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Functional Stupidity: The International Response to the War on Tigray




On 4 November 2020, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister,  Abiy Ahmed, with full-fledged support from neighboring Eritrea, launched an attack against Tigray – the northernmost regional state in Ethiopia. Ethiopia presented the war as a mere ‘law enforcement operation’ to be concluded within three-weeks. Yet, 21 months later, the ‘operation’ has evolved into a genocidal war with no end in sight, including a recent resumption of fighting in late August 2022. The war has been a theater of the absurd. It features a Nobel Peace Prize laureate declaring a genocidal war, a Ministry of Peace galvanizing citizens to war, religious institutions and leaders blessing the war, and universities turning into military training grounds. 

Under the patronage of the international community, Abiy Ahmed, has begun another full-scale genocidal war on Tigray. Despite the multi-faceted crisis faced by the people of Tigray over the last 21 months, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing the international community’s apathy to the plight of millions on the verge of famine. On 26 August 2022, two days after the resumption of the genocidal war, an airstrike hit a kindergarten in Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, killing several children. A few days later, the Abiy regime conducted a drone attack shelling Mekelle General Hospital, the only functioning hospital in Mekelle, according to the Chief Executive Director of Ayder Comprehensive Specialized Hospital. 

International Response to the War on Tigray

The international response to the war on Tigray has been appallingly indifferent. The best that international institutions with the legal and moral obligation to protect human rights have accomplished is feeble lip-servicing. 

Sitting at the heart of Addis Ababa, the African Union (AU) has all but forgotten its onus of ‘silencing the guns’, instead fanning war rhetoric and breaching neutrality. The European Union (EU) did not act swiftly or use its leverage to avert a catastrophe after Pekka Haavisto (the EU’s special envoy) publicly disclosed that  top Ethiopian leaders  informed him in a closed meeting they would ‘wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years.’ In June 2021, the then UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, affirmed that Ethiopia is using starvation as a weapon of war as well as blocking a famine declaration in Tigray. Martin Griffiths, the current UN Humanitarian Chief, said the crisis in Tigray was a ‘stain on our conscience’, as children starved to death because of the deliberate blockade of food and medical supplies. Yet, the response from UN bodies and Western powers remained symbolic rather than substantive. When the international community acted, albeit limitedly,  their actions further exacerbated the crisis instead of resolving it. For instance, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) accepted the Ethiopian government’s involvement in co-investigating crimes committed during the war – including crimes committed by the government itself. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is funded by the government and its commissioner hand-picked by the Prime Minister. This acquiescence countered the investigation’s overall credibility and more importantly, blemished and underestimated the plight of victims relying on the UN’s independent appraisal. In doing this, the UNHRC deprived the victims of any sense of justice. The report also shifted the narrative and diverted the focus from the grave atrocities and the siege on Tigray towards meaningless debate over who had done more harm. 

A recent case in controversy demonstrates this pattern of response from the international community. Various humanitarian leaders, including the heads of the World Food Programme (WFP) and USAID, David Beasley and Samantha Power respectively, cried foul over the ‘theft of 12 fuel tankers’ by the Tigray government in Mekelle. It was later discovered that the Tigray government had just reclaimed fuel which it had lent WFP in goodwill at a time when the Ethiopian government itself was blocking humanitarian aid, including the transportation of fuel, in breach of international humanitarian law. In hastily doing so, and in averting attention from the humanitarian siege to reclaimed fuel tankers, the WFP, and other humanitarian actors, emboldened the Addis regime to justify and continue the siege of a whole populace. We are yet to see a response as strong and as denunciative in response to the August 26 bombing of a kindergarten in Mekelle which killed and dismembered many children. The international community demonstrated its priorities by expressing more  fury about ‘seized’ fuel tankers instead of the bombing of children in their playgrounds or the starving millions.

