More than 700 citizens in the East African nation of Ethiopia have died of starvation. The reason: United Nations and United States sanctions following the theft of food aid earlier this year. The lack of resources is estimated to affect around 20 million Ethiopians.
Both the U.N. and U.S. halted aid distribution to the northern region of Tigray in March, after sacks of food meant for the needy, marked with U.S. and U.N. logos, were found on sale at a local market. Citing the theft, which American diplomats and humanitarian workers have called the biggest in the country’s humanitarian actions’ history, the halt was eventually extended to the whole of Ethiopia in June.
How did these sacks of food end up being sold, instead of given to the needy? Humanitarian workers on the site have demanded those answers from the Ethiopian government, which has been hugely involved in the distribution process. The government announced that it has begun an investigation into the matter while the U.N. is conducting its own.
While these investigations are taking place, both the U.S. and U.N. are demanding total control of the aid distribution process with no government control. According to a U.S.A.I.D. email, the American Agency for International Development’s focus is on “resuming food assistance as quickly as possible once we can be confident it is going to the people in need.” It is in Ethiopia’s best interest to approve these institutions’ requests to resume aid distribution as soon as possible. 700 people have already starved to death in just the three months since the halt was called, and leaving things paused for any longer than necessary would have catastrophic impacts on the population.
Even if local governments often know how to put resources to better use than foreign institutions, U.N. involvement can ensure that aid is going to those who need it, and isn’t being transformed into a marketable product.
Distributing food in Ethiopia hasn’t been the easiest task for U.N. or U.S. forces. Funding issues have left the program unable to provide aid to many regions. Also, Tigray, the region that was first removed from the food distribution program, went through an atrocious war against Eritrea and an armed group, which caused aid groups to restrict and/or limit their operations in the area. Deliveries had barely just resumed when the halt was put in place.
While the investigations root out the guilty party in this diversion of aid, co-operation between Ethiopia and international actors is essential. The fact that 700 people have now starved to death is heartbreaking, especially because those lives could have been saved. A compromise must be found to deliver aid to those who need it, not those who will sell it for a profit.