Addis Abeba – Since the onset of a “reformist government” under the leadership of the ruling Prosperity Party in April 2018, Ethiopians are enduring a cocktail of deadly humanitarian crises, including wars and other forms of militarized violence that not only turned them against each other, but also opened the doors wide for foreign mercenaries to destroy their lives and livelihoods. Drought that is threatening to return famine in multiple parts of the country is devouring urban households and the peasantry indiscriminately. This has come about in the wake of the global COVID pandemic that already crippled Ethiopia’s economy built over the past three decades.
All of which have robbed millions of hard working Ethiopians the means to survive without aid dependency. Today, more than 20 million Ethiopians are in need of external food aid assistance.
That is why the news of industrial scale food aid theft involving corruption and mismanagement of food aid distribution in crisis-hit Ethiopia caught the word by a shock. The scale of this abhorrent practice, which involved a web of complex logistical and deliberate mismanagement of the food aid system between layers of different actors including government officials, required a drastic response from the so-called humanitarian partners.
To a degree, the decision by these major humanitarian partners, notably the USAID and the WFP, to bring food aid delivery to a screeching halt was understandable insofar it was meant to bring a quick fix to such malpractice. In many cases, weak governance compounded by multiple wars and militarized violence, as well as a crippled economy – Ethiopia’s trademarks as of late – lead to people who have access to food aid delivery logistics to resort to theft, partly out of desperation, but in most part due to lack of monitoring and accountability mechanisms. In other words, a dysfunctional food aid management system.
These factors are the exact opposite factors of why Ethiopia’s food aid management system in the past had been considered solid. This country has faced recurring food crises over many decades, which has given the government and humanitarian organizations extensive experience in managing food aid operations. With each crisis, they have learned and adapted their strategies, building a level of expertise in handling such situations.
Under the EPRDF-led government, Ethiopia had shown a strong commitment to addressing food insecurity issues within the country. It had exercised the tricky balance of keeping its sovereignty while closely working with international aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to mitigate food insecurity, distribute food supplies, and ensure assistance reached those in need. It is this collaboration with major international organizations, such as the USAID and WFP, and other humanitarian agencies that helped Ethiopia to establish an effective chain of logistics and food aid management, avoiding duplication of aid and food aid theft while at the same time ensuring resources are efficiently allocated and used for the intended purposes. Surely, there were malpractices, but they were far and between.
What should have been seen as a violation of international humanitarian law and human rights principles, as access to food is recognized as a fundamental human right, was allowed to run free in Ethiopia
Furthermore, adhering to early warning systems that help predict and monitor food shortages and enable the government and aid agencies to respond proactively to emerging crises; engaging local communities to ensure that the aid provided aligns with the specific needs and cultural preferences of the affected populations; and staying focused on the importance of long-term solutions to food security issues by investing in agriculture, infrastructure, and sustainable development projects to enhance food production and improve resilience to future shocks have all made Ethiopia one of the leading countries in the word where drought and conflict related shocks are best managed.
But Ethiopia’s wars against itself that were already ongoing in the Oromia region by the time the war in the Tigray region started in November 2020, which spread to Afar and Amhara regions a year later, has collapsed that system.
The ruling party was never held to account when it deliberately blocked food aid to millions of Ethiopians who are vulnerable to malnutrition and starvation due to its wars. In the Tigray region, for example, the de facto blockade of food aid by the government and its affiliates including the Eritrean forces, was allowed to fester for two years with no international consequences; depriving millions of civilians who were caught in the trap of the war the lifesaving assistance they desperately needed was made to become a political bargain chip. What should have been seen as a violation of international humanitarian law and human rights principles, as access to food is recognized as a fundamental human right, was allowed to run free in Ethiopia, not only leading to loss of lives, but also corrupting a system of food aid management that was painstakingly built and survived times of wars and famines.
It is now an open secret and a fact admitted by many with inside knowledge that instead of fighting against such deliberate food aid blockades by taking crucial steps to protect the smooth running of Ethiopia’s well established food aid delivery system, and implement a transparent and accountable food aid distribution to the most vulnerable, the west, which constitutes Ethiopia’s largest humanitarian partners, sat by idly and watched the system collapse. Those with knowledge of how we have reached here confided in this publication that such negligence and complacency by the very humanitarian partners operating on the ground has forced the system to succumb to rampant corruption and food aid mismanagement at a scale that was never seen before.
As such, when the news of massive aid theft hit the headlines, including by this publication, the drastic immediate measures taken by the USAID and WFP were to announce the cutting off food aid delivery until further investigations were conducted and the system was fixed.
…such negligence and complacency by the very humanitarian partners operating on the ground has forced the system to succumb to rampant corruption and food aid mismanagement at a scale that was never seen before
But three months have gone by since, and the only visible changes that came out so far are the dreadful reports that vulnerable civilians, including children, pregnant women, and the elderly – from Tigray to Oromia, Afar and Amhara regions – are left without access to essential nutrition. Disturbing reports of death by starvation in the Tigray region and soaring levels of malnutrition in many parts of the country are emerging relentlessly.
There is a strong possibility of linkage between the rapidly expanding chronic food shortage with the rising social unrest, newly emerging conflicts, and even mass displacements across several parts of the country. If not addressed as a matter of priority, and urgency, this could have regional and global implications, as neighboring countries may also face an influx of Ethiopian refugees seeking relief from hunger and instability.
That is why the international community must accept the fact that despite the Ethiopian government not being in a position to rescue millions of its citizens from famine induced deaths, hunger and malnutrition, they should make the bitter decision to work with it to immediately restore food aid delivery to Ethiopia.
Similarly, if the food crisis is partly a result of the wars Ethiopians are subjected to, efforts should be intensified to force the government and other warring parties across the country to resolve underlying root causes of these wars and militarized violence through talks. Peace and stability are essential for food security and humanitarian aid distribution to be effective.
It is equally important to focus on sustainable solutions and long-term development to break the cycle of recurring food crises, that includes holding those who are responsible for the current collapse of Ethiopia’s decades-old aid delivery management, either through corruption or mismanagement of the system, to account. But only condemning abhorrent food aid theft by cutting aid is punishing victims twice. AS