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Rethinking Humanitarianism | The politicisation of aid in Ethiopia

‘Accusations of partiality, accusations of malfeasance, have not been stood up and pushed back by donors to the UN or NGOs, leading to a sense of powerlessness in Ethiopia.’

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Ethiopia recently marked one year of war. The conflict has spread from the northern Tigray region to other parts of the country, including Afar and Amhara. Millions of people are in need of humanitarian assistance, but the federal government has blocked supplies from getting into Tigray, and insecurity has limited aid access in other regions too.

The relief effort has been heavily politicised, as were prior aid operations in Ethiopia, where the central government has long controlled how humanitarian organisations work. Aid workers are accused of partiality, and hammered with lies and vitriol from the government and its opponents, especially if they dare to speak out about the aid blockade and other aspects of the conflict.

In this episode, TNH CEO and podcast host Heba Aly discusses the difficult balancing act for aid agencies in Ethiopia that want to speak out against abuses in Tigray but are worried about the consequences of doing so on their perceived neutrality and their ability to continue delivering assistance to those who need it. 

Guests: Addis Ababa-based journalist Samuel Getachew; Laura Hammond, profesor of Development Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London; Awol Allo, senior lecturer in law at Keele University; David Del Conte, campaigner of Stop Tigray Famine at Refugees International.

New episodes of Rethinking Humanitarianism are published every two weeks. Make sure you never miss an episode of season two by subscribing on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or searching “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #RethinkingHumanitarianism.

TRANSCRIPT | The politicisation of aid in Ethiopia

Heba Aly: The war in Ethiopia recently marked one year. A conflict between the government and leaders of the northern Tigray region has left more than five million people in Tigray in need of aid. 

The conflict has also spread to other regions of the country, including Afar and Amhara. And armed rebels affiliated with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front are edging closer to the capital Addis Ababa.

As the rebels have gained traction since the summer, the government is increasingly accusing aid agencies of supporting them. But there is no clear evidence to support these claims and aid agencies and donors adamantly reject these claims. 

Clip, ETV, Aug 31, 2021 

In no sense, and in no history of humanitarian assistance here in Ethiopia, has USAID ever provided any kind of food, or drugs, or any other kind of assistance to TPLF or to armed groups in Ethiopia.

In the latest of a series of obstructions of aid, the government has detained a number of staff of UN agencies. 

Clip, Al Jazeera, Nov 10,2021

The United Nations is pushing for the release of 16 Ethiopian staff, who’ve been detained by the government in Addis Ababa. 

Clip, United Nations, Nov 9,2021

We are of course working actively with the Government of Ethiopia to secure their immediate release. 

Aly: Suspicion of aid in Ethiopia is not new. For decades, successive governments have tightly controlled aid in the country and put international agencies on a tight leash. And for a long time, aid organisations went along with that. Instead of pushing back, they towed the line. 

The international community went along with that too... because Ethiopia was a stable partner of the West in a volatile region.

But now, as the government finds itself in the midst of an active conflict and stands accused of war crimes – including starving its own people to death as a form of punishment – many aid agencies feel the status quo of staying silent is no longer acceptable. 

I’m Heba Aly. This is Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

Ethiopia is an extreme example of what is becoming the norm in today’s conflicts: the politicisation of aid. 

The government is preventing aid from getting into Tigray, and has suspended or detained several NGOs and UN officials. For their part, Tigrayans have accused aid agencies of being too close to the government and abandoning the Tigrayan people. Several aid workers have been killed. 

As aid workers speak out about their lack of access and the man-made famine in Tigray, they are being accused of partiality and being hammered with lies and vitriol from both sides. 

So today we’re digging into how the aid community should react in such situations. What’s the right balancing act? Should they be speaking out against the government? Is that considered taking sides? Being too political? And jeopardising the limited access they currently have? Or is speaking out in the face of war crimes and human rights abuses the very responsibility of humanitarians – and one that has been abandoned in Ethiopia for far too long?

Before we try to answer those questions, let’s get some context from Ethiopian journalist Samuel Getachew, who joins us from Addis Ababa.

