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Exclusive: Donor-funded food diversion in Ethiopia ‘coordinated, criminal scheme’; covers seven regions, involves fed gov’t, regional entities

Women in the Afar region of Ethiopia receive emergency food assistance. Photo: ©WFP/Claire Nevill

Addis Abeba – Following the suspension of food aid delivery by the USAID and WFP, which at first appeared to have been triggered by food aid diversion in the war-torn Tigray regional state, an internal memo of a recent meeting by the donor community in Ethiopia obtained by Addis Standard revealed that the result of an “extensive monitoring” over the course of the last two months conducted by USAID, the single largest food aid provider to Ethiopia, has identified “a country-wide diversion scheme primarily targeting donor-funded food commodities” and is “a coordinated and criminal scheme, which has prevented life-saving food assistance from reaching the most vulnerable.”

A memo prepared by Humanitarian and Resilience Donor Group (HRDG), which is “a platform allowing donors to coordinate their activities in support of a strategic, effective, efficient, and principled humanitarian response,” among others, also shows that the “monitoring visits at 63 flour mills in seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions, and witnessed significant diversion of USAID-funded humanitarian food commodities across all seven regions.”

A field trip by Addis Standard team in March to Borana, Oromia region, found community members in Yabelo, the administrative capital of the drought-hit Borana zone, in Southern Oromia, reeling in the midst of allegations on the rising cases of corruption in aid administration that saw a portion of the aid deliveries are taken for personal use by the people in charge of local aid distribution.

The “scheme appears to be orchestrated” by federal and regional governments entities, “with military units across the country benefiting from humanitarian assistance. Private grain and flour traders and operators have also played a role in the scheme,” the memo reads.

The monitoring by the USAID has also observed evidence of “diversion of other donor-funded commodities” including “wheat donated from France, Japan, and Ukraine through implementing partner World Food Program (WFP).” In September last year, Ukraine has donated 50,000 metric tons of grain for Ethiopia and Somalia through WFP, which has since been delivered in various batches.

The outcome of the motioning seems to have a wide-range implication on the overall food aid delivery to Ethiopia. According to the HRDG memo, “there is a strong possibility that USAID will pause all USAID-supported food assistance across Ethiopia until further notice.” The US government has provided a whooping $1.8 billion aid in lifesaving assistance since the 2022 fiscal year alone.

Although the possibility will leave “non-food aid” provisions unaffected, the USAID said before allowing any additional USAID-funded commodities to be distributed in Ethiopia, “the country’s humanitarian architecture must undergo significant and immediate reforms.”

Stringent recommendations

This comes in the backdrop of the 2023 joint appeal published in March by Ethiopian government and humanitarian partners which sought for $US 3.99 billion to assist over 20 million people across the country with food assistance. An estimated 13 million of this are targeted for humanitarian response in drought affected areas alone.

Regardless of the needs however, the HRDG memo forwarded stringent recommendations to be implemented both by the donor community and the Ethiopian government. While the USAID called on other donors “to seize this opportunity to improve the humanitarian architecture in Ethiopia,” the humanitarian group itself recommended the Ethiopian government to implement a litany of measures, starting from “making public statement “condemning the humanitarian aid diversion and demanding that humanitarian staff throughout Ethiopia not be harassed in any way,” to identifying and dismantling the “organized structures orchestrating the diversion scheme(s).”

Indicating the scale of the diversion that covers the unnamed seven regional states, the group also asked the federal government “to work with regional and local authorities to identify any diverted donor-funded commodities that are currently being stored illegally in Ethiopia and facilitate the safe return of those commodities into the custody of implementing partners.”

Furthermore, in what shows to be a disruption in the periodic Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) reporting process, the recommendation called on the Ethiopian government top “define a timeline to reinstate the IPC process, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, and allow donors and their implementing partners to use IPC data and analysis to target food or alternative modalities of assistance only to the most vulnerable.”

Compounded by the ongoing drought affecting millions, and the suspension of food aid, a recent assessment and observation by Famine early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) covering the months between June to September 2023, has classified Tigray region to be “worse than previously assessed” and southern and southeastern areas of Oromia and Somali regions to continue to face risk of extreme outcomes of the ongoing drought. FEWS NET classified both cases as “Emergency (IPC Phase 4).”

WFP leadership resignation report and denial

It is in the midst of this crisis, which is described by a source close to the matter as “complete failure of the aid industry in Ethiopia,” that the news of the resignation of the senior leadership of the WFP in Ethiopia was reported by The New Humanitarian on Tuesday this week.

According to the exclusive report, the “WFP country director Claude Jibidar and his deputy, Jennifer Bitonde, tendered their resignations at an all-staff meeting on 2 June”. The New Humanitarian also said the resignation happened “shortly before the findings of a probe into the misappropriation of food aid in the country are due to be made public.”

WFP refuted the report and described it “inaccurate”; it insisted that “there has been no resignations by senior management in WFP Ethiopia”, but said the country director “is currently on leave and remains a WFP employee.”

According to the source who spoke with Addis Standard on conditions of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, one of the “demands by the USAID” is to seen a “complete change in leadership at the WFP Ethiopia.”

Although, it did not indicate any change in the leadership, WFP admitted that it was “in the midst of rolling out comprehensive, systemic measures to prevent any further interference with lifesaving food assistance from reaching those who depend on it for their survival.”

Addis Standard’s requests for comments from Claire Nevill, WFP Ethiopia Head of Communications, Brenda Kariuki Senior Regional Communications Officer for Eastern Africa, as well as the WFP Global Media Team were unsuccessful. AS

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