A freeze on the delivery of food assistance in Ethiopia by the country’s two largest food donors is having a devastating impact in Tigray, with more people dying of hunger “as a direct result of no aid”, according to one of the northern region’s top relief officials.
Millions are dependent on food aid in Tigray – a region still struggling to recover from two years of civil war – yet there have been no deliveries since April, following a suspension ordered by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Food Programme (WFP) over allegations of large-scale food theft.
This month, both agencies extended the pause to all of Ethiopia pending the completion of investigations into claims of “widespread and coordinated” food diversions allegedly involving federal and regional government officials, private traders, and the army.
Gebrehiwot Gebreegziabher, head of the Tigray Region Disaster Risk Management Commission, said his office had recorded 595 hunger-related deaths over the past three months in just three of the region’s seven zones. Insecurity has made the rest of Tigray inaccessible.
Although hunger-related deaths occurred during the war, he said many more people are dying now, “as a direct result of no aid”.
"We are in an extremely desperate situation,” he told The New Humanitarian. “We can only predict there will be worse to come as aid has not been delivered for many months. [The recorded deaths] are only within a small segment of Tigray, but [it] gives a glimpse of what’s happening all across the region.”
Earlier this year, prior to the freeze, the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network warned that “at a minimum” food assistance “must be sustained at current levels to prevent widespread hunger-related mortality and total livelihoods collapse”.
Samre, a small neglected town of crumbling stone buildings 60 kilometres southwest of Tigray’s regional capital, Mekelle, has acted as a magnet for hundreds of hungry families from a barren countryside, arriving in the hope that food deliveries will resume.
Ashebir Tekay, the local government administrator, said 10 children died this month in Samre from malnutrition – a toll he had never witnessed before – and he expected more deaths. “Our children are falling like leaves,” he told The New Humanitarian. “We have nothing to offer them.”
His office was crowded with displaced people pleading their cases for help. Letay Tesfaye was one. She had not eaten for days, she said. Whatever food good samaritans in the town gave her, she fed her four hungry-looking young children first.
She was especially worried about her last born. He was not yet weaned, but Tesfaye’s frail body was no longer producing milk. “I have seen the death of many children here, and I am certain my children are next,” she told The New Humanitarian.
Samre is a farming community, but the war between the federal government and the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) not only forced more than 1.8 million people from their homes, but upturned years of investment in agricultural development, the mainstay of the Tigray economy.
Well-wishers in the town help where they can, typically sharing their leftover injera – the pancake-like flatbread that accompanies every Ethiopian meal – with the families sleeping rough on the streets. But they themselves are struggling, with the pre-harvest lean season beginning this month.
Meseret Mebrate’s two children are painfully thin. “Every time they fall asleep, I feel like I have lost them and I have to check they're breathing,” she told The New Humanitarian.
The war forced her to flee her rural home in Western Tigray, now under the control of Amhara regional forces that fought alongside the federal army, and where there have been allegations of ongoing ethnic cleansing.
‘Many people to serve, but little resources’
One reason she came to Samre is that the government hospital used to serve as an aid agency food distribution point. But without food to deliver, most NGOs have pulled out.
“IDP patients are not given free clinical services due to a lack of money, so [their] mortality rate may increase due to lack of medication in addition to lack of food.”
There’s a nutrition programme at the hospital, but it serves only the people of Samre. A security guard at the gate checks people’s ID, and turns away displaced families on the grounds that medical supplies are low, the pharmacy virtually empty, and drugs need to be rationed.
"The humanitarian needs of Samre are huge. We have many people to serve, but little resources,” said a doctor working in the hospital for an international aid agency. He asked that his name not be used, nor that of his organisation.
“Many [of those in need] are mothers with children, who are malnourished,” he told The New Humanitarian. However, “IDP patients are not given free clinical services due to a lack of money, so [their] mortality rate may increase due to lack of medication in addition to lack of food.”
Neither the doctor, nor the aid agency’s headquarters, would reveal how many people were being treated in the hospital’s stabilisation centre due to the political “sensitivity” of the food crisis in Ethiopia – with the federal government intolerant of aid groups it deems critical of its humanitarian response.
Tembien, 60 kilometres west of Mekelle, is much larger and better off than Samre. It was once a base for food distributions in the area, and thousands of displaced families have found shelter here, turning the classrooms of the town’s two schools into improvised dormitories, with cardboard sleeping mats and thin mattresses on the floors.