And I should note that reporting on Ethiopia is extremely complicated, and just like aid workers, journalistic access to the regions where the humanitarian needs are most severe has been obstructed. And some journalists, including Samuel, have gotten used to receiving death threats.

Samuel, welcome to the podcast. 

Samuel Getachew: Hi.

Aly: So the war started just over a year ago. Can you summarise for us what this conflict is about, and who is fighting whom? 

Samuel: Well, the conflict began last November. And it was a fight between the Ethiopian government and the TPLF – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF had just conducted an election that the government said was against the constitution of the country. 

They had delayed elections all over the country blaming COVID. But the TPLF decided to hold its election and then it was accused of attacking an army base in Mekelle. And the government said that they needed to respond to it.

And then the conflict began, the Prime Minister said it will take a few weeks and that will be done. But it has continued affecting not thousands, but millions of Ethiopians. More than two million Ethiopians are displaced. Thousands have left, to Sudan. There are many, many people in need of aid, and many, many parts of the nation that we can’t reach because of lack of communication and media. So I’m not allowed to be there.

But I have to tell you, the victims that this conflict is creating, without blaming anyone, is just overwhelming. 

Aly: You mentioned the difficulty of getting access to different areas and journalists do have very little access to Tigray. You were able to visit the region in June. What did you see there?

Samuel: There are many, many people that are on the verge of facing famine. Where they have little resources. You walk into a school, which is supposed to be a school, it has become a temporary residence area for the displaced. 

You go to Afar, there are hundreds of people who sleep under a tree. Young kids who should be going to school. It’s just an overwhelming conflict with no end in sight. 

The UN says close to one million people are facing famine, 91% of the population are in need of emergency aid. 

Aly: You have, among the things you’ve reported on, documented the obstruction of aid and we have certainly documented that trend quite profusely. Can you tell us about some of the more significant constraints on aid by either side of the conflict?

Samuel: There are hundreds of trucks that are missing, even according to the UN. You know, the Ethiopian government is saying it’s being used in the conflicts. We’ve also seen the most senior leadership of the UN being kicked out of Ethiopia, accused of some of the most serious allegations, including aiding the TPLF [that] the Ethiopian government has declared as a terrorist organisation. There are many, many accusations, not just to the aid workers, but to the media as well. Distributing fake news, distributing weapons, you know, all kinds of stuff. 

Aly: You talked about the government accusing aid agencies of supporting the rebels. Is there any evidence behind those assertions? 

Samuel: The Ethiopian government insists the UN is supporting the TPLF organisation, they have given an indication there is some evidence of that. The head of the UN in New York has asked to see the evidence. 

Clip, Secretary-General António Guterres, Oct 7, 2021

If there is any written document, provided by the Ethiopian government, to any UN institution, about any of the eight members that were expelled. I’d like to receive a copy of that document, because I have not had any knowledge of any of them.

Aly: What is the public’s perception of agencies in this conflict? Obviously, the government has its views, or makes its accusations. The TPLF is also a party to the conflict and you know, information is always used as part of warfare. But what about the average Ethiopian? How do they view aid?

Samuel: Well, aid has been with us longer than I remember. In 1984-85 aid organisations started coming and many of them stayed behind. They’ve become so important, but they also have been accused of aiding organisations that the government sees as a terrorist group. They've been accused of using their trucks to send weapons. 

You know, you just have to read social media to only know that Ethiopians are beginning to have misgivings. You know, there’s always a question, why are they here? What’s in their interest? So that kind of question has been going on for a long, long time. 

But since the conflict has began, since the TPLF started to have strength and started advancing far from the Tigray to the Amhara and Afari region, people have started to accuse the UN of providing them aid.

Aly: But it sounds like it has history that goes much longer than this conflict and that dates back to the days of the famine in the 1980s, that skepticism of aid?

Samuel: Yes. 

Aly: And as international aid agencies, NGOs, the UN, are coming under pressure, accusations by the government, but also real pressure on their operations. What about local or grassroots or diaspora aid organisations? Are they able to operate and fill some of that humanitarian need that you described? 

Samuel: You know, when the TPLF led a coalition government starting in the early 90s, they brought this idea of ethnic federalism, so everybody became an ethnic bloc. You’re an Amhara, You’re an Oromo. So now the focus is on all these ethnic groups helping one of their own. There is a diaspora group for Amharas, for Afaris. It's not for Ethiopia, it’s just for the ethnic communities. 

