Friday, June 14, 2024
Interview“Hard to comprehend”: American aid remains lifeline for millions in 21st century...

“Hard to comprehend”: American aid remains lifeline for millions in 21st century Ethiopia

This year marks a significant milestone: 120 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Ethiopia. The US is the single largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia, and with reports showing that over 21 million people in the country require aid in 2024 due to the compounding effects of conflict, climate shocks, and insecurity, it is safe to assume that Washington will continue to play an important role across Ethiopia.

Scott Hocklander, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission director for Ethiopia and Djibouti, spoke with The Reporter’s Sisay Sahlu about the burgeoning demand for humanitarian aid in Ethiopia. He described the role USAID has played and continues to play in Ethiopia, challenges facing the Agency and other development and aid partners, and the effects that violent conflict has had on humanitarian missions.

The Reporter: The US and Ethiopia are celebrating their 120th diplomatic anniversary. Could you give us a short overview of some achievements so far?

Hocklander: A lot has been done over the years. I haven’t been around the entire time but I’d say it’s been a very important relationship, and humanitarian [work] is one of the areas which I think the United States has contributed incredibly to over the time.

My history in this country goes back almost 20 years; I first came to Ethiopia in 2005 with USAID working for support and disaster assistance. So, my understanding began in terms of understanding the humanitarian situation here and realizing the big needs, the high levels of poverty and insecurity that I think we’ve worked on collectively over the past couple of decades.

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This is an area where I think the United States government, through the generosity of US taxpayers, has seen a role here in providing not just food assistance but also development assistance. And when you add those two together, the USAID mission here in Ethiopia is one of the biggest in the world providing long-term investments in health, which has been massive at over 200 million dollars a year.

In agriculture as well through the Feed the Future Initiative resilience activities, our support to the productive safety net just over the past five years is 550 million dollars, but that’s long-standing as well going back to the very initiation of the program itself, just through agriculture and resilience over the past five years that’s another 500 million. We do big investments in water and sanitation both in urban and rural areas, highland and lowland, education, democracy, and governance. It’s a full portfolio of development and humanitarian assistance we implement now and over the past many years. I think there has been a strong partnership; there have been gains.

But as you know now we’re facing very serious multiple compounding crises through the conflict that we’re seeing in Amhara, in Oromia, the impacts of droughts and climate shocks, the inability to get needed inputs like fertilizers and seeds into the country, the high prices; all these things are hitting the Ethiopian people very hard and particularly those that are vulnerable.  Which is why we’re seeing such high numbers of people in need. I think 21.4 million was the latest from the UN report, really across the country. And this is an area where I think the US has played a leadership role here.

Also internationally, contributing 153 million to the latest pledging conference in Geneva, the US being the biggest international donor. I think we’re at 60 percent of the humanitarian response plan right now and that’s been a tradition for the US. But we want to see things get better, we want to see the government, as well as other donors, step up. The needs right now are staggering. The contributions we have so far are not enough, we do need to do more for all of the people out there who are trying to get over these shocks, all the mothers who are trying to feed their kids, to feed their families, and the things in the community.

What are the success stories of the US government through its humanitarian engagement in Ethiopia?

I know it’s hard when you look at 21.4 million in need to look at success but there certainly has been success. I think health is one of the most important areas in which we have seen significant success. We’ve seen life expectancy increase significantly over the past decade moving to just under 69 years of age. I think that’s a really important indicator of success. We’ve seen gains made against terrible diseases like tuberculosis and malaria, even though with malaria we’ve seen those numbers go up again. But the provision of basic health services has improved.

On the humanitarian side, some of the gains that we have made are being jeopardized by conflict around the country. When you see a lot of the investments that not only the US government has made, but many donor governments have made as well, we see the impact on the infrastructure both on the health side and on the education side. That’s when you have this level of conflict you’re going to potentially jeopardize very important gains that have been made.

The US remains the largest humanitarian donor in Ethiopia, as witnessed in Geneva. Could you tell us how much funding the US is planning for Ethiopian humanitarian needs in total for the year 2024?

Yes, the 153 million [pledged in Geneva] is all new money for the fiscal year 2024, and it’s also important to mention that we had in the country over 300 million dollars’ worth of food systems, 450,000 metric tons mainly from the fiscal year 2023, but that food is now really the main food assistance that’s being used for distribution in areas that the joint emergency operation which our international non-governmental organizational consortium delivers in specific areas, as well as the majority of the assistance that the World Food Program has to deliver assistance in those areas.

It’s very large when you start looking at humanitarian assistance. These are huge figures and you add those to the investments in agriculture in resilience and health and water sanitation; it’s a big number.

Some critics argue the aid is a policy tool and politically motivated. In some cases, they say the aid is not reaching its intended targets despite the huge budget. How would you respond to this?

