Ethiopia: Food aid suspension amid forgotten investigation

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On May 3, 2023, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Food Programme (WFP) suspended food aid distribution to Ethiopia’s Tigray region due to suspicions of significant aid diversion. The suspension was initiated while an investigation was launched to ascertain the extent of the problem. In June 2023, the suspension was further expanded to encompass the entire country as both organizations claimed systematic and coordinated effort to divert food assistance from aid recipients in Ethiopia.

Latest accusation stood-out, as diversion of food aid was attributed to the Government of Ethiopia (GoE), including military actors at both federal and regional levels, according to the USAID. Previous allegation of aid diversion had mostly rested on combatants of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The Humanitarian Resilience Development Donor Group, which received briefings from USAID, pointed out that the diversion seemed to be organized by government entities at both federal and regional (Tigray) levels, with military units across the country benefitting from humanitarian assistance.

USAID and WFP suspend activities until a full investigation was completed. A report by Abren described conditions for resumption of aid. Following this announcement, an opaque agreement to investigate was set out by the aid agencies, the GoE, as well as the Interim Tigray regional administration.

The latter of the three declared a hastily put together report, in which, “five entities, the Eritrean government, the Ethiopian federal government, the Tigray regional authorities, the coordinators of the displaced persons camps and humanitarian workers, all took part” __ in aid siphoning. Likewise, General Fiseha added, “seven of 186 suspects have already been incarcerated” The speed with which authorities in Tigray made this determination raised suspicion about the merit and methodology of their investigation.

For Ethiopia, a country already grappling with food insecurity due to a two-year conflict, the suspension of food aid by international organizations is harmful. Some have questioned the wisdom of the decision, which invariably makes things worse for those in need. Spokesperson for the Minstry of Foreign Affairs, Meles Alem asks, “would it have been wiser to condemn and thoroughly investigate allegations while maintaining steady aid operations?” This is certainly what the GoE would have preferred.

None of this came as surprise to most in Ethiopia. Food aid diversion by armed combatants and corrupt government officials is reminiscent of the 1984 famine relief campaign, in which external humanitarian aid was diverted by the TPLF, and according to a report by the BBC, resold in international markets via Sudan, earning the group needed cash to sustain the insurgency. The extent to which Western relief coordinators had known about these tactics is less known. To a lesser extent, senior officials of the Ethiopian government at the time were also implicated in aid diversion. A 2015 report by spine highlighted these events.

Granted, food aid in Ethiopia has a long politicized and even toxic history. It is an endemic feature, that never really goes away. For instance, it was extensively and systematically weaponized during the Meles Zenawi era, a fact that many in the West largely ignored, much less investigate.  In 2010, a rare report by Human Rights Watch stated, “humanitarian aid in Ethiopia has been withheld from those opposed to the government.”

Donor aid in Ethiopia has been at the center of politics and corruption. Aid dependency in general tends to promote embezzlement. It’s hard to be accountable to something you received for free. Moreover, it is something the aid agencies have been keenly aware of for decades.

Recently particular emphasis has given to expanding cluster irrigated farming to boost agricultural productivity in Ethiopia, but key inputs like fertilizer remain a challenge

At the Africa Leadership Excellence seminar in Addis Ababa, bureaucrats bemoaned continued aid dependency. One official from the Ministry Water and Irrigation, who asked to remain unanimous said, “the last few years have made it clear to many in Ethiopia, that food aid is a liability.” She adds, ‘not only because dependency makes our diplomacy vulnerable to blackmail, but also because aid has corrosive effects on our food ecosystem and is a vector of more corruption’.

Increased visibility on the mechanisms of humanitarian aid in Ethiopia, particularly in conflict zones has affected aid agencies, the government, and even rebels’ groups to be relatively wearier. Exposure to embarrassing diversion schemes on social media has raised the stakes for more command and control of distribution. For a long time, international aid agencies operating in Ethiopia were shielded from criticism, highlighting their importance, international clout, and the various donors that sponsor them.

During the recent war in northern Ethiopia, besides the diversion tactics of entities mentioned earlier, there was complicity on the part of some senior senior WFP officials. A report by Abren discussed the matter, which was first made public in account given by The New Humanitarian. These controversies were damaging and conveniently ignored by the mainstream media.

The most recent suspension of aid may have been a genuine attempt by USAID and WFP to clean up the swamp, identify areas of concern and remove bad actors. But to date, there has been no progress report about said scrutiny, to be conducted alongside the GoE. On the contrary, the most recent July 26, 2023 report published on Reliefweb is about the reputational risk of aid suspension on the aid agencies. The study was based on Ethiopian social media public sentiment data, mostly collected on Facebook. Its conclusion is summed up in the title, “USAID, and WFP Decision to Suspend Food Aid Blamed on Ethiopian Government”.

According to the research shared by Reliefweb, ‘among Amharic-speaker in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian government institutions and actors were held responsible for the suspension of food aid.’ The reasons behind this sentiment range from political anti-government feelings to religious or ethnic grievances. In the Somali region, Facebook users expressed support for the aid suspension, but it does not seem to have been driven by animosity towards international aid organizations. However, the report does not include data related to the sentiments of other communities.

While reading the report, it is hard not to notice the overarching concern for optics rather than actual root causes. Data collection assessing response in specific ethnic demographics is uncanny to say the least, and a reminder how food aid continues to be propagandized. It betrays original hype revolving around the aid diversion enquiry, which seems to have vanished. Nearly two months into freezing of aid, the toll on human life is only getting worse. A recent report by AP says hundreds of hunger deaths have followed since the suspension of aid. Deferring the investigation and not providing an update now is tantamount of playing games with human life.

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