Aly: Samuel, thank you so much for taking the time to share these difficult stories and good luck with your reporting moving forward. 

Samuel: Thank you.

Aly: Before we move on, it might be useful to give you a quick crash course on Ethiopian history and politics. 

Ethiopia was a monarchy until 1974, when a military council – known as the Derg – overthrew the Emperor. 

In 1991, the Derg was itself overthrown by the guerilla fighters of the TPLF, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Yes, the same group that now is at the heart of the current conflict. They ruled Ethiopia as part of a coalition of different ethnic political parties known as, wait for it, another acronym, the EPRDF – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front – but the TPLF was the one calling the shots. Its rule was characterised by fast economic growth, and a strong partnership with the West, but also ethnic federalism and severe human rights abuses. 

Protestors overthrew the TPLF coalition in 2018 and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office, he released political prisoners and promised democratic reforms. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for ending a long-time war with neighbouring Eritrea. 

But soon after, tensions between the new government of Abiy Ahmed and TPLF leaders led to a civil war, in which the obstruction of aid to those in need has become a defining feature.

Unable to defeat the Tigrayan forces militarily, the government has blocked commercial and humanitarian supplies from regularly entering Tigray, throwing hundreds of thousands of people into famine. And as the rebels have pushed into the regions of Amhara and Afar, people there are struggling to get help too.

International NGOs that have spoken out against the conflict and against the blockade have had their operations suspended, while many of the most senior UN officials coordinating the humanitarian response have been kicked out of the country – it’s a decision UN Secretary-General António Guterres said violated international law, prompting protest at the UN Security Council in New York. 

Clip, United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Oct 6, 2021

We called for today’s urgent meeting because of the Ethiopian government’s reckless expulsion of seven key UN officials, including the head of UNICEF, the head of the UNOCHA, and a senior official from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. These expulsions are an affront, they are an affront to the council, they are an affront to the UN and they are an affront to United Nations’ member states and our shared humanitarian principles. 

But while the government has been repeatedly accused of blockading Tigray, it denies intentionally obstructing aid:

Clip, CNN, Aug 9, 2021

There may have been bureaucratic cumbersome processes. And in fact, at the beginning, the complaint from international humanitarian assistance partners was that there were so many check points. So the checkpoints from my understanding, at the beginning which were seven, have been decreased, heeding to the complaints lodged by humanitarian actors. 

The government also blames the TPLF for diverting aid supplies.

All this has left agencies in a sensitive position: Wanting to speak out against what they consider to be the intentional starvation of civilians – which is a war crime under international law – but worried about the consequences of doing so. Both on their perceived neutrality and their ability to continue delivering aid to those who need it. 

So what should they do? 

To help answer that question, we’re joined in our virtual podcast studio today by Laura Hammond, professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Laura has worked in the Horn of Africa since 1993 and joins us from Nairobi. Hello! 

Laura Hammond: Hello, how are you?

Aly: Also with us is Ethiopian analyst Awol Allo. He is a senior lecturer in law at Keele University in the UK. Awol nominated Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for the Nobel Peace Prize that he won in 2019, but has since grown into a critic of the Ethiopian leader. He is joining us from London. Hi Awol.

Awol Allo: Hello, hi.

Aly: And finally, David Del Conte worked for many years in Ethiopia, including as Deputy Director of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA. He is currently working with Refugees International on a campaign called Stop Tigray Famine, which aims to lift the blockade on Tigray. David joins us from the outskirts of New York. Welcome to the podcast. 

David Del Conte: Good morning.

Aly: So since the start of the war we at The New Humanitarian have documented the repeated politicisation of aid in Ethiopia. and I’m wondering how it compares with other conflicts that you’ve witnessed. Is this just par for the course now? Or are we seeing something different here? 

Hammond: One of the things that strikes me now about this conflict is the pure vitriol that is being foisted on either side against the other side – the language of hate, the language of dehumanisation – when you use such language and you dehumanise the opponent, then it’s possible to carry out kind of worse war crimes against them, honestly. And I think both sides are using that kind of rhetoric in this conflict. Is it more political than other conflicts? No, it’s different. It’s got its own dynamics and its own history as well. 

