Eritrea: Promoting Self-Reliance

August 29, 2006

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    Mercy Corps distributed locally made, high-energy biscuits to 60,000 students per day, increasing school attendance and improving education. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps Photo:

From 2000 to mid-2006, Mercy Corps and its partners helped more than 900,000 Eritreans by increasing school enrollment, decreasing mother and child malnutrition, stimulating economic opportunities and ensuring greater access to safe, potable water.

Mercy Corps' relationship with Eritrea started in the mid-1980s, when the agency provided support to Eritrean refugees in Sudan. We opened an office in the capital city of Asmara in 2000, at the end of a costly border war with neighboring Ethiopia. Several years of drought and erratic rainfall further destabilized the economy, and by 2005 Eritrea ranked among the world's poorest 10 countries according to per capita GDP. Beginning in 2000, we carried out more than $40 million worth of assistance and development programs until we closed our operations at the request of the Government of Eritrea in June 2006.

During our tenure in Eritrea, Mercy Corps promoted self-reliance through programs in food and nutrition, agriculture, education, community mobilization and water and sanitation. Each program was integrated into the Kehil Initiative, a holistic approach to development in the regions where Mercy Corps operated. The word Kehil refers to the ability to face challenges and overcome obstacles in Tigre, the dominant language of the eastern lowlands of Eritrea.

Our education projects focused on building the capacity of parent-teacher associations, providing grants to school communities, distributing high-energy biscuits to encourage greater school attendance, and promoting education for girls. Working with the Ministry of Education, we assisted 90,000 students with 460 school-improvement grants worth over 10.2 million Nakfa (more than US$650,000), which also improved the capacity of Parent-Teacher Associations in 180 schools. We saw a more-than-30-percent increase in school enrollment as a result of distributing over 3,620 metric tons of high energy biscuits to 60,000 students in 130 schools.

Health & Nutrition
In the areas of health and nutrition, we increased health outcomes using a positive-deviance model, supported growth-monitoring promotion for children, distributed general food rations and promoted supplemental feeding programs for infants. Working with the Ministry of Health, we mobilized 30,000 community members and 420 community-based health workers to participate in nutrition activities that contributed to decreases in child and maternal malnutrition. The "hearth sessions" we held in five communities — a format by which mothers learn from mothers who model best practices — increased the share of mothers who exclusively breastfed children under 6 months from 57 to 77 percent.

Agriculture & Livelihood
To promote more productive agriculture and greater economic opportunities, we worked to improve crop production, support animal husbandry and restart coastal fisheries. Working with the Ministry of Agriculture, we helped increase vegetable production by farmers in two cooperatives by 143 percent. In our efforts to protect livestock, we achieved a 90 percent survival rate among 12,665 drought-affected animals in two sub-zones, and a 22.5 percent increase in veterinary service coverage by para-vets in four subzones.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Program
Our programs in water, sanitation and health focused on building the capacity of locally run water committees, improving water-delivery systems and facilitating the development of water vendor enterprises. Among our successes, we worked with the Water Resources Department to upgrade or install 26 water sources and distribute 46 water carts, resulting in access to safe and adequate water for more than 40,000 Eritreans.

At the culmination of our work, we handed over community profiles, Mercy Corps manuals and equipment to government ministries, local partners and the communities in which we worked.