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Tigray aid response is too little, too late, poll respondents say

‘A restrictive government, combined with insecurity and active fighting, can completely hamstring the aid response for months.’

Displaced people in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, 14 March, 2021. (Baz Ratner/REUTERS)

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People in northern Ethiopia get less humanitarian relief compared to those facing the impact of conflicts in northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, or Central African Republic, an independent poll released today by research group Humanitarian Outcomes found.

Fewer than half the conflict-affected people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region had received help since the conflict began in November, the survey revealed. Those that did said it wasn’t enough, and 79 percent overall believed aid was not reaching the areas most in need. A quarter said government and military groups were blocking or taking aid. Compared to respondents in other conflict zones who answered the same questionnaire, Tigrayans are less sure of the reasons for uneven aid provision; the report suggests that limited telecommunications and media coverage could be a contributing factor.

The survey of 614 people in Tigray was conducted by phone from late February to early March, despite on-and-off power and mobile network connections. The sample included people across the major regions of Tigray, but few displaced people. 

The survey provides new evidence to gauge the reach of humanitarian aid in a tense debate between the government and the international community over the scale and seriousness of the fall-out from Ethiopia’s five-month conflict. 

The conflict began in November, when federal government forces clashed with armed insurgents supporting the regional political party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Other Tigrayan militia, the Eritrean military, and forces from the neighbouring Amhara region are also involved. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has said the government campaign is a necessary assertion of national legitimacy, as the country is faced with an armed rebellion. His government has regained control of major towns in Tigray and installed a provisional administration. 

But military clashes continue, and massacres, forced displacement, sexual violence, looting, halting of trade and communications, and disruption of daily life mean most of the estimated six million people in the region are negatively affected, and millions need some kind of help. 

The UN’s humanitarian office calls the situation “extremely dire and far from improving”.

EU envoy Pekka Haavisto is visiting the country this week, the latest in a series of diplomatic efforts to contain the conflict that threatens to destabilise the whole country and the wider region. 

The report notes that compared to other crisis situations monitored by the overarching project on the “Coverage, Operational Reach, and Effectiveness of Humanitarian Aid”, “Tigray has the highest numbers of people in need as a percentage of the population, the lowest numbers of organisations responding, and the lowest percentage of people in need reached by aid.”

Researcher Abby Stoddard said the report “shows that a restrictive government, combined with insecurity and active fighting, can completely hamstring the aid response for months.”

Almost all respondents said they needed help, and 43 percent said they had received at least some. The most common form of aid requested, and received, was food. Healthcare, clean water, and sanitation services were the services next most in demand. However, electricity and telecommunications topped the answers to an open-ended question on what people needed most. 

Only two percent of respondents said they had received any help other than food. Some 31 percent said they “don’t know” the main obstacle to accessing aid, but 23 percent blamed government restrictions and 21 percent a lack of safety. Non-government military were to blame, according to 16 percent.

“Mobile phone surveys will always be limited by the degree of phone ownership and coverage, and in this case we had to pause it a couple of times due to power outages,” explained Stoddard. “Respondents tend to skew more urban and educated as a rule… in this case we mainly reached people who were still in their home districts.”

Limited access

According to the international aid community, government restrictions as well as insecurity and fighting have been preventing sufficient relief aid from getting through. The government has relaxed some of its restrictions on media and aid groups following sustained international lobbying. Significant volumes of food aid are being delivered to the region by the government, the UN, and NGOs. 

Addis Ababa insists progress is being made to normalise the situation and deliver help, and to investigate rights abuses. However, the UN’s latest map of humanitarian access shows only small pockets of the region are fully open to relief aid provision. 

Asked about which aid agencies were most active, respondents mentioned the Relief Society of Tigray (REST) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). REST, formerly affiliated to the now rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front, is the final link in the chain for a large food aid operation serviced by NGOs, including Catholic Relief Services. 

Food and ‘starvation crimes’

Even as larger volumes of aid are being sent into the region, aid agency heads interviewed anonymously as part of the survey don’t have full confidence in where it’s going: “Although humanitarian organisations are doing their best to monitor distributions, some are worried about possible discrimination and exclusion in deciding who gets aid, and about the degree of control that authorities and armed actors are exerting over processes of targeting and distribution.”

The latest update by the UN humanitarian office, OCHA, reports an “extremely concerning malnutrition situation.”

A new report by The World Peace Foundation, whose authors include Horn of Africa and famine analyst Alex de Waal, states that “Ethiopian and Eritrean belligerents in the war in Tigray have comprehensively dismantled the region’s economy and food system.”

The report continued: “Regardless of who is responsible for the outbreak of hostilities, the sole reason for the scale of the humanitarian emergency is that the coalition of Ethiopian Federal forces, Amhara regional forces, and Eritrean troops are committing starvation crimes on large scale.”

Prior to the outbreak of war in November, the Tigray region had mostly achieved food security, the report noted. But in March, the US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) classified at least 20 percent of the population of both central and eastern Tigray, in addition to several sections of northwestern and southeastern Tigray, as experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity. 

Based on those figures, the report stated, there are now 50 to 100 excess deaths every day, and if the food security situation is not stabilised, it will lead to “mass starvation and a risk of famine” in the coming months.

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