Aly: You've been describing some of the vitriol against opponents, let's say, in the war. How does this compare in terms of the politicisation of aid in particular?

Hammond: I think that the politicisation of aid is very much tied to the politicisation of information exchange. And when you have a vacuum of information, then you get these kind of conspiracy theories and rumours about people's real practices or real motivations. And I think that only makes it even more difficult to deliver humanitarian aid in these kinds of contexts. When one doesn’t know exactly what the needs are, one doesn’t know exactly who’s doing what, and what are the practices of humanitarian actors, there’s a lack of information. What’s happening with the conflict, but also what's happening with humanitarian access at delivery, and what kinds of experiences people are having. And so politics of information is very much closely tied to the politics of humanitarian access. 

Aly: Awol, what do you think in terms of what we’re seeing today, vis-à-vis perceptions of aid in Ethiopia? 

Awol: So there has been a very long history in Ethiopia of politicising aid, and also this very powerful narrative that goes back to the 1970s/1980s, that TPLF has used Western aid to sustain its military operation against the Derg regime. That narrative is very central in terms of how people who saw themselves on the losing end of the war characterise and try to understand the unexpected victory of the TPLF. 

And also, this is happening in the context of a highly polarised, extremely divisive, political landscape, where highly bellicose narratives are used by not just ordinary individuals, but also the top leadership in the country. So you have all these kinds of factors that facilitate and make it easy for all sides to blame aid organisations.

Aly: David?

Del Conte: Information is power. And aid assistance is power, that is historical in Ethiopia, all the way through from the fall of the imperial government through to the struggle to defeat the Derg. And if you look at even the NGO laws that were created in Ethiopia in early 2000s, there’s some of the most draconian in Africa. And they are the blueprint for repression that was used in Sudan and further afield into Sri Lanka, even. The suspicion and guilt before innocence of the approach and how to view the aid community in Ethiopia is particularly strong. 

When we look at how the aid community is treated in Ethiopia, I think we also have to look at the wider political context and what trade-offs were made then that affect us all today, not just in Ethiopia, but worldwide. 

The politicisation of aid is something that has been happening for a long time in Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. And something always comes to mind to me: Familiarity breeds contempt. The aid agencies had been in these villages, in these communities for decades now providing assistance that is channeled through the government, allowing the government to say, ‘I gave you this,’ not MSF, not WFP. That control, that power – which has been part of the governance system in Ethiopia for such a long time. It’s a particularly toxic cocktail. And accusations of partiality, accusations of malfeasance, have not been stood up and pushed back by donors to the UN or NGOs or by the headquarters of the UN or the NGOs, leading to a sense of powerlessness in Ethiopia. If you’re a UN or NGO person and you’re facing such accusations, facing such suspicion at all times, it’s a very difficult tide to swim against. And you see a lot of people saying, ‘Okay, we’re just going to ride the tide. Because we don’t have any support to get out of this.’

Aly: What is riding the tide, in this case? 

Del Conte: In Ethiopia, we have a humanitarian aid operation that traditionally was operated through the government. And because you’re already taking away some of the systems and structures that would create independence for you – that you are independent, impartial, neutral, operating on the basis of need, rather than operating on the basis of where the government tells you to work. So you’re already playing off the back foot. 

And when the government says you can’t have more than two expats in a country, when the government says ‘I will choose your national staff for you, or at least vet them, to make sure’, you’re already giving ground and giving ground and giving ground. 

When you’re told to work in certain geographic areas, because it is in the interest of the state, you’re already giving ground and giving ground. So the NGOs and the UN in Ethiopia have been facing that uphill battle since 2001, when these NGO laws were first introduced. 

So when I say ride the tide it’s: how hard do I fight this year, to get a few changes on the NGO laws or few changes that gained ground and the progress is glacial. And all of a sudden, your quote unquote partner inhumanitarian development assistance is part and party to a particularly violent and particularly brutal conflict. Where do you start? How do you get out of this cycle? Where you are almost in a Stockholm Syndrome? How do you change the way that your organisation thinks and believes and acts from the ground to Addis to the headquarters?

