Basic Exclusive: 'Rot is so much deeper' — decades of Ethiopia aid manipulation

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Thursday, 31 August 2023

Ethiopian porters unload food aid bound for victims of war after a checkpoint leading to Tigray in Mai Tsebri town, Ethiopia, in June 2021. Photo by: Stringer / Reuters

Ethiopia’s Tigrayan regional police have sought to interrogate at least three local staff members of the World Food Programme, triggering a diplomatic standoff with the Rome-based food agency — the latest development in the food aid theft that wracked the country earlier this year, according to three humanitarian sources familiar with the matter.

It remains unclear whether the U.N. aid workers are suspected of involvement in the wide-ranging food aid diversion scandal that resulted in the shutdown of the U.N.’s massive Ethiopian food aid operations this year, or whether they are simply believed to have knowledge of the scandal.

The Tigrayan investigation, which has already resulted in the arrest of suspects, is one of several probes into the illegal diversion of aid. The U.S. Agency For International Development, the Ethiopian government, and WFP all have ongoing inquiries into the transgressions.

A spokesperson for WFP declined to comment on the request, but said that it is “engaging closely with regional authorities, including the Tigrayan regional authorities as part of their investigation and will continue to do so voluntarily and as appropriate, in line with WFP’s status as a public international organization.”

The move comes nearly three months after food aid was completely cut off in Ethiopia, a country where 20 million people rely on such assistance to survive.

The halt began in March, after WFP and USAID uncovered widespread theft of its food assistance across Tigray — a region battered by two years of civil war and debilitating levels of hunger. It soon became clear how wide the racket spanned, and by early June, the food aid suspension was expanded nationwide.

Though assistance began to trickle back to Tigray late last month, the world is still scrambling to figure out who’s to blame. But for many, the answer is obvious.

Everyone is to blame. And that’s nothing new.

“If we’re going to unpack aid diversion, we have to start at the beginning,” said David Del Conte, who served as the deputy country director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia from 2012 to 2016. “The denial of relief assistance, and the manipulation of relief assistance, is very much entrenched in the Ethiopian experience.”

Widespread theft, widespread blame

Earlier this year, WFP and USAID found more than 7,000 metric tons of stolen wheat and 215,000 liters of food oil in commercial markets in Tigray. By June, USAID had visited refugee camps, village markets, and 63 flour mills throughout Ethiopia, finding various levels of theft at each location, according to a USAID spokesperson.

In Tigray, the diversion — which is how the theft is diplomatically described by WFP and USAID — came in two forms, according to a U.S. government expert briefed on the matter. The first was food assistance sold in commercial markets. The second was food aid given to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, the rebel forces at the heart of the two-year war in the north of the country, as an effort by the federal officials to keep those militia groups placated.

Others disagree, and believe the diversion was the result of direct manipulation by the TPLF, claiming its leadership has essentially controlled Tigray for the past two years.

A WFP spokesperson said that an investigation by WFP’s inspector general “has not concluded” and that the food agency has been providing updates on progress to its executive board, comprised of 36 member states, and will continue to do so. But the decision on whether to make those findings public is at the discretion of the inspector general, the spokesperson added, making it unclear how much information would see the light of day.

WFP convoy trucks carrying food items for the victims of war parked at a closed checkpoint leading to Ethiopia’s Tigray region in June 2021. Photo by: Stringer / Reuters

The aid crisis has cast an unflattering spotlight on the lax controls over the distribution of food and other international aid in crisis zones. Senior officials at WFP met behind closed doors last week to discuss concerns about the prospects for aid diversion throughout the region, including Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan, the official added.

U.N. officials say they have no indication that the aid crisis in Ethiopia has spread to other countries. But they note that even before the latest scandal they had already begun a global review of their operations in 31 duty stations. Lessons learned from that exercise will ultimately be applied throughout WFP’s operations worldwide.

WFP “consistently reviews its global operations to improve the way we provide and deliver support effectively and efficiently,” the WFP spokesperson told Devex. “As such, WFP is conducting a global review to strengthen our already robust oversight and controls to ensure food and humanitarian assistance is received only by its intended recipients — wherever we work.”

“We don’t have concerns that the situation that is still being investigated in Ethiopia has regional dimensions to it,” a senior U.N. official told Devex. That said, Ethiopia “amplifies” a broader issue about the risks of operating in high risk environments around the globe.  

“We need to be taking a really hard look rather quickly at other operations to make sure that we’re doing everything we can there to ensure that aid is reaching people,” the official said. However, there “needs to be an understanding of what is not within our control. When there’s a breakdown of law and order we’re not going to be able to ensure beneficiaries can hold on to assistance, even if we’ve done everything possible to target them,” the official added.

At the same time, WFP is eager to resume its work in Ethiopia. At the end of July, WFP began testing new measures to deliver food assistance in Tigray with enhanced monitoring practices, resuming a fraction of its original aid for just over 100,000 eligible people, a WFP spokesperson said.

