The Dire Cost of Weaponising Humanitarian Aid

Jun 24 , 2023.

As one confronts the unfolding tragedy in Ethiopia – Africa's second most populous country – it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming sense of déjà vu. For too long, the spectre of famine has haunted this country and its people; a tragedy made all the more dreadful by the vast scale of human suffering accompanying it.

This time, however, there is a new, horrifying dimension to the crisis: the explicit and deliberate suspension of food aid to millions in desperate need. The United States (US) and the United Nations (UN), whose humanitarian largesse Ethiopians have long relied on, are holding back their generosity over concerns of alleged misuse by Ethiopian officials and non-state armed insurgencies.

This gambit, arguably an attempt to force the Ethiopian government to reform its aid delivery mechanisms, may appear a justified response to chronic corruption and mismanagement. But the stark reality remains that civilians bear the brunt of this policy.

Can such a strategy be condoned?

The justifications for this dramatic move are far from trivial. Allegations of large-scale theft and diversion of aid have been mounting for months. Interim administration officials of the Tigray Regional State claimed to have uncovered, in a single town there, stolen food aid enough to feed 134,000 people for a month.

The Ethiopian government has long maintained a troubling level of control over aid distribution, from manipulating beneficiary lists to directly pilfering supplies. Given this background, the impulse to withhold aid until better oversight and accountability are secured could be understandable.

Sean Jones of USAID-Ethiopia and Carl Skau, WFP's deputy executive director for Ethiopia, who is also the chief operating officer, face an unenviable choice between tolerating corruption and causing immediate suffering.

However, while there are no easy solutions, a policy of deliberate starvation is not just morally reprehensible. It is strategically misguided. Holding the most vulnerable victims of war and militarised conflict hostage in an attempt to force the hands of their leaders is a dangerous gambit.

For one, it underestimates the grim reality of politics in a country like Ethiopia. Despite the harrowing reports of starvation deaths, there is no guarantee that the government would bend to external pressure. Experience should have been a better teacher for Messrs Jones and Skau that Ethiopia's leaders have the habit of politicising external pressure for the domestic end. They often use the crisis to consolidate power and scapegoat foreign powers.

The result is the same for the people on the ground: further suffering.

Instead of using food aid as a bargaining chip, the crisis in Ethiopia should be viewed as an opportunity to rethink how humanitarian aid is delivered in conflict zones and states plagued by corruption. This starts with acknowledging that the onus of reform should not lie solely on the shoulders of Ethiopia's government but also on those of the international donors.

For too long, aid has been given without enough attention to how it is distributed and used. It is an uncomfortable fact that humanitarian agencies have often tolerated a degree of corruption by government officials, and aid diversion by armies of cadres with authority on the ground, either due to logistical constraints, or as part of an implicit quid pro quo for access.

A response should thus seek to find a balance between the imperative to deliver aid and the necessity of ensuring it is not misused. Transparency and accountability need to be strengthened on all sides: from donor countries, humanitarian organisations, and, crucially, the Ethiopian authorities.

This begins with a robust, impartial investigation into the allegations of food aid diversion and theft, conducted not just by Sean Jones and his team but also by independent experts with the necessary credibility and impartiality.

Aid distribution must be depoliticised. The Ethiopian government's role in the supply chain needs to be monitored, if not limited. Considering how many such countries overblow the principle of "sovereignty" to shelter impunity, the internationals should emphasise the convention on the "responsibility to protect".

Simultaneously, diplomatic pressure needs to be exerted on the federal and regional authorities to ensure cooperation. A potential path towards this is coupling aid provision with increased visibility and condemnation of corruption. Highlighting the government's responsibility and publicising its failure could be a powerful tool in forcing its hand towards reform.

The key to reforming aid distribution lies in not merely rehashing existing structures, but implementing creative and innovative solutions that limit the scope for graft.

The internationals can have a powerful ally in technology. Biometric registration of beneficiaries and real-time monitoring of aid distribution, for instance, can ensure that aid reaches the intended recipients. Third-party distribution can also play a crucial role in limiting the opportunity for political manipulation of aid.

Ethiopian authorities would do themselves a favour if they understood that theft of aid will not only lead to a suspension of emergency and humanitarian assistance but will also be accompanied by international public shaming.

It is imperative not to ignore the larger geopolitical context within which this crisis is unfolding. The civil war in Tigray and neighbouring regional states has been not just a domestic issue. It is part of a larger regional dynamic involving other players, notably Eritrea. The internationals can actively engage with these regional dynamics to create a framework that allows for the smooth and unimpeded flow of aid, thereby reducing the chances of it being siphoned off by non-state actors and insurgent groups.

The crisis in Ethiopia should be an affront to the collective conscience, a damning indictment of the global community's failure to respond to a foreseen tragedy effectively. While the theft and misuse of food aid is an issue that demands urgent attention and resolution, it should not be used as an excuse to penalise the very people the aid is meant to help. This would be tantamount to punishing the victim for the crime of others.

Instead, the focus should be on a more transparent, accountable and efficient aid distribution system that does not play into the hands of corrupt officials. This could be a tough call, one that could not be accomplished overnight. However, the alternative – maintaining the status quo or, worse, using food aid as a weapon – is simply untenable.

In an increasingly interconnected world, the starvation of millions in Ethiopia is not a distant tragedy but an immediate crisis that requires a compassionate, yet firm response. Over 20 million Ethiopians remain food insecure. These are not just numbers on a page, but human lives hanging in the balance.

Messrs Jones and Skau, as well as their bosses in Washington D.C. and Rome, owe it to the victims to act decisively and wisely. Anything less would be a dereliction of their moral duty.

Such a transformation could be costly, complex and riddled with potential failure points. But the cost of inaction is far greater. It is measured not in dollars and cents, but in human lives. A society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. The internationals are failing miserably. Ethiopia presents them an opportunity to change this, to choose compassion over cold calculus, hope over despair.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 24,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1208]

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