Functional Stupidity in Times of War

The war on Tigray did not see an ‘oversupply of aid’ and ‘oversupply of actions’ as did the war in Ukraine (Pawlak, 2022, p. 994). In contrast, there has been a scarcity of action, so much so that the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) blamed racism for the greater focus on Ukraine, instead of other conflicts, like Tigray, which he deemed the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. The international community’s strong response to the Ukraine crisis is a clear indication that its indifferent and complicit responses in Tigray are not because of ignorance or inability. Ignorance can be solved by acquiring knowledge or applying expertise (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012) of which the UN and its agencies have ample supply, while the ability of the international community to stand up to genocidal invasions is on evidence in Ukraine. The indecision and nonchalance to Tigray’s suffering can therefore be explained by the notion of functional stupidity.

Functional stupidity denotes an ‘inability and/or unwillingness to use cognitive and reflective capacities in anything other than narrow and circumspect ways’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1201). This focuses especially on three aspects of one’s cognitive capacity: reflexivity, justification and substantive reasoning. Below, I unpack these three aspects in relation to the international community’s response to the war on Tigray.

Lack of reflexivity is the ‘inability or unwillingness to question knowledge claims and norms’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1199) where actors fail to call into question the dominant narrative. The original claim by Abiy Ahmed was that Ethiopia’s military action in Tigray was not a war but a ‘law enforcement operation’, akin to President Putin’s ‘special military operation’, and that his objective was to ‘remove a fascist junta’, much like Putin wished to undertake a ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. Almost all international actors and major powers, including the U.S., endorsed this narrative. Taking the ‘law enforcement operation’ at face value, the chairman of the AU Commission, instead of calling for a ceasefire, legitimized the war claiming that Ethiopia was taking ‘legitimate military action’.

As the war evolved, the international community also conflated the Tigray blockade and siege under the geographic umbrella of ‘Northern Ethiopia’ which includes Amhara and Afar regions. This pitted other food insecure regions together with Tigray, although Tigray, unlike its neighboring regions, remained inaccessible, besieged, cut off from the rest of the world, and completely blocked from essential and basic services, including banking. The international community was not guided by its own principle of ‘primacy of needs’ and ‘contextualization’ but by geographical proximity and ease of clustering, no matter how incompatible. Moreover, the narrative focused increasingly on the number of trucks that had made it to Northern Ethiopia, even though the siege on Tigray continued during the so-called humanitarian truce. 

Lack of justification entails actors ‘not demanding explanation’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1199) which in turn ‘allows practices to be accepted without any significant critical scrutiny or robust process of reason-giving’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1200). For instance, once the Secretary-General of the U.N., António Guterres, accepted Abiy Ahmed’s claim that the Eritrean army was not involved in the war, despite strong evidence to the contrary, the U.N. stopped itself from looking further into the matter. A few days after the outbreak of war in November 2020, the then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, accused the Tigray government of provocation,  while praising Eritrea for its ‘show of restraint’ after being attacked by the former. This, inspite of evidence on the ground that Eritrean forces had already crossed the Tigrayan border and were indiscriminately shelling cities and terrorizing the civilian population. Both of these instances demonstrate a suspension of crucial humanitarian tenets such as impartiality, neutrality, and independence, because they are guided by dominant war propaganda instead of realities on the ground. 

Lack of substantive reasoning happens when ‘cognitive resources are concentrated around a small set of concerns’ at the expense of the ‘broader substantive question’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1200). Although the humanitarian crisis in Tigray is the worst in the world, the siege and the deliberate obstruction of aid by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces have changed the narrative altogether. The focus has been on who is obstructing, despite  established evidence that the Ethiopian government is using starvation as a weapon of war and using a de-facto blockade, and how many trucks should be allowed to the region. The big picture, that is, the siege and the ensuing man-made famine, was side-lined, and the focus became counting the number of trucks that made it to the besieged region. The international community was wilfully and repeatedly deceived and preferred to engage in a small set of concerns at the expense of broader substantive questions and root problems.

Figure 1 (©Alex) portrays how the Ethiopian government manipulated the international community and how the international community was wilfully deceived over and over again.

