Monday, May 20, 2024
Interview“The world has changed. The aid is less.”

“The world has changed. The aid is less.”

  • UN rep calls for private sector involvement in humanitarian programmes

The past few years have been hectic for humanitarian agencies and workers in Ethiopia on the frontlines of a pandemic, droughts, floods, and war.  But aid partners are increasingly strapped for cash, hampering their crucial operations and endangering the lives of millions still in desperate need of help across the country.

Still-reverberating economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, and an increasingly polarized world are choking off humanitarian funding for countries like Ethiopia. The UN says it only raised a third of the USD four billion it required to assist millions of Ethiopians in need in 2023. The organization needs USD 3.2 billion this year.

The funding shortfalls and changing economic and political landscapes require a new, innovative approach to humanitarian response, says Ramiz Alakbarov (MD, PhD), UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Ethiopia.

Alakbarov was a physician in his native Azerbaijan before embarking on a three-decade career in policy making and humanitarian response. He has since served in different capacities at various UN agencies, including as UNFPA programme officer covering Sudan and Somalia, and a humanitarian officer in Afghanistan and Palestine. He was appointed to his post in Ethiopia last August.

The Reporter’s Samuel Bogale sat down with him for an update on humanitarian response efforts in Ethiopia, as well as his take on the future of humanitarian assistance programmes and funding.

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The Reporter: There are many problems in Ethiopia and it must be difficult for humanitarian agencies working to prevent them. What are your observations?

Alakbarov: I found out that we have a very mixed situation in this country. You have some areas which are affected by pockets of conflict, by protracted droughts, floods and mixtures of climate shocks. Because of the combination of these factors, including the COVID-19 global economic downturn, I would say it creates a considerable level of humanitarian burden. You also have a considerable level of development work going out throughout the country as well. It’s a large country.

Do I find working here more difficult compared to other places where I was? I don’t think so. In terms of humanitarian work, definitely not complex. It is a difficult situation, and the major difficulty we are experiencing right now is related to the fact that we don’t have resources. In the 2023 humanitarian appeal, we received about 35 percent of the total funding needs in the country.

Obviously we have a global economic downturn, we have the Gaza situation, we have Ukraine, and in general there is overall less availability of resources. We are facing an acute shortage of resources. For this year, the needs are around USD 3 billion, but we are now asking for USD 1 billion in a prioritized request to address the effects of climate change and particularly the drought in parts of Tigray, Amhara, and Afar, where we need it specifically focused. But it isn’t only in those areas; it is actually throughout the country. On April 16, we have an event in Geneva where we will be asking for these resources. The key issue for us at the moment is the availability of resources or lack of it.

How does the UN prioritize its operations in Ethiopia?

It is absolutely clear that for us to move forward, we need to address the root causes of the problems. The root causes of the problems are lack of inclusive and sustainable development in all areas. The priority is to focus on the root causes of the humanitarian needs and to eliminate those needs by creating durable solutions. That means focusing on developing agro food systems. We need to have quality agricultural inputs, which are seeds, fertilizers, tools and machinery required for the farmers to do their work, and make sure that these people can produce enough and link these people to the markets by creating a value chain. Right now, we are importing some nutrients and things like baby formula and baby milk from other countries. We need to find a solution to produce them here.

I will give you very simple solutions on how we need to refocus. In the areas where we are doing water tracking, we will need to prepare water wells. Then we make sure that these water wells are using solar power and have sustainable supply of water to the communities as well as to the hospitals. In the areas where we do distribution of food, we should organize ourselves better to start local production of food. That means backyard gardening, rearing poultry, and development of climate adaptation technologies. This is the way forward for climate adaptation. Of course, it cannot happen in one night.

The problems in Ethiopia are not limited to climate change and natural disasters; peace is deteriorating and there are many man-made catastrophes. What solutions do you suggest for these problems?

First of all, I would like to recognize and welcome all efforts on building peace in the country. The role of the UN in the peace processes is to offer a peace dividend. That is directly related to our projects, which are implemented with support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and some other partners. We support programmes such as the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) for ex-combatants. We have another one, a peace support programme for northern Ethiopia covering Tigray, Amhar and Afar to create livelihoods, to create jobs, to provide people with alternative opportunities.