Aly: And so what are the answers to those questions, if we can jump into some of that? Because you can understand why, to some extent, the Tigrayan forces would say, you are in the hands of the government, you are playing by the government's rules. And so you are “abandoning the people of Tigray.” And on the other hand, the agencies likely feeling quite helpless, that they can’t control this. And it's not at all their intention or their fault. What is the way out of that kind of a situation? 

Del Conte: The way that TPLF has phrased the UN and NGOs working for the government, they did that for 20 something years, they know exactly what they were doing before, so they can easily ascribe that title today. And this requires some pretty steady and sustained advocacy with them to say we are neutral, impartial, we’re not part of what we were before, under your government. And that sort of public positioning needs to happen consistently. And that would be a message to both.

Aly: Meaning that when the TPLF were in power, and NGOs were going along with government rules and procedures, because we weren't in a similar situation of active conflict, that that can no longer fly, and that they shouldn't assume that that's the way NGOs are operating today. 

Del Conte: Yes, I just think there’s some aggressive steps on independence that would have to be established, and then followed up upon. 

Hammond: Yeah, I would really agree with what David's just said. But just to kind of reiterate how difficult that process will be, if it were to happen. It goes back to the dark days when the Derg was also very tightly controlling of the international humanitarian community. And so in some ways, there are these similarities. If you now go to the TPLF and say, we’re different, we work in a different way, you can totally understand why the TPLF would not take you seriously. They would say no, we know that for the last 40 years, you’ve worked in Ethiopia, at our behest, at whoever the government is. So why should we think that things have changed now?

And that is partly the fault, not just of the humanitarian community, but also of the donor community, the diplomatic community, which I think has never really stood up, never really taken a strong stand with regard to Ethiopia, because they really wanted Ethiopia to be their best partner in the region – this ‘island of stability in a troubled region’, they often call it. And so they didn't really ever use conditionality very well. 

Throughout the EPRDF, in 1991 to 2018, when there were severe human rights concerns, they didn’t really insist on anything. They would raise diplomatic briefings and talk about human rights concerns, but never really use a consolidated, concerted effort to stand up to the government. 

And so, you know, we are where we are. And it’s not just because of this government or the previous government. It’s a long historical relationship in which we have to recognise that the international community, humanitarian and diplomatic, have played their role. And I think that’s also why the suspicion around the humanitarian community is, as Samuel was just describing it, so toxic in some ways. Again, that becomes even worse, the less information there is that’s verifiable, the more those kinds of conspiracy theories can circulate. 

Aly: But what you’re saying is that some of these suspicions are perhaps not justified but at least understandable in terms of where they’re coming from. 

Hammond: Yeah, we must recognise how we got to this point, and then try to understand it. Everyone has to understand what perspectives each side is coming from and try to take their grievances seriously – understanding their grievances has got to be the first step, I think. I think a second step is really thinking about some strategic contingency planning.

What are some of the scenarios that might unfold in this kind of environment? And try to be less reactive to what's happening today, today, today and think much more in the longer term about what’s coming down the line.

Awol: It’s really important to make a distinction between the kinds of issues that we encounter during peacetime and issues that we encounter during wartime. The level of humanitarian crisis that we see in Tigray now, also, in the Amhara region, the Afar region, are really not the same as the kinds of crises that we have seen in the past. And here, you have a deliberate decision on the part of a government that is responsible for everyone, including the people in Tigray, using food aid as a weapon. And this is not just a speculation. You see ministers, including the Prime Minister, arguing that if we let it in, then there is no guarantee that TPLF fighters will not be using this aid. 

So you have a very clear policy on the part of the government to use starvation as a means of prosecuting the war, as a means of winning the war. There has to be distinction between what we see now, the kind of practises that we saw during EPRDF’s period. You’re absolutely right, EPRDF/ TPLF - if it was in power today - it might have been the same thing, it might have used the same strategy, because it has shown us the willingness and determination to be ruthless towards human rights and humanitarian organisations.

And partly also, the government at the center today, was part of the EPRDF. These are not entirely different people. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the foreign minister - everyone was part of that system. The thinking is basically the same. There are also broader cultural issues, around a very strong belief in violence to settle differences. 

