By Duke Burbridge
When the suspension of food aid to Tigray was finally announced to the public in May (more than a month after the pause was implemented) the World Food Program (WFP) and USAID assured everyone, publicly and privately, that life-saving interventions for severely malnourished children under five years old would continue. As WFP’s June press release outlined:
“While we will temporarily halt food aid assistance in Ethiopia, nutrition assistance to children, pregnant and breastfeeding women… will continue uninterrupted.”
The statement echoed a similar promise made a month earlier by USAID Administrator Samantha Power who said: “While food aid to the Tigray Region is paused, other vital assistance not implicated in the diversion scheme will continue, including life-saving nutritional supplements…”
It should be assumed that WFP and USAID would have relayed the same message to their local partners working on the ground in Tigray. Those local food aid groups in Tigray and later throughout Ethiopia would have been instructed to inform desperate parents of children who were starving or on the brink of starvation, along with malnourished pregnant women and new mothers that access to emergency nutrition support – the last line of defense protecting their babies and toddlers from starvation-related death – would continue.
Thankfully, throughout most of Ethiopia, the WFP and USAID kept this promise, but not in Tigray. No one at WFP, USAID, or UNICEF has acknowledged that “nutritional assistance to children” in Tigray has been interrupted and of course no one has said why.
Scales of survival tilted against the people of Tigray
According to data from the UNICEF-led Nutrition Cluster, access to treatment for severe acute malnutrition (SAM) has improved in four of the five regions in Ethiopia where the demand is greatest. Communities in Afar, Amhara, Oromia, and to a lesser extent, Somali regions not only continued to receive emergency nutritional support, but the number of children served actually grew. In Tigray, the number of children able to access this critical service has declined sharply.
The WFP and USAID have not acknowledged that nutritional services in Ethiopia are being directed away from Tigray and of course have not offered any explanation. Reports of funding shortfalls in the nutrition response could only explain a national decline, but not the uneven distribution shown in the chart.
In Tigray, where food aid has been suspended for twice as long as the rest of the country, the demand for emergency nutrition support increased dramatically after March. The timing of the aid suspension was a major factor. The suspension began at the outset of the traditional lean season, just as the number of food rations distributed in Tigray had finally reached nearly 90% of the WFP objective for the first time since the beginning of the war in 2020 according to the Ethiopia Food Security Cluster. By the end of June, after the agricultural lean season had already begun, the number of six-week food rations distributed in Tigray over the past three months covered less than 1% of the total caseload.
The failure to provide emergency food assistance to a starving population creates an elevated risk of malnutrition. The failure to provide emergency nutritional assistance to children at the last stage of starvation, quite simply, kills children.
Tigrayans left behind
In spite of the impressive achievements during the last major period of distribution, there were many families in Tigray known to be in urgent need who had not received any food aid since the previous year, others much longer. In some cases, households were unreachable because they had fled resurgent violence while food was being distributed, such as the 40,000 people who were displaced in March to Endabaguna Town. In other cases, households who were already previously displaced had been lost in the system, such as the families who were forced to leave displacement sites in Mekelle and Adigrat after being denied food aid. Other Tigrayan families did not receive food assistance because they were unable to escape the brutal military occupation and well documented ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Amhara regional forces, Fano militia, or Eritrean military. Tigrayans remaining in occupied or contested areas (see map below) along the border with Eritrea and in the areas of the Northwest and Southern zones on the border with the Amhara region have only had limited and sporadic humanitarian access. In areas like Western Tigray and Irob, international aid organizations have been denied access for the past three years.
As of September, five months of aid suspension has taken a heavy toll. When the World Food Program (WFP) and USAID first announced in May that they suspended food aid in Tigray their senior leadership knew, or at least should have known, that many Tigrayans would not survive the summer. Now, Tigrayans are dying every day. According to a recent report from Gebrehiwet Gebrezgabher, head of the regional Disaster Risk Management Commission, more than 1,400 have starved to death since the suspension began. This figure only includes the Eastern, Southeastern, and Northwestern zones of Tigray.
Need for scrutiny
While the link between the food suspension and these starvation-related deaths is too obvious to challenge, senior leadership at the WFP have crafted a narrative that excuses them from any culpability. According to WFP Chief Cindy McCain, all of the blame for the Tigrayan children who are starving to death right now rests with the Ethiopian and Tigrayan government. The only mistake that she would concede in an interview with Theresa Welch at Devex, was that the WFP was too enthusiastic to deliver food after the siege was lifted.
To be clear, there are credible reports of theft in the Northwestern zone of Tigray and the issues with aid fraud in Ethiopia are long-standing. However, the WFP and USAID appear to have overstated the scale of diversion and more importantly, WFP’s own data appears to refute the critical claim that the risk of diversion is too severe for aid agencies to reach populations in need in Tigray.
When thousands of genocide survivors and their babies starve to death, the agencies entrusted to prevent starvation deaths must be scrutinized. This has been consistently neglected by donors, policy makers, and the media. Tghat will continue to actively monitor, investigate, and document what can be learned from the humanitarian data, local stakeholders, and first-hand accounts about the conditions of life in Tigray during the food suspension, the distribution of humanitarian aid, and the causes of starvation-related deaths.