Those who take up arms, they often do so because they lack economic opportunity. They lack development opportunities. So we are working on that. This initiative being implemented in the north is one example of what we are doing. Another one is our recent support again in Tigray to the democratization and local governance improvement, in terms of how to support the ongoing process to make local governance structures more professional and better able to offer better services to the people. Those things are the contribution we can bring as the UN office in Ethiopia to the table, in support of fundamentally the national and African Union driven processes.

The UN is often accused of being late to resolve problems. Do you believe the UN is doing enough to push conflicting parties in Ethiopia to the negotiating table?

I believe that we have been extremely clear about where we stand regarding peace. Peace is an absolute must. Peace is the prime responsibility of all of those who have a stake in the process. When it comes to our ability, it is an African Union led process. It is a government of Ethiopia and a nationally driven process. Our role is to provide a peace dividend, and in that we have mobilized ourselves to the extent possible.

Our ability to leverage more, let’s say, to demobilize more ex-combatants and do it quicker, directly depends on availability of the resources. We cannot do it by ourselves and we’re trying to be innovative to find the solutions where we can connect people to the existing programs, where we can integrate them to the ongoing projects.

Considering that the availability of funding has been dramatically less than the years before, these challenges are becoming more complex. It requires a solution of innovative nature. It requires private sector involvement. It requires availability of resources from those sectors we traditionally have not worked with. Moving at a faster speed in this environment would be a challenge, but we are doing everything possible.

Again, I would like to recognize all ongoing efforts on peace and emphasize that there is no other alternative to peace. All problems should and must be resolved in a peaceful manner. Ethiopia needs peace. Ethiopia needs opportunities for youth and Ethiopia needs economic development opportunities. These are the cornerstones of all other progress.

The genuineness of the Pretoria peace deal is being cast into doubt amid growing fears of renewed conflict and incomplete disarmament. Are you afraid humanitarian efforts and progress made so far will have been for nothing?

I am not afraid. I am not pessimistic. I am not optimistic. I am determined. It is not my job to express views of fear, optimism or pessimism about the process. The only feeling I have is determination. We have to do it. We must do it, and we will do it. That is how I look at it. The alternatives implied in your question are not the ones we need to focus on. We need to focus on solutions and getting these solutions on the table by all means possible.

If conventional donor funding is not available, then we have to find economic solutions dealing with the private sector, or innovative solutions. But we need to provide these people with alternative means of living. When you look at it, the fundamental driver of any conflict in any country is economic disempowerment. Theroot cause of all of these problems is economic. A poor person will never take up the guns in his hands if he has an opportunity to work, if the youth have an opportunity to educate themselves, and if they have a future. It is when you are not feeling the future and the opportunity that you would like to go and do something else. So this is what we need to eliminate, and create the opportunity for the youth to say: ‘I have an opportunity to have a prosperous life. I have an opportunity to develop. I have an opportunity to study. Why do I need to go and do other stuff?’ This is where the fundamental point of emphasis is, and where we need to bring more opportunities for young people.

What about holding perpetrators accountable?

That is very important. Impunity is the root cause of this enchantment, and it cannot be allowed. All of those who have perpetrated crimes: crimes against humanity, abuse of women, abuse of civilian population, have to be brought to justice. There’s no question about that. We have been very clear about it as the UN. No crimes will go unpunished. Civilian population isn’t a target, and we can never accept for these things to happen.

Do you think enough has been done to bring perpetrators to justice thus far?

We have seen a lot of effort in that field, and more can be done. Until all the perpetrators are held accountable, we will not lay down our arms. We will work with national courts, with the Justice Ministry, with the NGOs, with the human rights defenders, with the National Human Rights Commission, and all of those involved. None of those cases should be left unattended to, and should not be left uninvestigated and not responded too.

There are allegations that humanitarian agencies pay more attention to crises in northern Ethiopia, particularly Tigray, than to problems elsewhere in the country. What preconditions does the UN set when providing humanitarian aid?

