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US Senator accuses ‘leaders at the top’ of aid organizations after Ethiopia food aid theft revelations

Addis Abeba – In a strongly worded statement issued last night, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member, Senator Jim Risch, denounced Wednesday’s news revelations that donor-funded food diversion in Ethiopia is “coordinated and criminal scheme”, which covers seven regions and involves federal government and regional entities as “deplorable” and laid blame on “leaders at the top of” aid organizations “in Washington, New York, and Rome,” for failing to “guarantee the aid was getting into the right hands.”

“U.S. agencies have been busy highlighting their self-proclaimed progress at getting food to those in need and ending a war that has destroyed millions of innocent lives. Yet, we now know that leaders at the top of these organizations in Washington, New York, and Rome were aware that implementers on the ground could not guarantee the aid was getting into the right hands. It adds insult to injury that this occurred as the world experiences a global food shortage. This is unacceptable,” Senator Jim Risch said in his official response.

The Senator also accused the Ethiopian government that the “issue of food diversion is just part of a pattern of behavior with the Ethiopian government.”

In a joint Statement by USAID and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, the two governments announced that they were “conducting investigations so that the perpetrators of such diversion are held to account,” and “commit to collaborate toward an efficient aid distribution system in Ethiopia, which would safeguard assistance from diversion.”

But Senator Risch responded that it is “foolish to think that the Ethiopian government is working with us in good faith – and we cannot be fooled again. The lack of oversight and guardrails of U.S. humanitarian assistance should not stand,” he lamented.

Citing a memo of a recent meeting by the donor community in Ethiopia, Addis Standard published an exclusive story on Wednesday that the results 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.”

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.

Shortly after that, in an email sent to Addis Standard via the US Embassy in Addis Abeba, USAID spokesperson announced the decision by USAID, which had previously stopped aid to the Tigray region for the same reason, to stop its country-wide delivery. “After a country-wide review, USAID determined, in coordination with the Government of Ethiopia, that a widespread and coordinated campaign is diverting food assistance from the people of Ethiopia.”

“Our intention is to immediately resume food assistance once we are confident in the integrity of delivery systems to get assistance to its intended recipients and when assistance is people-centered, needs-based, evidence-based, and independent,” the statement sent to Addis Standard reads.

The decision, which is now followed by the UN’s World Food Program to follow suit and “temporarily halt food aid assistance” to Ethiopia, has already triggered harsh reaction from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, who said it was “disheartening that the United States is forced to end humanitarian food assistance to Ethiopia at a time when the need for food is growing”, but added “American generosity must not be taken for granted.”

Through the USAID, the U.S. government has provided $1.8 billion aid in lifesaving assistance since the 2022 fiscal year alone, becoming the single largest food aid provider to Ethiopia.

WFP says that “more than 20 million people in Ethiopia urgently need humanitarian food assistance, as the long-lasting effects of conflict and drought continue.”

Its newly appointed Executive Director, Cindy McCain, assured that the agency is “working closely with its UN and humanitarian partners and local stakeholders to reform the way assistance is delivered across Ethiopia and in all high-risk operational contexts where we work.” AS

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