The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is scrambling to ramp up safeguards to ensure vulnerable Ethiopians continue receiving emergency rations, after suspending food distributions nationwide over revelations of widespread aid diversion.
While halting general food aid, WFP says it will maintain nutrition programs targeting malnourished children, pregnant women and the acutely hungry. School feeding programs and livelihood initiatives will also continue, the UN body said.
The move follows a USAID investigation that reportedly uncovered “extensive official complicity” in the theft of bags of US–donated wheat stamped with aid agencies’ logos, even as Ethiopians starved.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has praised Ethiopia’s promise to investigate and hold officials accountable for coordinating schemes to divert food from millions of hungry citizens.
But the aid suspension threatens to exacerbate hunger for Ethiopia’s 20 million food insecure, putting pressure on WFP to quickly implement new anti-diversion measures.
The aid agency’s temporary halt of general rations will allow time to strengthen controls while minimizing disruption for children, nursing mothers and malnourished families who rely on its nutrition programs.
A new action plan includes working directly with communities, leveraging technology to verify aid recipients and improving oversight.
“Food diversion is absolutely unacceptable and we welcome the Government of Ethiopia’s commitment to investigate and hold accountable those responsible,” said McCain.
“To reach the most vulnerable unimpeded requires implementing robust measures with local partners,” says WFP chief added.
Currently, over a third of Ethiopia’s 120 million citizens require humanitarian assistance due to the impacts of drought, conflict and inflation. For millions on the brink of famine, the success or failure of WFP’s food relief effort now hangs in the balance.
“We are in trouble…the international community should not turn a deaf ear to our problem,” said Gebremedhin Gebregziabher, who currently lives in an Internally Displaced Persons’ Camp in Tembien town after being displaced from Qafta Woreda, Humera.
“Our first concern is the millions of hungry people who depend on our support, and our teams will work tirelessly with all partners to resume our operations as soon as we can ensure that food reaches the people who need it the most,” the WFP chief added.
The suspension comes amid reports that flour from donated wheat was being exported even as Ethiopians starved, with mill managers openly purchasing bags stamped with U.S. aid logos. The alleged theft implicates officials at federal and regional levels who coordinated efforts to divert assistance from those most in need.