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Cutting off food to Ethiopian children is no way to respond to despicable thefts

A crisis once driven by nature and a record drought is now recognized to mostly be the result of good old-fashioned war and corruption.
An Ethiopian woman scoops up portions of wheat to be allocated to families in Agula, Ethiopia
An Ethiopian woman scoops up portions of wheat to be allocated to families in Agula, Ethiopia, in 2021.Ben Curtis / AP file

“Finish your food, children are starving in Ethiopia,” said every parent to every U.S. kid in the 1980s. The starvation of children in the East African nation was a problem Americans may have thought had been solved with the “We Are the World” charity single and the Live Aid concerts, the millions of dollars of direct famine relief sent to the Ethiopian government, the U.S. government’s creation of the global Famine Early Warning Systems Network and a newfound sense of purpose in solving global problems. Those efforts resulted in Ethiopia becoming the largest recipient of food aid from the United States.

Today, the entire Tigray province of Ethiopia is in famine, and millions more in the Horn of Africa face starvation.

Today, much of the Tigray province is in famine, and millions more in the Horn of Africa face starvation. A crisis once driven by nature and a record drought is now recognized to mostly be the result of good old-fashioned war and corruption. The United States recently cut off food aid to the Tigray region and later to all of Ethiopia after investigators found that little of the aid was reaching the people who need it and a significant amount was being diverted to the Ethiopian military and people selling it.

The United Nations made a similar decision about its World Food Program and has said that the earliest it would restore aid to the Tigray region is July. That means more than 20 million people in Ethiopia face starvation despite decades of U.S. support to successive Ethiopian leaders.

Forty years after the world came together to help feed Ethiopian children, the Ethiopian government stands accused of being complicit in what a U.S. Agency for International Development statement called a “widespread and coordinated campaign” diverting food assistance from the people of Ethiopia. The Washington Post cites a report from Humanitarian Resilience Development Donor Group, which received its information from USAID, that says, “The scheme appears to be orchestrated by federal and regional Government of Ethiopia (GoE) entities, with military units across the country benefiting from humanitarian assistance.”

The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that its government and the U.S. “are conducting investigations so that the perpetrators of such diversion are held to account,” but a government official did not respond to the newspaper’s specific questions.

Our altruistic global humanitarian impulses have not been able to overcome a humanitarian system that is riddled with pay-for-play opportunism. And our federal government’s continued belief that aid pushed through democratically elected governments and charismatic leaders will trickle down to poor people has proven catastrophic.

In the 1980s, Live Aid made that mistake in the wake of the previous civil war in Ethiopia by handing over cash donations to then-leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, the so-called butcher of Addis Ababa, who reportedly used the money to buy Russian weapons and crush his opposition. Fast forward to the 2020s. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Ethiopian government have been battling separatists from Tigray, Ethiopia’s largest province, and in September, the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia, which was created by the UN Human Rights Council, reported that Abiy’s government has used starvation as a tactic of war

Ethiopia's permanent representative to the U.N. called that report "rubbish" and told Agence France-Presse, “There is not any single evidence that shows the government of Ethiopia used humanitarian aid as an instrument of war.”

Prior to that, in February 2021, Amnesty International reported that Eritrean soldiers supporting Abiy's government had slaughtered hundreds of civilians in Tigray. Abiy's office said it would participate in an investigation into the reported atrocities. That same month, The New York Times reported on an internal U.S. government document the newspaper had obtained which found that Ethiopian forces were engaging in ethnic cleansing. Yet the World Food Program (WFP) and USAID stuck with Abiy’s government as the main partner for delivering aid throughout the country.

The corruption and efforts to divert aid for profit shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Michael Dunford, the WFP’s regional director, told The Associated Press that “it’s been very much the Ethiopian government that was managing” the process, and he admitted that there were possible “shortcomings” in the U.N.’s monitoring efforts. According to The Washington Post, an unnamed diplomat familiar with the investigation into the diversion of food aid said a USAID investigation team saw the Ethiopian National Defense Force directly interrupt aid distribution in the city of Harar.

Even though Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement promising to hold accountable those who diverted food, it did not respond to The Washington Post’s specific questions about the food being redirected.

A senior USAID official told the AP that Ethiopia's government has said it's committed to reforms, but that “we have not yet seen the specific reforms in place that would allow us to resume aid.”

The U.S. government needs to call out Abiy’s government directly and acknowledge the paradox of the U.S. working with Abiy’s government with one hand while sanctioning it with the other. Abiy made a decision at the start of the war that U.S. officials have not been able to accept in their own policy calculus: Abiy is a democratically elected leader who simply does not care if the significant portion of his population that dared to be open about its political opposition is killed or starved.

Abiy hired lobbyists in Washington — paying at least one firm $35,000 a month — for "government relations service which may include outreach to the United States Congress and the federal government." It's been Abiy's intent to convince key lawmakers that he was suppressing a terrorist uprising in Tigray and not, as he has done, using his armed forces to suppress political opposition. Abiy’s narrative kept the aid flowing for nearly two years, but thanks to multiple accounts, we now know his officials and military were grifting it. 

In a domestic climate where Republicans are criticizing the value of the U.S. providing aid to other countries, it’s politically untenable for President Joe Biden’s administration to have more than a billion in U.S. tax dollars effectively unaccounted for. So here we are now with the U.S. holding accountable those who stole food from the mouths of starving children by making what USAID Administrator Samantha Power called “the difficult decision” to suspend the aid for months.

Here we are now with the U.S. holding those who stole food from the mouths of starving children accountable by making “the difficult decision” to suspend the aid.

Even some Republicans have finally accepted that President Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics policy of the 1980s failed to stop poverty and end income inequality here in the United States. It is far past time for those developing U.S. foreign policy to accept that trying to trickle-down humanitarian aid through known corrupt systems and power-hungry leaders is equally doomed.

In 1984, a BBC report for the first time broadcast images of starving Ethiopian children from the town of Mek’ele into the homes of middle-class families in America and Europe. Today, the town of Mek’ele once again shelters hundreds of children hovering at the brink of death with no succor in sight.

This is not for lack of caring; individual Americans have shown time and again an abundance of compassion for donating and sharing what they can with people in need around the world. Nor is it about the record drought, which had been anticipated and led to relief efforts being put into place. The problem is bureaucratic humanitarian systems built on outdated notions of supporting democracies rather than working directly with organizations and people who understand what life is like on the ground. The problem of conflict, corruption and greed is as old as time, but it can longer be allowed to justify the starvation of children.