I can understand the skepticism, in this day and age, it’s hard to know exactly unless you can see something for yourself where assistance is going. That’s why it’s been so important for me and for the rest of my team to get out and see the assistance taking place. But you know the money is getting out there and we are making a huge difference, just in the past round the US government helped provide food assistance for 2.1 million Ethiopians and I’ve been out there and I’ve seen this work in progress on the last two trips. I went to Afar and was able to see a mobile clinic, see kids getting immunizations for the first time, and see malnourished kids receive treatment to help improve their health.

Before that I was in southern Ethiopia in South Omo, seeing our work down there in supporting some of the nation’s improving biodiversity. But it’s also looking at health and education. I think that for a country as large as Ethiopia, it’s massive  and there is so much need for development, and so when I think of our work this is one reason why it’s good that we’re talking to you, being able to communicate more effectively all these things in different ways will help to address some of the skepticism. I think that’s something we can do much better in terms of showing all the great things that we’re doing across all this work.

How does USAID identify and prioritize the most vulnerable populations and tailor assistance accordingly? Do you give equal attention to all areas of Ethiopia?

We try to be driven by data as much as we possibly can, so I think it’s a combination of things. One, it’s about the data you know. For example, the US government has invested in the early warning system for many years that uses a very data-driven set of indicators to tell us where the need is greatest and so based upon where those areas are, it helps us decide where we need to work.

But it’s more than that because it’s not just the US government. I mean, ultimately, responsibility for food security belongs to the [Ethiopian] government. So we work closely with the government and with the United Nations. We work closely with other development partners to look at the broad set of needs to decide who and where is the best place to provide that assistance to coordinate that effort. In the case of food assistance itself, it’s largely divided between the joint emergency operations program which I talked about, the World Food Program, and the government. So between the three, and based upon what the needs are, determine where everyone operates.

But in terms of USAID our development could work all over the country and it’s certainly based on needs. It is based upon the relationships that we have. Unfortunately, a lot of the work lately has been impacted by conflict, so the ability to work in Amhara is extremely challenging right now, areas in Oromia are extremely challenging.

I just want to just take the opportunity to highlight the dangers to our partners and the courage in particular of our humanitarian implementers that we work with and the risks that they take to ensure that people who need it get assistance in a timely, appropriate, and accountable way. It is a testament to their professionalism. But also I think it is just a reminder that it is dangerous out there, and the best way for us to address the challenges that we’re talking about is through peace.

What are some of the dangers facing humanitarian workers since the conflict in Amhara began? How many have been injured or killed while at work?

I think in general the latest figure I heard was around ten who lost their lives. What we understand from our partners is that it is very insecure, it’s very unpredictable, things can change very rapidly. I think that again our partners have done an amazing job of being able to operate in a very conflicted area through the relationships they have. But things can change very quickly.

An effective humanitarian response requires strong data support and reliable information. How do you manage the availability of quality data for humanitarian work? 

I don’t think I’m ever satisfied with data. I think it’s a continuous challenge for all of us to get better at it and to use it more effectively and we have a lot of very strong technical relationships with all of our partners, including the government, and that’s true on the humanitarian side, where there’s a specific meeting that takes place every couple weeks that goes over all of the data that we have. It’s always something that we can do better at. In areas where there is conflict, it makes accessing data more difficult than it otherwise would have been.

That is something that we’re all working together to try to improve. I wish that data would be more easily available in an area where nutrition is needed, in areas where the situation can change very quickly and can necessitate it. It is something that we’re working with the regional health bureaus on, to make better connections between those health bureaus and the partners that can respond.

I would say this is true of my entire career, that we are always trying to get better in terms of having more accurate, timelier, more usable data to make better decisions.

In Ethiopia, there are over 20 million people who need humanitarian assistance, almost a fifth of the population. How do you see the Ethiopian government’s readiness and preparedness to respond to this need?

It is a staggering figure. It’s really hard to comprehend. I had the opportunity to travel with our assistant administrator during her visit to Ethiopia a couple of months ago. In Afar, in Tigray, when you go out and you see the need, it can be overwhelming at times.

I can tell you that through the course of my career, I’ve done a lot of things but the hardest thing I think is to see a mother who is agonizing over her inability to feed her child. It’s something hard to imagine and which you just can’t get out of your head. Being able to help that mother, to help that family, to help those communities, the food that they need, the nutrition they need, the medication that they need, the clean water that they need, is extremely important.

I think in many ways these are huge challenges that we all collectively need to come together to try to address.

Ethiopian officials have been heard saying that a surplus of wheat is being produced, but at the same time, millions of people are starving. How do you see these two issues? Has USAID ever purchased wheat from Ethiopia? If not, why?