Tembien these days is struggling: The town's businesses have shut down as a result of the war, and there’s hardly any work available for the displaced who have settled here – many of them from disputed Western Tigray.
Thirteen-year-old Tahugas Hagos helps her mother collect firewood for sale. A bundle earns the equivalent of a dollar, roughly enough to buy a single meal for the family of four. “Eating regularly is like a dream for us, and when we do, it’s by chance,” she said.
An aid worker, who asked not to be named as they weren’t authorised to speak to the media, said people’s “coping mechanisms” are exhausted. Desperate families have sold all their household items, even the plastic pots and blankets donated by aid agencies.
“Imagine that the last food aid distribution was three months ago, you’ve got little left to sell or exchange,” she told The New Humanitarian. “If you don’t have anything of value, then you have to find some way to survive.”
During the two-year war, 2.6 million people in Tigray were going hungry – almost half the population. A de facto aid blockade by the Ethiopian government, and attacks on food and healthcare systems that also involved its Eritrean and Amhara regional allies, deepened the starvation.
A peace agreement signed in November 2022 allowed the ramping up of aid deliveries. By January this year – although supply difficulties still existed – the UN reported 3.9 million people out of the 5.4 million assessed to be in need were receiving some relief.
However, the standard food ration provides only 63% of a beneficiary's daily calorie requirements – and 1.5 million people were receiving no aid at all. In March, the acute malnutrition rate for children screened in Tigray health centres was 30%; hitting 63% for pregnant and lactating women.
Those nutrition figures have worsened since USAID and WFP halted food deliveries at the end of March.
By May, out of 22,533 pregnant or lactating women screened in Tigray, 71% were found to be acutely malnourished. The numbers of children being treated for malnutrition in Mekelle’s main hospital, Ayder, had jumped by 28% in the same month, according to Gebreegziabher, the director of the disaster risk commission.
In June, the food aid suspension was extended to all of Ethiopia following a USAID probe that discovered that aid diversion was both systematic and countrywide – a pause also adopted by WFP.
More than 20 million Ethiopians reliant on aid have been affected, mostly as a result of drought, conflict, and inflation, which is currently running at over 30%.
“Of course it’s been devastating, but it’s not just Tigray,” said the aid worker. “The situation in the [southern] Somali region is just as bad, if not worse. Tigray was Ethiopia’s richest region; in the south, there’s no infrastructure.”
Who is to blame?
There is a great deal of anger in Samre and Tembien over the hardship people are facing. Tekay, the Samre administrator, blames the federal government. “[They] took charge during the war in our region, but we were neglected and we all suffered immensely,” he told The New Humanitarian.
"I just want this nightmare to end.”
USAID points to corruption in the aid delivery system as the underlying culprit. Its probe identified “a country-wide diversion scheme” coordinated by senior officials in both federal and regional governments, with food meant for hungry people sold on commercial markets or supplied to military units.
Significant diversions of USAID-funded food were witnessed by investigators in seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions. In one example, enough stolen US-supplied wheat to feed 134,000 people for a month was found for sale in a single market in Tigray. Private grain and flour traders also played a role in the diversion scams, the agency noted.
The Tigray regional government has launched its own inquiry, and this month it acknowledged that misappropriation had taken place at both the federal and regional level. It also accused Eritrea of being involved in the plunder of relief supplies.
The Ethiopian government, however, has “refuted” the preliminary findings of USAID’s probe, and has criticised the aid cuts for deepening the humanitarian crisis. Ethiopia's military has also denied receiving stolen food.
Key to enabling the misappropriation was the inflation of the numbers on food beneficiary lists – a system historically controlled by national and regional governments, aid workers told The New Humanitarian. Relief agencies had acquiesced for decades, even though they were aware that diversions were occurring.
WFP said this week that it hopes to resume some food aid distribution in Ethiopia by the end of July, once it has greater responsibility over how beneficiaries are selected. The aim is to “ensure humanitarian food assistance reaches vulnerable people across Ethiopia who need it”, the agency said.
That can’t come soon enough for 13-year-old Hagos from Tembien. "I just want this nightmare to end,” she told The New Humanitarian. “I want to be a child again, go to school, [and I hope]… no one has to go through what we are going through.”
Edited by Obi Anyadike.