Ethiopia’s aid freeze deepens human suffering
In the depths of despair, Romainesh Gebremedhen, a resilient 62-year-old mother of six, found herself thrust into a harrowing battle for survival. Fleeing the horrors of war that had consumed her village in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, she sought refuge amidst the unforgiving embrace of the forest three long years ago. Forced to abandon her home in Humera woreda, western Tigray, she sought solace within the walls of a modest school in Tenbien, where countless others displaced from western, northern, and southern Tigray had sought shelter.
As the war eventually drew to a close, the flickering flame of hope whispered promises of a return to normalcy.
Yet, for Romainesh and thousands of other internally displaced persons (IDPs), with estimates by regional officials nearing one million, that promise remained cruelly elusive. Their homelands, now under the control of informal armed forces from the neighboring Amhara region and occupying Eritrean troops, remained perilously out of reach.
But Romainesh’s plight transcended the bounds of mere displacement. A cruel twist of fate had left her teetering on the precipice of death, ravaged by illness and hunger.
“She is unable to move or speak,” says Gebremedhin Gebregziabher, a volunteer supervisor at the Tenbien IDP center. “There is no food or medicine for several months now. Only able IDPs bring some by begging. All the IDPs are in grave danger,” he said on Romainesh’s behalf, as she is too weak to speak from prolonged lack of nutrition and medical care.
The hunger crisis in Tigray has intensified following the suspension of humanitarian assistance nine months ago due to reported aid diversion, exacerbating food insecurity for IDPs like Romainesh without critical support.
To identify vulnerable individuals at risk of death, the Tigray Region Disaster Risk Management Commission conducted a comprehensive investigation covering 53 woredas, excluding the Erobe Zone under Eritrean occupation, in collaboration with CRS joint emergency operations, according to commission head Gebrehiwot Gebreegziabher (PhD).
According to the Tigray Health Center, a recent World Health Organization-standard scientific study revealed 1,329 people have died of hunger in the region following the discontinuation of food aid. The study covered nine woredas, 110 kebeles, five cities and 53 IDP centers.
Of the 6.13 million people in dire need of food across Tigray, 5.2 million received aid for three rounds since the ceasefire.
However, supplies ceased with the humanitarian agencies’ aid suspension. The federal government managed to provide 32,204 quintals of food to 1.2 million people over two phases, Gebrehiwot noted.
Across Ethiopia, over 7.3 million people find themselves in need of emergency food assistance, according to the federal Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC). The bulk reside in Tigray, Oromia and Amhara, where prolonged fighting has decimated harvests for years.
The relentless conflict in Oromia, spanning over four agonizing years, has pushed the number of people in dire need of emergency support to alarming heights.
Particularly in the western and southern parts of Oromia, the specter of hunger looms large as farmers are forced to forgo multiple cultivation seasons due to the ongoing clashes between government forces and the government-designated armed group known as OLF-Shene.
In Amhara, a fresh wave of conflict between government forces and the informal armed Fano forces has wreaked havoc on production and disrupted supply systems.
As international humanitarian organizations prolong their aid suspension, the fate of aid supply now rests precariously on the shoulders of the Ethiopian government. Notably, the World Food Programme (WFP) and USAID have been the principal providers of humanitarian aid in Ethiopia until their operations were halted.
In a turn of events, the Ethiopian government officially declared last week that it no longer holds hope for the resumption of aid supply by international humanitarian agencies. According to the officials, these agencies have set forth preconditions before they will consider resuming aid.
“They have asked us to allow them to directly supply aid to beneficiaries across Ethiopia. They asked we amend our policies and even alter our constitution to meet their requirements. We categorically reject such preconditions in our pursuit of aid,” emphasized Shiferaw Teklemariam (Amb.), commissioner of NDRMC, during an impassioned statement following his participation in the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) meeting.
Chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen, the Council convened all relevant stakeholders last week to deliberate on the urgent matter of humanitarian assistance in the country.
In a recent press conference, Legesse Tulu (PhD), the Minister of Ethiopian Government Communication Services, expressed concerns about certain international humanitarian institutions “placing their political needs as conditions on aid provision.” He emphasized that humanitarian aid should be provided solely based on the principle of assisting those in need, without any preconditions.
“Under no circumstances should aid be halted,” Legesse asserted.
Traditionally, in Ethiopia, humanitarian agencies provide aid to the Ethiopian government, which then utilizes its local administrative structure to distribute the aid to beneficiaries. However, humanitarian agencies have raised concerns about the government’s distribution system, citing widespread corruption.