From my day one being here, I have maintained the point that we have humanitarian situations in all the regions, not just in Tigray. We have to attend equally to all regions where the problems are, and that is what we are doing. Then it comes to the preconditions or any conditionality. Any assistance in the areas of health, social development, empowerment of agriculture, development of agricultural system, creating of opportunities for farmers, for women and youths should be free of any conditionality. I always publicly speak about it, free of any conditionality except the basic requirement of transparency accountability.

Politicization of the humanitarian aid or aid sector in general should not be allowed or tolerated. The UN is an impartial and independent organization working on the principles of humanity to provide assistance to the people. That fundamentally is the point of us and that’s what I tell all partners with funding. I do not accept or advocate for any conditionality for those sectors beyond basic standards of accountability.

Tigray was the center of the war in northern Ethiopia. Is it within this understanding that whenever senior UN officials visit Ethiopia, they make frequent travels to Tigray?

Let me clarify. As the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator, I visited all the regions. Of course, Tigray had experienced the war but I wouldn’t characterize the needs in other regions as less. In fact, there may be even more in some places. I visited certain parts of Afar, parts of Amhara, and Gambella. I have seen a lot of difficulty, some of which could be characterized as even worse. So I don’t want to compare.

Why the officials are visiting there: of course a little bit more attention has gone to that place because of the war. And there is a very active diaspora who is mobilizing a lot of people around the world with certain messages. My constant message to everyone who is coming to visit the country is to pay equal attention to all regions and to work in the most inclusive and organized manner. If you would see where we are sending our money, where we are making our investments and how we organize ourselves, there is no prioritization of authorization for any region compared to another.

How does the diaspora’s influence work in this situation?

I think when the people from outside come here, they often come with information they receive from global media, from the parliaments in their own countries or members from the diaspora groups. Many of them are very active, specifically with their attention to the problems in the north. They are not necessarily speaking about all of the problems.

When I receive a visiting delegation, obviously, they often come and ask me the first question about Tigray. I say to them: ‘Yes, let’s talk about Tigray, but please let us also talk about all of Ethiopia. Let’s talk about the needs and let’s not see it only from the humanitarian crisis.’ That is all because we will always continue to talk about humanity. This is not to downplay the problems in the north. This is just to say that we must and will continue to be very fairly engaged in all parts of the country.

In every region, there are people who need us. Our focus would not be just on humanitarian needs. Our focus will be more and more on development.

Does the pressure from the diaspora affect humanitarian work on the ground?

I actually appreciate what the diaspora is doing, because they raise awareness. They bring attention to certain problems. Depending which part of the country they come from, they may put more attention on some, but in the end it is attention to Ethiopia. They are helping the participation of the citizen. We are very happy about that and let them continue to do so. It is just that we need to correct sometimes and paint the full picture of what the situation on the ground is, and describe it not just from the perspective of one person. If you are originating from that particular region, you may talk to your parents or to your colleagues and they will tell you what’s happening in that particular place. You may not necessarily know what else is happening there.

Let everybody mobilize, but mobilize it in a positive way and tell the truth. The truth is that everyone is trying to resolve these issues in a positive manner. We don’t need conflict. We don’t need contradiction. It isn’t that one place is having more at the account of another. It is not that anyone is being deprived of food because of ethnic, religion or any other principle. We sometimes see these types of things being manipulated in social media. Let me assure you, the distribution is very fair. On the government side as well, we work very closely on the Ethiopian Disaster Risk Management Commission. It’s influenced by objective needs assessment. I can assure you of no bias, no preferences, and no influences of the diasporas or media.

How difficult is it to provide humanitarian support in areas with active conflict?

Where there is a place with military clashes or a pocket of some sort of activity which involves gunfire, obviously you cannot deliver assistance to the people. For this situation, we have a conflict mechanism, which means that we are not going to the areas where the clash is happening. At such times, we then inform everyone that we will be providing medical assistance or will be delivering food not to get into any sort of crossfire. I worked in many places before. I must admit that I have not seen any deliberate targeting of any humanitarian workers in Ethiopia to date.

Weren’t attacks on humanitarian workers a major issue during the war?