Aly: So as you’re saying, these are some of the same players, but we’re in a new war-time reality now, within that new reality, to what extent have aid agencies been able to break away from those patterns of the past? When we see MSF (Doctors Without Borders) or Norwegian Refugee Council – the two organisations that were suspended – being quite vocal about the blockade and being quite vocal about rights abuses committed in Tigray, not willing to just stay silent and toe the line. 

Is that a positive thing in the sense that they have learned some lessons from the past? Or is that exactly what is getting them into a difficult spot right now? I’m interested in that balance between speaking out against atrocities versus staying silent to maintain access – although in this case, maintaining access hasn’t really been a successful strategy for anyone. 

Hammond: The fact that an aid organisation talks about people starving to death is not a political statement. That’s what humanitarian actors are there to do. They’re there to know who needs help, and how to help them. And if they then shine a light into the fact that there is need in a particular area, then that shouldn’t be politicised. And it has been in this conflict, and it has been in previous conflicts as well and previous kinds of humanitarian situations throughout Ethiopia’s recent history. 

One of the many worrying features of this conflict has been the idea that humanitarian actors – whether it’s MSF, or whether it's the UN staff who've been expelled from the country – are not allowed to comment on humanitarian conditions, because that in a sense is taking sides, is extremely dangerous and as a misreading of the role of what humanitarians are there to do. 

Del Conte: If a humanitarian organisation is speaking about the needs, or the problems relating to delivering upon those needs, that is purely humanitarian.

But specifically, as it relates to today, there are lessons that we can draw from other contexts which is we work for people, we don’t work for governments, and that, in the humanitarian/development discussion, is very often lost. 

And we've seen the discussion about how do we continue to support the people in a context where we have no access or very little ability to manoeuver and support. I would never want to trade places with those country directors in Ethiopia making this decision in this recommendation to their capitals, but it's almost beyond what my mind can imagine – keeping silent in this moment. 

Aly: David, you’re now running this campaign called Stop Tigray Famine. And I don’t know the extent to which a traditional humanitarian agency would be willing to take such a strong, what I would consider political line in defence of those it considers to be in need. Is the answer almost being more honest about the need to be political in certain situations like this?

Del Conte: Independent humanitarian work is perhaps the most political of interventions that the international community engages in another country. ‘You can’t feed your people. So we're going to come in and do it.’ It’s a very political act. The work in itself is a highly political act. Because the state is not able to or is unwilling to meet the needs of the population. So I think that humanitarian agencies have long struggled with that truth. 

The work that we are doing is reported to other governments that are political. And the work that we do is reported to the UN Security Council, which is inherently highly political. We try to battle with that and it comes out in different ways. In Ethiopia, we decided to go to ground and be completely silent as operational agencies, trying to avoid that arena. But as an advocacy organisation that is non-operational, we do have the ability, the window of time to speak up on some of these issues, because those who are delivering, can't. So we chose Stop Tigray Famine, because there’s been a famine ongoing for 11 months. We know that. Numerically, we already know that. So calling it what it is is not a stretch from a humanitarian point of view. It’s in a political space, which is fine. We’re always in political spaces. But getting comfortable to that suit is something that a lot of organisations struggle with. And I completely understand why. And there's a balance there that I think, as a non-operational organisation, we don't have to struggle with. But if I was operational, and if I had staff on the ground, I would be worried about how it was presented as well. 

Aly: I mean, there aren't really easy answers in this kind of situation. But I do want to ask each of you one last question, which is, as usual on our podcast, if there was a step, that agencies who are operational on the ground in Ethiopia today could take to help navigate this politicisation and to position themselves in a way to be able to deliver humanitarian aid effectively. What would you suggest to them? 

