The US Agency for International Development has suspended all its food aid to Ethiopia over the discovery of “widespread and coordinated” theft, throwing the vital relief effort for millions of war- and drought-affected people into jeopardy, news reports said.
“We cannot move forward with distribution of food assistance until reforms are in place,” a USAID spokesperson was quoted as saying in a statement sent to the Washington Post, which broke the story first on Thursday.
USAID is by far Ethiopia’s largest food donor, and the suspension will impact more than 20 million people dependent on food aid, mostly as a result of drought, conflict, and inflation, which is currently running at over 30%.
“This is causing immense suffering,” an aid worker, who asked not to be named as they weren’t cleared to speak to the media, told The New Humanitarian. “There is really no excuse. If you can’t do food deliveries, then do cash deliveries.”
The countrywide delivery freeze expands an earlier suspension announced by USAID in May but limited to food deliveries to the northern Tigray region, which is still struggling to recover from two years of war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) announced a similar aid pause just in Tigray in May, with both agencies saying the suspensions would remain in place until investigations into food diversions – implicating both the federal government and the regional Tigray administration – were concluded.
Suspension of food aid in Tigray is reported to have started as early as 30 March.
USAID said its probe has identified “a country-wide diversion scheme primarily targeting donor-funded food commodities”, according to an internal memo of a recent meeting by the donor community in Ethiopia, obtained by the Addis Standard newspaper.
The scheme “appears to be orchestrated” by federal and regional governments entities, “with military units across the country benefiting from humanitarian assistance”, the memo, prepared by the Humanitarian and Resilience Donor Group (HRDG), to which USAID is a part, reportedly said. “Private grain and flour traders and operators have also played a role in the scheme,” it added.
The HRDG memo noted that the scale of the food theft could extend to seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions. Monitoring visits to 63 flour mills “witnessed significant diversion of USAID-funded humanitarian food commodities across all seven regions”, it read.
“International organisations and donors have known for years that aid is syphoned off for sale, but have chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice,” Ethiopia researcher and author Martin Plaut told The New Humanitarian. “It is welcome so see that finally this appears to be being abandoned.”
The New Humanitarian reported earlier this week that WFP’s Ethiopia country director Claude Jibidar and his deputy, Jennifer Bitonde, had tendered their resignations at an all-staff meeting on 2 June.
A WFP statement on 6 June denied that both managers had resigned, saying that Jibidar was “currently on leave and remains a WFP employee”.
However, WFP did not respond to questions by The New Humanitarian over whether he was still country director, and whether resignations had been tendered at the staff meeting, which sources present had described as “emotional”.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that a WFP colleague of Jibidar had also told them that he had stepped down.
On Thursday, Chris Nikoi, who was previously WFP’s regional director for West and Central Africa, introduced himself to staff in Addis Ababa as WFP’s interim country director for Ethiopia, according to WFP staff at the meeting who asked not to be named to preserve working relationships.
Nikoi, according to the same sources, told staff that the recurring allegations of food theft were affecting donor confidence in WFP and could impact future funding levels.
As part of the diversion, flour made from donated wheat meant for the hungry in Ethiopia was being exported to Kenya and Somalia, a diplomat with knowledge of USAID’s investigation was quoted as saying by the Washington Post, adding that WFP was either “negligent or complicit”.
Amid lingering questions over when USAID and WFP discovered the diversion and why better measures weren’t put in place to monitor distributions, the Addis Standard reported that one of the “demands by the USAID” is to see a “complete change in leadership at the WFP Ethiopia”, according to an unnamed source.
Before USAID’s food delivery freeze is lifted, “the country’s humanitarian architecture must undergo significant and immediate reforms”, the HDRG memo said.
Edited by Andrew Gully.