I was not here in 2021 and 2022, so I cannot comment on that one. But I can tell you that if I were to compare the situation in those conflict areas you’re talking about to the places I have worked in, there’s no comparison. I think everybody [here] understands that humanitarian work is not a target. We had a few cases where the people were caught in crossfire, but it was not a deliberate targeting of anyone.

So we have those mechanisms in that respect, and we are still delivering in every region. They may not be delivering it on particular days or week, and something could be happening in certain places and space. But, we have not withdrawn from any region and we continue to deliver in every place.

Food assistance was paused for several months due to allegations of theft before resuming last November. What mechanisms did the UN introduce before resuming aid programs?

The World Food Programme (WFP) can make a very detailed presentation of the vulnerability based targeting process. Together with the partners, we have developed a joint vulnerability-based targeting process. With this process, the community itself identifies people who are most vulnerable. There is a local committee composed of the officials, the priest, the elected members of the community, and representatives of all elders and youth, to identify those based on the assessment. There is also a complaints committee also composed of the similar.

There is a digital ID being given to those beneficiaries. There are a lot of innovative methodologies that have been introduced, including bar coding and tracing of all the supplies. There was a lot of effort. It probably is the most advanced distribution system in the world I have seen. Honestly, I have not seen anything like that anywhere else.

The problem now is overall availability of the product for distribution, and the overall availability of funds. Trust me, we will not be receiving the same amounts as in the past. Gone is the era of massive food distribution anywhere in the world. The world has changed. The aid is less. We need to be more self-reliant and more self-dependent. That’s why our focus is bringing the seeds and the agricultural inputs, and starting more self-dependent agricultural production.

How do you evaluate the Ethiopian government’s efforts to attain food security?

Actually, the government is putting the equivalent of about USD 250 million [in Birr] towards the purchase of wheat and food for the vulnerable communities. This is the reason why our humanitarian resource planning (HRP) is joined with the government. This is the only country where we are doing it jointly. The way national systems have been used here was very much celebrated during the world humanitarian summit in Istanbul, Turkiye, back in 2016.

The Horn of Africa is one of the most unstable regions in the world. What is it like to be a humanitarian coordinator in the Horn, particularly in its largest country?

Well, I am not necessarily responsible for the situation in the Horn, except that we receive refugees from countries like Sudan. We are worried about Sudan. Our hearts bleed for our brothers and sisters who have been in an extremely difficult situation. There is no other solution to this problem, but the solution of peace. I must admit that Ethiopia has been very generous to receive the Sudanese and other refugees in the region. We have been hosting quite a high number historically, and we continue to host them. In terms of cross border and getting supplies, the supply chains have been interrupted by what is happening in the Red Sea. The conflict in the Middle East has affected the supply chains and the transportation and delivery of goods now takes more time. We are coping with it, but the most important thing we need is peace.

Do you think Ethiopia would have received more support from donors if it weren’t for the crises in Gaza and Ukraine?

Every place, every humanitarian, and every development station in the world would get more attention and more support. Of course, these big conflicts are taking away the resources, the attention, and the world is stretched. Don’t forget we entered this right after the COVID-19 pandemic, which created a huge problem for the entire global economic outlook. The global value chains are disrupted. We urgently need restoration of peace everywhere around the globe. We need multilateralism, more engagement, and that multilateralism is the only way forward.

Do you think that donors, countries with higher income, are more focused on Ukraine and Gaza than anywhere else? For example, more people died during the conflict in Ethiopia than in both places combined.

Definitely the attention has been in the major crisis places in the world. This hasn’t served well for the rest of the world, including for Ethiopia. I come here from Afghanistan, and before that I was in Haiti and South Sudan. The acute big conflict tends to attract more attention and resources. About USD 1.3 billion was short of our expectation last year in this environment, but I must admit that it doesn’t mean the donors have abandoned Ethiopia.

We need to find ways of managing aid differently. The aid sector we know, the aid sector of classical model where you have a donor who is giving money and implementer at the national level, is the model which is being phased out. We need a model which is based on domestic financing in partnership with the private sector.

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