Hammond: Find that middle ground, it’s very difficult in this conflict to just occupy a middle ground, to call for attending to humanitarian suffering wherever it may be, without saying this side or that side. It’s very difficult even to call for peace in this conflict we saw during the protests in Addis Ababa, when one of the speakers just spoke about the need for negotiation. They were pretty quickly silenced. And those of us who on social media speak about peace are constantly pushed into one way or the other: “ah, you're on one side, ah, you're on the other?” No, there has to be a middle space and humanitarian actors need to be involved in that. But it doesn’t need to be about picking sides. It has to be about trying to create that space, that humanitarian space to be able to respond to need according to where it is. There’s famine going on in Tigray. Unfortunately, the circle of need is spreading, it’s spreading outside of Tigray and this is no longer just a matter of what’s happening in Tigray, it’s happening in Afar, it’s happening in Amhara. And it could be spreading further. So we really need to just really focus on where's their need, and how can we occupy that middle ground to try, as much as possible, to not contribute to the further escalation of this vitriolic kind of rhetoric around the conflict, which is not helping anything. 

Aly: Awol, practically, how do you occupy that middle ground? How do you create that space to be able to operate and to not be perceived as on one side or the other? 

Awol: I think, understanding the kind of political faultlines, social cleavages, the ideological debates in the country would be helpful in terms of navigating the different accusations that might come your way at a practical level. But apart from that, I think it's important to remain true to humanitarian principles. Because, when you deal with highly authoritarian systems, then I think the best way humanitarian organisations could do their job is by remaining true to those principles, even if that means inviting accusations of partiality. 

Aly: Okay, because I was just gonna say: well, isn't that what they've tried to do in this case, and it hasn't really worked. But I guess what you're saying is, the reactions we’re seeing today are par for the course, we just have to be ready for them and accept that that's going to be part of the game and stick with it. 

Awol: Exactly. 

Del Conte: What is missing out of the conversation in Ethiopia is for those who are leading the humanitarian community really standing up aggressively and challenging member states, not only the host government, but the neighbours and the organisations such as the African Union, the UN Security Council, to defend that space – that a blockade of civilians is never acceptable. And that needs, while enormous in Tigray, are growing in Amhara and will grow throughout the country should this not stop. So these are things I think can and should be done from that executive level of the humanitarian community, UN and NGO, and the Security Council and those who support these organisations, because it will continue to metastasise and grow, not just in Ethiopia. 

But if we don’t do this, what’s next? We've learned some awful lessons from Syria, from Yemen, from Sri Lanka about our silence. We created Rights Up Front, we created R2P [Responsibility to Protect], post facto that had no impact. And it really didn’t change the way the humanitarians were perceived globally, or in specifically complicated places like Ethiopia. So I think there is a time which is overdue to really step on that gas to take that aggressive leadership role and reinforce international laws, principles and how we work. 

Aly: David, Awol, Laura, thank you very much for coming on to the podcast. It’s a difficult question without very straightforward answers, but I do hope we’ve been able to inject some rethinking into the way the humanitarian sector deals with these politicised situations. Thank you very much. 

Hammond: Thank you.

Del Conte: Thank you. 

Awol: Thank you for having us.

Aly: That’s it for this episode. But you’ll find plenty more on Ethiopia, including reporting on aid obstructions on our website: TheNewHumanitarian.org. And we’ll put a few articles of interest in the show notes. 

If you’ve got thoughts on this discussion, we’d love to hear them. Should the humanitarian sector speak out more aggressively and stand up more firmly to the government? Or does that risk politicising humanitarian aid even further? Have member states abandoned the agencies on the ground by failing to apply sufficient diplomatic pressure? Have you worked in a context where aid workers were under pressure by the government or weren’t perceived as impartial? How did you or your organisation cope and what lessons did you learn? I’d really love to hear different perspectives on this issue. Write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected]

And today we’ll leave you with a clip from Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, when he was accepting the Nobel Peace Prize – one year before the war broke out in Ethiopia. Ethiopia had just established peace with its long-time arch enemy Eritrea. In the speech, he categorically rejected war, and made statements that today seem in stark contrast to the crimes his government is alleged to have committed. 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf.

And I’m your host, Heba Aly

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

Clip, Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy Ahmed, Dec 10, 2019
War is the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I have been there and back. I have seen brothers slaughtering brothers on the battlefield. I have seen older men, women, and children trembling in terror under the deadly shower of bullets and artillery shells. You see, I was not only a combatant in war. I was also a witness to its cruelty and what it can do to people. War makes for bitter men. Heartless and savage men. 

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