Numerous reports have surfaced, indicating instances of aid diversion, where food, medicine, and cash transfers intended for assistance have been misappropriated by government officials at various levels, including regional and federal disaster risk management officials.
In response to these concerns, WFP and USAID have called for a shift in the aid supply and delivery system. They propose the use of biometric-based technologies to directly identify beneficiaries and deliver aid to them.
However, the Ethiopian government views these demands as a threat to national sovereignty.
“This violates our sovereignty. We do not change our policies and constitution to obtain aid,” affirmed Shiferaw.
Insiders familiar with the situation suggest that the government’s concerns about potential weapon smuggling by aid agencies, if given direct access to import and distribute food aid, are understandable. However, observers argue that the potential risks should not overshadow the urgent need to save millions of lives at stake.
With the rejection of the demands made by humanitarian agencies, the Ethiopian government is left with no alternative but to provide the necessary aid itself.
During the recent meeting, government officials revealed that a limited budget of nine billion birr has been allocated for humanitarian assistance in the current fiscal year. Out of this amount, eight billion birr has already been disbursed in the past quarter, leaving only one billion birr remaining. So far, the government has managed to distribute 798,607 tons of food aid to 3.6 million people in two rounds.
Cash amounting to 1.5 billion birr, collected from donors, has been disbursed to another 3.6 million people in desperate need of food. The cash is provided to individuals living in proximity to markets, enabling them to purchase food themselves.
The remaining government budget of one billion birr is woefully inadequate to meet the escalating humanitarian needs of the Ethiopian population. Consequently, the federal government has called upon regional states to contribute funds to support IDPs and those suffering from food insecurity within their respective regions.
Atalele Abuhay, senior public relations official at the National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC), told The Reporter that the government decided to allocate limited resources only for the vulnerable in Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia regional states.
“The federal government decided to intervene in these regions because they lack the resources to match the humanitarian crisis. The remaining regional states have been tasked with managing aid distribution using their own resources and capacities,” Atalele explained.
As the federal government focuses its limited resources on Tigray, Amhara, and Oromia, the other regional states are now faced with the challenge of devising their own strategies to enhance their capacity and address the pressing humanitarian needs within their borders.
While the government attempts to decentralize the responsibility for humanitarian assistance, a significant gap in the country’s aid supply persists. The withdrawal of international humanitarian organizations has left a void that the government alone is unable to fill.
Consequently, the lives of millions of IDPs living in temporary shelters for prolonged periods, as well as those affected by long-standing conflicts and drought, hang in the balance.
A recent report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), published on October 31, 2023, serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing and urgent humanitarian needs throughout Ethiopia. Climate events, conflicts, violence, and disease outbreaks have all contributed to the dire situation.
Notably, the Amhara and Tigray regions face drought-like conditions, further exacerbating the plight of millions of people in these areas.
Leading humanitarian organizations, including USAID, have recently agreed to resume aid supply for refugees in Ethiopia. However, the resumption of aid is limited to refugees and does not include internally displaced persons.
The rationale behind prioritizing refugees lies in the reduced involvement of the Ethiopian government in the administration of refugee support systems. Humanitarian organizations have observed that the more the government is involved in aid distribution, the higher the risk of aid diversion—a concern that arose due to previous large-scale incidents of misappropriation.
A glimmer of hope appeared on October 5, 2023, when USAID announced the resumption of food assistance for approximately one million refugees from Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and other countries. The decision to resume aid came after the Ethiopian government agreed to step back from the dispatch, storage, and distribution of refugee food supplies, the statement from USAID states.
The move is expected to save lives and provide relief to some of the most vulnerable individuals.
Both WFP and USAID have demanded accountability to address the issue of aid diversion. It is worth noting that the Ethiopian government is yet to announce culprits or actions taken against officials or individuals responsible for the previous aid diversion that contributed to the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
To ensure a smooth resumption of aid, several reforms have been implemented, as outlined in the statement. These reforms aim to strengthen program monitoring and oversight, enhance commodity tracking, and improve beneficiary registration processes.
However, despite these positive developments, challenges persist.
The Ethiopian government continues to grapple with depleted resources, and the number of people in need of assistance continues to rise. The occurrence of humanitarian catastrophes and an increase in hunger-related casualties seems inevitable.
Experts stress the urgency of ending the protracted conflicts in the country, which would allow IDPs to return to their homes and cultivate their own food. Alternatively, the government should reconsider preconditions set by aid agencies and provide them with unrestricted access to directly supply aid to those in need.