But that resumption wasn’t taken lightly. USAID described the diversion as both “extreme” and “coordinated” in a statement to Devex. On top of that, multiple individuals — some speaking to Devex anonymously  — said the manipulation of humanitarian aid has long been the norm in Ethiopia. Whether that be orchestrated by rebel groups, like the TPLF, the government troops fighting against them, or the government itself, it was no surprise to many that the diversion occurred in the first place.

“It’s like that corollary of the frog in water,” Del Conte said. “By the time we realize, we’re fully cooked. We know what mistakes we have made, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Over time, sources said the aid community, donor countries, and diplomats began to accept that this is how things work in Ethiopia — even if it changes the way aid is delivered and operated. For one local aid worker Devex spoke to, that meant witnessing the mayor of a major city take home money funded by the World Bank’s safety net program. For another, it meant seeing communities that had been allotted food aid receiving none.

Though the World Bank says it has stringent safety nets to prevent corruption, and had not come across evidence of theft within their support to Ethiopia’s safety net program, a spokesperson told Devex the latest revelation of food aid had changed things there, too.

“Since partners unearthed issues with humanitarian food aid, we have redoubled our efforts to further mitigate these risks,” the spokesperson said.

With the theft spreading nationwide, the full scale of the operation — and who’s responsible for it — is still unknown. Investigations by many entities, including WFP, USAID and the Ethiopian government, are still ongoing. And as a result, food assistance outside of Tigray remains suspended.

Ethiopian porters unload food aid bound for victims of war after a checkpoint leading to Tigray in Mai Tsebri town, Ethiopia in June 2021. Photo by: Stringer / Reuters

‘Part and parcel of the war machine’

Government buy-in is, usually, exactly what aid agencies hope for. No one knows a country’s problems better than those running it, and often, partnership on foreign aid can lead to stronger diplomatic ties. For years, many international agencies in Ethiopia — including WFP and USAID — distributed food based on lists provided by the government, according to Del Conte and a USAID spokesperson.

“The GoE [Government of Ethiopia], unlike most large-scale humanitarian contexts, has played a unique and direct role in the delivery of humanitarian food assistance in Ethiopia,” said the USAID spokesperson. “The GoE has determined beneficiary selection as well as partner operating locations.”

For many reasons, that makes sense. USAID Administrator Samantha Power has long emphasized shifting aid management into the hands of local groups, and moving away from development styles that repeat the mistakes of colonization.

But in Ethiopia, the picture is much more complex. Despite being a strategic, viscerally important ally to Western nations, the country’s record on aid delivery has been complicated by the intricacies of conflict. In some areas, the government has fractured, with loyalties to different groups breeding strong ties in their own regions.

“The issue for a lot of these U.N. agencies is that many are staffed by government allies,” said Cameron Hudson, an expert on African governance at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Because their allegiance is to their country, and to their government, and to their people, they didn’t speak up about it.”

In Tigray in particular, the TPLF had set up a government of its own — one that continues to have deep control over those throughout the region, experts said, including aid agencies.

 “This became very entrenched in Ethiopian folklore: that humanitarian assistance is part and parcel of the war machine,” said Del Conte.

With the latest diversion crisis, the United States and Ethiopia are largely playing a “game of chicken,” said a U.N. official familiar with the matter. The U.S. is hoping to leverage this crisis to bring about reforms that “get the Ethiopian state out of the aid distribution system, more or less.”

But the Ethiopian government — which has used its control over aid distribution for decades to control the population — is betting that the prospect of mass hunger will force the U.S. and other donors to back down. “The Ethiopian government is willing to watch people starve and hoping the Americans blink first,” the official said.

“It’s literally the fox guarding the henhouse, with U.S. approval,” said Hudson. “Ethiopia is too important an African country for Washington not to be on good terms. But the problem is, those terms have been set by the Ethiopians.”

A USAID spokesperson told Devex that they were working with the government to implement necessary reforms — a process which, through “intensive work,” allowed the agency to strengthen the oversight of their food assistance. Still, the spokesperson said, “more work needs to be done,” and USAID food aid remained paused as of late August.

There is also a fault line developing within the U.S. government over how hard to push the Ethiopians, with USAID pressing harder on WFP and Addis Ababa to reform aid distribution, and the U.S. State Department seeking a more conciliatory approach that won’t threaten its working relationship with the East African giant on a range of other issues.

In response to those claims, the USAID spokesperson told Devex they were “working in lockstep with colleagues across government on implementing the necessary reforms.” In early August, the State Department shared information about a call between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed — and the two discussed establishing a humanitarian aid distribution system with strengthened oversight. Blinken also expressed appreciation for the prime minister’s leadership in trying to resolve the crisis in neighboring Sudan.

A decades-old pattern

Aid diversion is a pattern that goes far back on both sides. In 1985, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reported that the Ethiopian government had blocked aid meant for insurgent-held territories, while the TPLF, the militia group at the heart of the latest civil war, had co-opted “famine and relief efforts for their own purposes,” and used refugee camps to “provide sanctuary, medical care, food and money to its fighters.”