Some programs involve local purchases. I know the World Food Program has done local purchases for programs in the past. I think if we have talked to the Ministry of Agriculture about this. For example, one of the things that they will say is that there still are challenges logistics-wise in terms of being able to move food around. That’s one of the things that’s been discussed. As you mentioned data is very important and getting the latest data and understanding about what is available is also very important.

We do know that the amount of inputs for example going into Amhara both on the fertilizer side, as well as the improved seed side, are not what was targeted in the past year.

Again, peace is going to help all these things – the ability to deliver resources like fertilizer and tools like seeds to these productive places. I don’t think anyone’s going to be capable of reaching the kind of goals either the government or the international community have.

What are the tools used to support and provide assistance, considering the huge number of the needy?

As I mentioned, there are different analytics that have been in use in Ethiopia for many, many years. The household economy approach is one that USAID began to develop to be able to get down into the community level, to look at what those areas in the country needs, what the livelihoods are and then calculate the impacts of inputs. All these changes give us a sense of how many in this particular area will need assistance. So that’s a very important one that we developed and we’ve done that in close collaboration with all our partners, including the government.

The famine early warning system is another very critical tool that helps look into the future and determine which areas are going to be harder hit than others based upon weather and successive rains, the prices, the production. All these things come together in very sophisticated modeling to help guide us to make the best decision we can.

As I’m sure you know the amount of need in the world today is at an unprecedented level. Just look around Sudan and many other parts of Africa, Ukraine, and Gaza, there are all these areas in which the need is extraordinary and so, for us on the development side but also the humanitarian assistance side, we have to make really good decisions.

We have to use the data to prioritize the areas that need it most. We see that in our tools, they tell us which areas are most at risk and that’s really what we use to make decisions.

Humanitarian and development aid are related, but unless aid is supported by investment, the results might not be fruitful. In some parts of Ethiopia, some people have been reliant on aid schemes for years. How long can these people continue to depend on aid?

That’s a good question. I think that the development aid that we provide and how we provide it needs to continue to get better and to get smarter and we need to come up with solutions that are not just about providing food assistance.

Because food assistance in of itself is not going to help people get off aid, it’s opportunities, it’s access to markets, it’s being able to send kids to school, it’s having better access to health and water. All these things have to be part of the development picture to be transformative in people’s lives.

I think that’s something that all development organizations and the USAID understand, we are getting much better at integrating our approaches across all of our sectors for working on really important strategies. For example, in the Somali region with the regional government, President Mustafe brings all of our partners together at the same time and makes sure that those interventions like supporting each other overlap, support the beneficiaries, and also develop in a more comprehensive long-standing durable way.

Though when you’re talking about a lot of places right now, where you have conflict like we’re seeing now, which is destroying these investments, it’s going to be very hard to get assistance. I think ultimately you have to have peace in these areas to make progress right and that’s true here and around the world. 

In what way is USAID supporting the national disaster management institution to build its mitigation strategy?

Mitigation is very important and we’re looking at being able to support disaster risk management here in a stronger way. I think the entire portfolio is evolving and also needs to be based on responding to the different risks of climate as a priority of USAID administrator Samantha Powers, as part of USAID. In general, we recognize how the rains are changing. I was here 10 years ago and I remembered a much more defined rainy season. Now it’s really hard to know when the rainy season starts.

But that’s not unique to Ethiopia, that’s happening around the world. Understanding how our climate is changing at a micro level is incredibly important to develop the kinds of programs that will help the people in Ethiopia to adapt, respond, and hopefully do well.

Tell us more about the incident last year when aid agencies discovered aid diversion, and the subsequent investigation to hold those who were involved in aid siphoning accountable.

At one point it was turned over to the USAID Office of the Inspector General and that investigation continues. They can always be contacted about that information. But the decision to suspend aid was gut-wrenching for all of us, particularly for our humanitarian team who have been working with these populations regularly.

But it was a decision that we had to make, in seeing the scale of the diversion, which was very large, look into areas around the country. In communities, in meals, and these different areas like in the transport network, we realized that a huge amount of assistance was not going to where it needed to go.

Our job is to make sure that the assistance gets to the people who need it and that’s what the US taxpayer expects as well, that wasn’t happening and to fix those systems we had to pause, we had to understand where the challenges were, and we had to incorporate better methodologies that could ensure that the resources were going to make it there. We worked closely with the government to make these critical changes, with the World Food Program as well as with our non-governmental actors.

I also want to make the point that although the food assistance was paused, our nutrition program never stopped and over the course of 2023, we provided nutrition assistance for over 2.2 million both moderately and severely malnourished kids.

But once we made some significant changes, the responsibilities of logistics, transport, and distribution for the food assistance went to the humanitarian actors and that was incredibly important.

