Fraud “widespread”, “orchestrated” And “coordinate”. The United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) does not mince its words. Because on its own, this fraud could represent the largest diversion of food aid ever seen in Africa, or even in the world. On June 9, this scandal prompted Usaid and the World Food Program (WFP) to make the difficult choice to completely suspend the distribution of food aid in Ethiopia. An unprecedented decision.
Not only is the country emerging from two years of civil war in the Tigray region, but it is also suffering the worst drought it has seen in four decades. Some 20.1 million Ethiopians, out of the 115 million inhabitants of Africa’s second most populous country, suffer from hunger. Usaid, of which Ethiopia is the first beneficiary ($ 1.8 billion in 2022), nevertheless deemed it impossible, given the gravity of the facts, to continue food deliveries.
“Our decision to cut off food aid to Ethiopia was heartbreaking and a measure of last resort, due to the extreme scale and coordination of food aid diversions identified in the country. The theft of food from this extremely vulnerable population is unacceptable”informs a spokesperson for the American agency.
In the act
It all started during a routine visit in April to northern Tigray, near the town of Shiraro. A Usaid team then noticed a massive diversion: wheat intended to feed 100,000 displaced people had been stolen, moved by truck and sold in shops. A few days later, a broader survey conducted by the agency in seven of the ten Ethiopian regions discovered the pot of roses: “The aid is diverted and sold on the local market”, assures its director, Samantha Power. On a very large scale.
The report indicates that this diversion is carried out with the blessing and complicity of the Ethiopian authorities to feed the soldiers and veterans, that the wheat is sold on the market to millers who, in turn, resell or even export the flour. Particularly embarrassing, the Ethiopian soldiers were even caught in the act of stealing during the investigation in the city of Harar (east).
“This is an unprecedented affair in terms of state cunning and the scale of shenanigans. The system is in place in almost all regions and for a long time. The bags of food aid are partly diverted by the authorities and the army, mixed and resold”, describes an aid worker in Addis Ababa, who wishes to remain anonymous. About a quarter of food aid may have been stolen, he said. The final results of the Usaid investigation have not yet been released.
In the sights of humanitarian workers, the control of the Ethiopian authorities over the entire process: the identification of beneficiaries, the establishment of distribution lists and delivery. A monopoly that allowed “systematically inflate the lists without the agencies being able or willing to verify the deliveries behind “says the head of a European NGO in Addis Ababa. “The shame is also for the humanitarians, who have accepted this way of working under the authority of the government for decades”he concludes.
In Ethiopia, the government has always controlled the allocation of aid with an iron fist since the great famine of 1984-1985 (about 500,000 deaths), because interventions often take place in regions where rebel movements operate. , as was the case in Tigray. The humanitarian process has become highly politicized.
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For its part, the government of Abiy Ahmed refutes the serious allegations made by humanitarian organizations. A spokesperson for the Prime Minister describes them as “propaganda” used “as a tool of diplomatic pressure”. Usaid, in an internal note, expresses the wish that the Ethiopian government no longer participates directly in humanitarian action.
A double battle is being played out behind the scenes. In the United States, the Biden administration must show the American taxpayer and the Republican opposition that it is capable of verifying the proper use of the billions of dollars of humanitarian aid that it finances. In Addis Ababa, the authorities have for their part engaged in arm wrestling so as not to lose their control over the supply chain.
” It’s catastrophic “
In Tigray, time is running out. The disaster risk management commission has recorded 728 hunger-related deaths in three areas of the region since the suspension of food aid. The United Nations estimates that 90% of Tigrayans are in need of food assistance. But no bags have been delivered to the displaced since early May. “It’s catastrophic, the effects are seriously felt in health centers”says a humanitarian working in the province.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) calls for an immediate return to distributions. “Even before the suspension took effect, our medical teams saw alarming rates of global acute malnutrition, which were already well above the 15% emergency threshold set by the World Health Organization”explains Cara Brooks, director of the NGO in Ethiopia.
Food aid could return at the end of July, provided the government agrees to let go. “We want WFP and NGO partners to be much more directly involved in the beneficiary selection process”, said Valérie Guarnieri, deputy director of the WFP. Even in the absence of an agreement, aid workers could be pressured to resume deliveries due to the ravages of hunger in a region where the rainy season has just started.
For six months and the signing of peace agreements in Pretoria between the government and the insurgents of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Tigray (FPLT), Ethiopia has regained some semblance of balance after two years of fratricidal war. But this case with considerable fallout comes to put a brake on the ongoing political process.
After having been the architect of the Pretoria agreements and having pacified its tumultuous relations with Addis Ababa, Washington finds itself once again pushed into diplomatic arm wrestling. “The United States is in a delicate position. They seek to present themselves as a found ally of Ethiopia, but cannot condone the embezzlement of tens of millions of dollars of food”says a Western diplomat in the Horn of Africa.
Taken aback, the United States blows hot and cold. A month after suspending food aid, Washington dropped its accusations of human rights violations against Ethiopia. The end of this legal designation paves the way for the resumption of economic aid and full political cooperation with Addis Ababa.