“Some funds that insurgent organizations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes,” the 1985 report said. At the same time, it added, “We believe Addis Ababa is likely to take military action to end relief efforts to the rebel-held areas.” 

Fast-forward four decades, and that trend continues today. In recent years, the Ethiopian government has been condemned for blocking aid to conflict-battered Tigray, an area where — halfway through the recent war — 400,000 people lived in famine-like conditions.

On the other side of the battle lines, aid was manipulated, too: in September 2021, the U.N. in Ethiopia said that only 38 of 466 trucks laden with humanitarian assistance had returned from Tigray, leading some to assume the TPLF had seized those trucks for wartime operations.

According to a security expert focusing on Ethiopia, who spoke to Devex on the condition of anonymity, aid deliveries by the U.N. were contracted to an outside agency with links to the TPLF.

“They were handing over the aid to the TPLF, which was in parallel, running an armed insurgency,” said the security expert, who heard of the situation from U.N. and USAID officials based in Ethiopia.

In response to that allegation, a WFP spokesperson said the agency works with its nongovernmental partners to distribute food aid, and manages the delivery of food to its final distribution points.

“WFP and all humanitarian partners need to reach communities immediately and at scale to save lives and livelihoods before it is too late. In order to do this, we are obliged to speak to all parties in conflict irrespective of their political affiliation,” said the WFP spokesperson in a statement to Devex.

Independence, tangled

Ethiopia is a complicated place to work for many other reasons. Over the last four decades, the government has imposed strict laws on international groups, experts said, placing stringent rules on the organizational operation and choking human rights work with bureaucratic tape.

In 2009, Ethiopia passed the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which made it illegal for foreign organizations to work on human rights issues. The legislation created the Charities and Societies Agency, which had broad authority to suspend, dissolve, and restrain civil society organizations across the country. And, it implemented financial requirements, such as a limitation on funding toward “administrative activities” that some organizations claimed they needed to do their jobs.

“The intended and actual result of this law would be to make it nearly impossible for any civil society organization to carry out work the government does not approve of,” said an analysis from the Human Rights Watch in 2008, when the legislation was first introduced.

Despite later legislation easing those restrictions, in 2021, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Médecins Sans Frontières were forced to shut their doors after being accused of spreading misinformation — an incident that occurred shortly after the agencies spoke out about atrocities against the Tigrayan people, and a lack of safe passage for humanitarian groups to enter conflict-affected areas.

That same year, the government expelled seven U.N. officials from Ethiopia, alleging they were “meddling in the internal affairs of the country.” The government insisted that the U.N. is supporting the TPLF.

Despite the complexities, USAID provided about $2 billion of assistance to Ethiopia in 2022 and 2023, making the country the largest recipient of U.S. aid in sub-Saharan Africa.

The country plays a strategic role for much of the West, especially since 9/11. Ethiopia — the heart of the Horn of Africa — has long been viewed as a breakwater against radical Islam and a contributor to regional stability overall. It’s the home of the African Union. And it has one of the largest economies on the continent.

So, Hudson said, for years, many countries and organizations have overlooked the realities of working in Ethiopia, including government officials’ grip on humanitarian aid.

A questionable delay

In conversations with Devex, several former aid workers and experts questioned why, given the history of aid manipulation in Ethiopia, it took so long to uncover food theft on such a massive scale. One former aid worker, who worked in the Hawassa region of Ethiopia, said it might be because so many individuals — from local politicians to bookkeepers — have benefited from stolen aid.

WFP published an emergency food assessment in Tigray in February, but in its report on the region, it did not mention any sign of food aid diversion. Instead, the agency highlighted the improvements, and recommended targeting the most food-insecure people going forward.

In a conversation with Devex, WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain said the bulk of the aid diversion took place in December of 2022 and January of 2023 — but the theft wasn’t discovered until “much later.”

“Unfortunately we were not as quick to withdraw as we should have been,” McCain told Devex last month. “This was at huge scale. I can assure you we are doing everything we can now to make sure that this never happens again.”

As of late July, WFP, USAID and the Ethiopian government were all investigating the diversion of food aid. But some experts fear that investigating the theft will do little to change the larger context in Ethiopia — on either side of a conflict spanning decades.

“As to who took the food? I’m not quite sure it really matters,” said Del Conte. “The rot is so much deeper than that.”

About the authors

  • Elissa Miolene

    Elissa Miolene

       *Elissa Miolene is a journalist based in San Francisco, California. She currently covers education at The San Jose Mercury News, and has written for outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, Washingtonian Magazine, and others. Before shifting to journalism, Elissa led communications for humanitarian agencies in the United States, East Africa, and South Asia.
  • Colum Lynch

    Colum Lynch

       *Colum Lynch is an award-winning reporter and Senior Global Reporter for Devex. He covers the intersection of development, diplomacy, and humanitarian relief at the United Nations and beyond. Prior to Devex, Colum reported on foreign policy and national security for Foreign Policy Magazine and the Washington Post. Colum was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for digital reporting for his blog Turtle Bay. He has also won an award for groundbreaking reporting on the U.N.’s failure to protect civilians in Darfur.