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USAID cuts food supply amid accusations of government theft

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Picture: Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Taken December 2, 2020 – A volunteer shares out grain donated by USAID to Ethiopian refugees who fled Tigray and sought refuge at the Village Eight transit centre near the border in Gedaref, eastern Sudan. The US government is suspending food aid to Ethiopia after an investigation reports of a scheme to steal donated food.

By Katharine Houreld

The US government is suspending food aid to Ethiopia after an investigation uncovered a widespread scheme to steal donated food, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said, a move that will affect millions of the world’s poorest people.

Leaked documents given to donors indicate that the scheme was coordinated by elements within the federal and regional governments. Officials have been diverting aid from those who need it to feed the military and ex-combatants and selling it on the open market to millers who re-exported the flour, according to an investigation by USAID.

“After a country-wide review, USAID determined, in co-ordination with the government of Ethiopia, that a widespread and co-ordinated campaign is diverting food assistance,” USAID said in a statement. “We cannot move forward with distribution of food assistance until reforms are in place.”

An Ethiopian government spokesperson and the National Disaster Risk Management Commission did not respond to requests for comment. But documents and interviews laid bare the extent of the scheme in one of the world’s poorest countries.

“Extensive monitoring indicates this diversion of donor-funded food assistance is a co-ordinated and criminal scheme, which has prevented life-saving assistance from reaching the most vulnerable,” said a report by the Humanitarian Resilience Development Donor Group, an organisation of donors briefed by USAID.

“The scheme appears to be orchestrated by federal and regional Government of Ethiopia entities, with military units across the country benefiting from humanitarian assistance.”

The suspension comes as Africa’s second most populous nation is struggling to feed about 20 million citizens – about a sixth of the population – following a civil war, drought and rampant inflation. The US provides the vast majority of food aid to Ethiopia through two programmes, one administered by aid groups and the other by the UN.

Stopping the aid will roil the volatile Horn of Africa region, already hammered by a civil war in Sudan that has displaced more than 1.3million people in six weeks and, after constant fighting, pushed drought-stricken Somalia to the edge of famine. It may also push Ethiopia into the arms of Russia after a period of icy relations with the US over massive human rights abuses committed during a two-year civil war in the north.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released a report saying ethnic cleansing was continuing in parts of the northern region of Tigray. It’s unclear exactly what proportion of the food was stolen, but the donors’ report said the investigators had visited 63 flour mills in seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions and found “significant diversion” across all seven regions.

Food from the US, Ukraine, Japan and France donated to the UN World Food Programme has been stolen, the report said. It called on all donors who sent food aid to check how it is being used. An aid worker with knowledge of the programme said it appeared that local officials had inflated the number of households in need and prevented food from reaching hungry families.

Yibrah Yemane Tesfay, who was forced to flee his home in the town of Humera to the capital of Tigray, said his family had received only one portion of aid since a peace deal in November that ended the civil war – 15kg of wheat for each member of his family. Sometimes he was able to work as a labourer, he said, and other times, he begged in the street to feed his children, aged 2, 6 and 13.

He said displaced families were angry about the theft of aid and protested last month. “This is a matter of life and death for us,” he said. “We want the people to be held accountable. We see it as if they sentenced us to death.”

Haftu Hagos, a father of five who fled his home in western Tigray, said his family received aid just twice since the peace deal. It has been five months since they received anything, he said, sheltering in a vocational school in the town of Tembien. “We are dying and in desperate need of help,” he said. “My wife had a miscarriage due to malnutrition.”

Ethiopia is the largest recipient of US food aid in the world. The revelations about the scale and ubiquity of the looting mean awkward questions will be asked about why the lists of beneficiaries, made by local government, were not checked more carefully. Questions may also arise about when the UN partners detected the theft and what kind of third-party monitoring was in place to prevent such plunder.

USAID announced more than a month ago that it was suspending all aid to the northern region of Tigray, where a civil war killed hundreds of thousands of people. The May 3 statement from USAID chief Samantha Power said, “Food aid, intended for the people of Tigray suffering under famine-like conditions, was being diverted and sold on the local market”.

But it did not apportion blame. A day after USAID’s Tigray announcement, the World Food Programme (WFP), whose former executive director David Beasley bonded with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed over their shared evangelism, said it had also suspended aid in Tigray last month over diversion concerns.

The WFP plans to carry out realtime needs assessments, strengthen its checks on beneficiary lists, reinforce centralised oversight and improve the tracking of commodities, spokesperson Annabel Symington said. The country director for WFP in Ethiopia is on leave, she said. A colleague said he had stepped down. Symington did not respond to questions about whether the director would return to the role, and it was unclear if it was related to the investigation. She also did not respond to requests for comment about the diversion of food aid.

One diplomat, who knew of an investigation into the diversion, said that USAID found evidence that food aid was being used to feed the military and former rebel fighters in Tigray. More than 90 percent of Tigrayans need food aid. The interim president of Tigray, Getachew Reda, did not respond to requests for comment. In the Somali region, which has been grappling with the worst drought in generations, mill managers told the investigation team that they routinely bought bags of wheat in bulk that were branded with USAID and WFP logos, the diplomat said. The bags were unopened, indicating it was not middlemen buying from families who had sold part of their rations, said the diplomat.

The border town of Dolo Ado in Ethiopia has two functioning flour mills even though the nearest wheat production is more than 500km away, he noted. The USAID investigation team witnessed the direct involvement of the Ethiopian National Defence Force in the diversion of food aid in Harar, the diplomat said. Ethiopia has long had a rocky relationship with the UN. The top UN aid official accused the government of using starvation as a weapon and blockading food convoys from reaching Tigray during the height of the civil war there, a charge the government denied.

This article was first published in The Washington Post