According to the first major assessment conducted after the suspension of food aid, more Tigrayan households are at the worst stage of food insecurity in at least two zones (Central and Southeastern) in June 2023 than a year ago. The study performed by researchers at the Tigray Health Research Institute, and Mekelle and Adigrat Universities and reviewed by Tghat media found that more than one in ten children under two years old were suffering from severe acute malnutrition and that the gross acute malnutrition rate for children under five was 38%, which exceeds the threshold for famine. Data from the new study suggests that the impact of the siege on food security in Tigray, as observed in WFP’s June 2022 assessment, was less severe than the impact of the suspension as observed last month.
This development comes just four months after an earlier assessment made by the World Food Programme (WFP) just prior to the aid suspension and never published, which found that severe food insecurity had fallen in Tigray by half since the Pretoria Agreement and nearly half of the population in need had received food assistance in the past month.
In defense of the increasingly controversial decision to suspend aid, WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain described a complete breakdown of the famine response in the months leading up to the aid suspension in a recent interview for Devex with Teresa Welch:
“The bulk of the aid diversion took place in December and January, McCain said, but WFP didn’t discover it until ‘much later.’ She called it ‘a disaster all the way around.’ […] McCain said WFP had taken a ‘no regrets’ approach to delivering food aid in Ethiopia, following a humanitarian principle that in an emergency setting, decisions can be made with less regard to long-term consequences because the immediate need is so acute. […] ‘It failed,’ McCain said of that approach.”
It is noteworthy that McCain focuses on December and January as the point where most of the diversion occurred for two reasons. First, the amount of food distributed in Tigray in February and March 2023 exceeded December and January distribution by about one million rations. If the investigation into aid theft found that the amount of food diverted fell as the amount of food distributed rose, it would appear to represent progress without the need for a suspension. Second, WFP fielded a food assessment at the end of January, which would have provided direct insight into the scale of diversion and its impact on food insecurity in Tigray. Except, the February assessment did not record any evidence of a recent “disaster.”
Three conclusions from the two unpublished studies
The conclusions that can be drawn from both studies underscore the need for the immediate resumption of aid and directly contradict WFP’s justification for suspending aid to Tigray at the end of March, at the onset of the agricultural lean season, as 5.4 million people try to survive until the fall harvest.
Conclusion 1: Food distributed after the Pretoria Agreement was reaching beneficiaries in need as of February 2023.
The number of respondents in the WFP assessment from February who reported receiving food assistance in the previous month was comparable to the scale of distribution as reported by the Ethiopia Food Cluster. The chart below essentially shows how many respondents would have been expected to tell researchers that they had received food assistance in the previous month at the time that each food assessment was fielded. When interviews were conducted for the February assessment (Jan 26 to Feb 23) between 37-46% of people in need should have received food in the previous four weeks. The assessment found that 46% of more than 4,000 households had received food in the previous month.
This finding does not disprove reports of aid diversion or theft, nor does it suggest that the needs of the most vulnerable people of Tigray were met. However, it demonstrates that according to the WFP in February, the prevalence of misuse was low enough in February to elude detection in the largest food assessment study performed in Tigray since the beginning of the war. This strongly suggests that theft and diversion were manageable just prior to region-wide aid suspension.
Conclusion 2: The successful distribution of international food assistance appears to have contributed to the first period of progress against severe food insecurity in Tigray since 2021.
As the next chart shows, between June 2022 and February 2023, the rate of severe food insecurity in Tigray fell more than half from 47% to 21% overall, with the most significant decreases observed in the Central and Northwest zones. Researchers found double-digit reductions in severe food insecurity in every accessible zone.
It is hard to predict the overall impact of food distribution on severe food insecurity due to the broad array of factors that could push a household further towards starvation. However, improvement on this scale suggests that the distribution of food aid was generating positive results for those who received it. The sharp reduction in severe food insecurity coupled with the sharp increase in households reporting to have received food assistance in the past month are strong indications that the approach taken by the WFP and other international aid agencies in Tigray was finally beginning to make meaningful progress on the ground.
Conclusion 3: By June, the aid suspension’s impact on severe food insecurity in Tigray was already worse than it was last year at the very end of the siege when food aid was not yet a factor.
The impact of the food suspension has already been devastating to people who have endured a campaign of genocide and weaponized starvation. According to the most recent data available from the Southeastern and Central zones, severe food insecurity has increased sharply and is more prevalent now than it was during the siege. As shown in the next chart, the rate of severe food insecurity nearly doubled in the Southeastern zone and nearly tripled in the Central zone following the suspension.
As noted in the first chart, at the time of interviews for the June 2022 assessment, food aid had not yet reached enough households to be a factor in food security. Conditions at this time would have reflected four months of a full siege that preceded the assessment rather than the temporary resumption of aid access that had reached less than 10% in the four weeks leading up to the field research. During the interviews for the June 2023 assessment no one had received aid in the past four weeks and severe food insecurity was five percentage points higher in both zones than it had been a year before.
There is no reason to believe that Tigray families in the other zones of Tigray are any better off than those in the Southeastern and Central zone. There is every reason to believe that conditions are even worse in places like Endabaguna where tens of thousands of displaced Tigrayans had missed the last round of food distribution and were abandoned by the WFP prior to the suspension.
As one aid worker in Adwa relayed last week, the numbers of the dead and starving are unknown because there is little hope for people to find treatment for malnutrition at health facilities. So, they are dying at home. As shown in the final chart, at the beginning of the suspension health professionals in Tigray had enough supplies to treat more than 11,000 children under five years old for severe acute malnutrition (SAM), by June the supply of therapeutic foods, formula, and medicines had been reduced by more than two-thirds. According to the most recent food assessment, the rate of SAM in babies under two years old in the Adwa woreda was an astronomical 30% in June. According to the Nutrition Cluster’s SAM management dashboard only 41 children were admitted for severe malnutrition during that month, down from 1,631 in March.
More Informal Checking?
It is chilling to see senior leadership at the WFP issuing statements about Tigray that appear to contradict their own data. Until 2022, WFP’s country director for Ethiopia did not believe that there had been any starvation-related deaths in Tigray based on what he described in his memoir as “some informal checking.” More formal assessments from the IOM-DTM found that around 100,000 children under the age of five had been displaced in Tigray’s Northwestern Zone, which is WFP’s largest area of operations in Tigray. Of those children, more than half lived in a hosting site that (a) had admitted at least one child into special care for severe acute malnutrition and (b) had not received food assistance in the past three months.
It was, and still is, WFP’s job to deliver food assistance to prevent children in the Northwestern Zone of Tigray from starving to death. In the past, senior leadership at WFP did not believe they were starving. Today, senior leadership does not believe that distributing food in Tigray is an effective way to stop them from starving.
The humanitarian effort in Tigray was weak in January 2023 compared to the scale of the need, but it was not the “disaster” that McCain described. The disaster was created by the aid suspension, and it is killing Tigrayans today. Donors and policy makers need to push WFP for transparency so that senior leadership, rather than starving families, will be held accountable for bad decision-making.