By @alex9dan

As the figure suggests, the Ethiopian government has been toying with the international community. To maintain the siege, government forces used  different tactics to test the reaction of the international community. When the government promised – rather than delivered – aid or allowed the bare minimum of vital supplies to be delivered (about 2–3% of what was actually needed), the international community rewarded the regime by enthusiastically celebrating the smallest of concessions. The Abiy regime has also used the humanitarian truce and his ‘promise’ to engage in dialogue to get funding and support from the international organizations such as the World Bank and Western governments, without actually needing to show any actionable commitment.

Even after the Ethiopian government expelled seven senior U.N. officials and the U.N. established that the regime is using starvation as a weapon of war, it still  failed to use international response mechanisms and continued to buy into symbolic manipulations. Applauding the passage of a trickle of aid, while millions are on the brink of starvation, and threatening sanctions, only to be satisfied with the promise of letting in a little more aid, has been the gist of the international actors’ response. Moreover, instead of focusing on the broader picture, we saw top leaders in U.N. institutions putting aside doubt and reflexive concerns and focusing on blind optimism. Excessively celebrating the delivery of 2–3% of aid instead of pushing for real change, has emboldened a regime that is deliberately starving millions.

Even though functional stupidity marginalizes ‘sources of friction’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1213) and thus makes international actors’ engagement with dictatorial regimes less fraught, such convenience comes at the cost of avoiding broader critical thinking and extending the misery of those starving while giving the regime the benefit of the doubt. Too much functional stupidity can ‘obstruct clever decision making […] and desensitizes people to problems’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2016, p. 213).When human lives are on the line, functional stupidity can be detrimental because it suppresses ‘awareness of problems’, leading to ‘narrow instrumental orientation’ and ‘lack of learning’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1211). What we have seen is organizations and their top officials becoming trapped in ‘patterns where the very skills and abilities of employees lead to habitual avoidance of asking difficult but pressing questions’ (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, p. 1197). Under some circumstances, functional stupidity has its merits (Alvesson & Spicer, 2016). For example, organizations may have to use it to maintain a space for international actors to engage with dangerous leaders like Abiy Ahmed. But when it becomes the modus operandi, stupidity, regardless of its functionality, ends up killing thousands and leaving millions destitute.


Functional stupidity is not an aberration (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012, 2016). However, when the same system is functional or stupid, depending on the race of the affected, a closer look at the organizations, organizing, and organized is warranted. My observation of the international response to the war on Tigray, especially in comparison to the response to the war on Ukraine, is that functional stupidity is employed contingent on who is at the receiving end and where the war is occurring.

How should those who care about humanity within and outside of the international institutions, journalists, scholars, human rights activists etc. be involved? By exposing functional stupidity and engaging in destupidifying international institutions whose (in)action is endangering the lives of millions. In times of war and when a whole population is on the line, those who care can focus on how international institutions can avoid reflexive laziness. Similar to Pawlak’s (2022) observation about how people have responded to the refugee crisis in Ukraine, the indifference to the plight of the ‘not familiar’ lays bare the hierarchy of values, both at individual and institutional levels. In the war on Tigray and other less-covered and forgotten wars, the indifference and lack of substantive action has nothing to do with the intellectual resources of actors. Rather, they are the result of power and politics. Thus, Alvesson and Spicer’s argument, that functional stupidity is ‘being created not through intellectual deficits but through political expediency and the operation of power’ (2012, p. 1214) could not be more true.


  1. Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2012). A stupidity‐based theory of organizations. Journal of Management Studies, 49(7), 1194-1220.
  2. Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2016). The stupidity paradox: The power and pitfalls of functional stupidity at work. Profile Books.
  3. Pawlak, M. (2022). Humanitarian Aid in Times of War: Organization and Ignorance. Organization Studies, 43(6), 993-996.

Medhanie Gaim is a researcher in paradox theory and entrepreneurship at Umeå University.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Agazi Tigray

    September 4, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    The so called ‘the world leaders’ are the actors of the Tigray genocide. They are fueling whatever shortage Abiy Ahmed is facing in his job of wiping Tigrayans, he called them ‘Cancer’ and ‘weed’. unfortunately either of them can’t succeed.

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