts of neighboring countries.
  • Large logistical requirements to combat an infestation over a vast area; moreover, due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, supply chains have been hampered.

What can aid agencies do in response?

  • Forecasting is the best preparation for future locust swarms. Forecasting weather variations, wind speed and direction, temperature, and humidity can help to determine the movement of locusts and gives farmers time to start spraying early. Also forecasting can predict regions that are likely to suffer from locust plagues in the near future. Tracking locust migration patterns and overseeing regional response efforts are necessary. Using modern technologies including tools such as GPS (global positioning systems), GIS (geographic information systems) and satellite imagery for forecasting and tracking is part of a vital response to this threat.
  • The most effective way to fight outbreaks is using chemical insecticides, which can be distributed using packs on the ground, or by aircraft. However, the substances used can be harmful to the environment and to human health.
  • Biological pesticides are another option. Fungus-based pesticides are thought to be harmful to a much narrower range of species. However, bio-pesticides do not work as quickly as chemical sprays, and this threatens greater crop damage.
  • Drones and electrified metal grids can be used to control locust swarms. Drones can help spray chemicals and provide surveillance. Electric grids can be dragged over fields to generate vibrations in open fields to kill and deflect the insects.
  • Changing agricultural practices may also be effective. Instead of relying on traditional crops like maize and cowpeas, investing in fruit and vegetables can deter locusts. An initiative taken by village irrigation projects of Action Aid Kenya in 2009, in partnership with selected farmers, is one example.
  • Locusts are edible and have been eaten throughout history, and may be consumed as food. Locusts are eaten in the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. In Saudi Arabia, the consumption of locust spikes around Ramadan since those are believed to be healthy. Some popular ways of eating locusts are fried, smoked, or dried. However, the use of pesticides can make them unsafe.

Climate change, sea-level rise, and cyclones can all bring extreme rainfall, which enables locusts to hatch and breed.  For example, in the Arabian Peninsula, a heavy rain produced higher vegetation growth which then triggered locusts. Locusts are also highly adaptive to heat and drought. Deforestation and environmental degradation can also create ideal conditions for more locusts to breed. If we want to save ourselves from locust swarm attacks, we have to pay attention to our environment. Failing to tackle the climate crisis might cause more frequent and devastating locust outbreaks, and may result in more hunger and food insecurity.  Hunger and food insecurity are key barriers to sustainable development. Therefore better control of locust destruction of food crops is essential if we are to achieve the status of Zero Hunger (i.e. the second UN Sustainable Development Goal).

  Sharmin Sultana is a public health communication professional with an MPH in community nutrition.  She has been a USAID fellow and has worked in nutrition, food security and social and behavior change communication projects in Bangladesh.