We agreed that how we developed the beneficiaries lists and how we targeted was a process that brought the humanitarians to the fore. Lastly, we integrated a new targeting system based upon vulnerability that allowed all the partners to understand down to the household level who needs it most.

We have a lot of innovations with our humanitarian aid as well, using technology and other tools to track all these resources has given us the confidence that at this point we believe the assistance is going to where it needs to be and that’s why in December we were able to restart and deliver in a very timely way the assistance that people need around the country.

What role does the Ethiopian government play in the resumption of humanitarian assistance?

It was very important in terms of negotiating all these things with the government through the Ethiopian Disaster Risk Management Commission in particular, but also there’s still work to be done. We still need to see all these changes put into law. I think there’s a role at that level and a lot of it is respecting humanitarian principles, respecting the independence of the humanitarian process in terms of making selection based upon need, based upon vulnerability.

So it depends, there’s the interaction at each level – on the national level, regional level, and community level, and just in terms of doing the targeting itself. It involves local officials at that level bringing the community together and ensuring the safety of the humanitarians who are there being able to implement these changes and making sure that it’s communicating well.

What we’re finding is, for example, areas where beneficiaries were never getting their full allotment of food and now that with better information about why beneficiaries were chosen and about what exactly they’re supposed to be getting, we’re seeing there the right people get the food.

I think in Ethiopia we have an incredible team who are dedicated to the mission. They’re the ones that are going out in these communities, they’re the ones that are seeing the suffering that’s taking place. No one is more dedicated than our humanitarian affairs here at USAID to put all these innovations in practice.

Is the investigation still ongoing?

We continue to express the need for those who took part in the diversion to be held accountable, but the investigation process takes time, our Inspector General is still working. It does take time, but it’s something that we continue to communicate both here at the national levels as well as when we go out to the regions. We tell them about the need to continue to pursue these investigations until their completion.

You have mentioned the challenges humanitarian agencies are facing in Amhara and Oromia. Are there other regions that could be dangerous for humanitarian workers?

Unfortunately it’s not just Amahra and Oromia, I think the border areas are always fraught with insecurity in areas of Gambella, and Benishangul-Gumuz. That’s been the case for many years around the borders. It can often be unpredictable and dangerous. 

Even Addis has become very, very difficult for all of our partners due to the issue of kidnapping and conflict. I mean there are so many different things that have increased the level of insecurity, making delivering assistance more and more difficult, which is something that I know our partners are adapting to. They are bringing in security specialists and they’re changing the way that they do business. But it is having an impact. It’s not just the destruction of actual buildings and infrastructure and things that we’ve worked on. A lot of assistance, a lot of people living in major cities are not able to go out because the security situation is unknown. All this has a big impact. It’s not just USAID’s work, it’s all work that’s being done to provide services, to work on development, to provide humanitarian assistance.

It has taken a toll I think also in terms of mental health. So many people in this country have gone through trauma; the people themselves but it’s also the people who deliver assistance. That’s an area which USAID is hoping to work on and we’ll work on in the future.

Donor governments and aid agencies have recently been calling for Ethiopian officials to correct bureaucratic hurdles, red tape, and visa processing issues. What can you tell us about this?

In that regard we work very closely with our humanitarian partners and with the government to try and make sure that the right people are getting in at the right time and with the right equipment et cetera.

The UN plays a very important role in making sure that visas are available for humanitarian workers. For example, one of the key issues is security for our staff, communication with the Ethiopian defense force and others so that we can make sure when a humanitarian convoy needs to go down a road, they can go down that road. It’s something that we are continually working on collectively and, I think, as long as this conflict persists is going to have to be a focus. I think some of these questions were outlined in Geneva but we just need to continue to follow up on those and make sure that all the sides are committed and making good on what they’re obliged to do.

Have visa issues been an obstacle for USAID?

There are two things.  One is the timeliness of the visa. Even when they are approved, sometimes it takes much longer than one would expect. The second is the clarity of the process. Sometimes it’s uncertain whom to go to request an extension or to get a new approval.

The US government continues to provide humanitarian assistance but conflict continues. What is your message for Ethiopian officials, beside providing aid when conflict erupts and there are demands for aid?

I think peace is the message and that peace is what’s needed first and foremost. The most direct way or the first sort of step towards a peaceful resolution is for people on all sides to sit down at the same table and to work it out. I know the US Ambassador Massinga is very much committed to that. From a development perspective, we see the impacts that this conflict is having on the work that we’re doing and the suffering that’s taking place.

It is a difficult job, but it’s what we have to do. But the clearest is a path towards reducing the amount of humanitarian assistance needed to make our development investments and activities have a bigger impact.

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