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USAID to Push Tigray Towards Famine



Atsbi, Eastern Zone, Tigray | Photo Credit: Goyteom Gebreegziabher (@Goyteom37)

Today in Tigray, food aid is supposed to be restarting, but there is very little evidence of resumption of service outside of Mekelle. There are some reported WFP truck movements outside the capital but the only dispatch of food aid that has been confirmed at a destination has been small loads to the unoccupied area of Irob. Evidence of starvation, on the other hand, continues to emerge from all over Tigray. 

The Eastern zone is being hit particularly hard by the drought, with hundreds dying in multiple districts, but there are reports from everywhere. The death rate captured in the final three months of the most recent mortality study has continued to increase as expected moving into the lean season. 

Resumption of (some) Food Aid and Famine in Tigray

According to the Tigrayan Interim Regional Administration (TIRA), USAID’s long-awaited resumption of food aid in Tigray will only cover 20% of the previous caseload. This has not been confirmed by USAID or WFP. It is not clear if this number refers to the total caseload of 5.31 million individuals who have been food insecure for two years and are starving now, or just one of the two major suppliers of food aid. No rationale has been made public for such a drastic and deadly service cut. There have been no official statements about the aid cut, which has been a consistent pattern of opacity. 

According to the most recent FEWS-Net projections, this reduction in food aid is severe enough to send Tigray into the very strict definition of famine used by the IPC by May 2024. The maps below are from the FEWS-Net Food Security Outlook. The grey bags indicate areas that would be at least one phase lower if at least 25% of residents cannot supplement at least 25% of their caloric needs with food aid. If the statement by the T-IRA is accurate, USAID only intends to provide food to 18% of the population. One phase lower than the May projection is famine. 

A map of the different regions of the world

Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Not very many people understand what famine really looks like according to the IPC criteria. Famine is defined in two ways. In Merriam Webster it is simply: “an extreme scarcity of food.” The functional definition of famine is provided by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, which gives three criteria which all must be met:

  • At least 20% of households are facing extreme food shortages.
  • Acute malnutrition in children exceeds 30%
  • The death rate exceeds 1 person for every 5,000 people in the area.

Tigray has met the first two criteria for most of the past three years. The death rate cannot be confirmed, because no formal mortality study was conducted for the first two years.  According to JEOP, in October, at least four districts in their operation area are experiencing a 60% child malnutrition rate or higher: Atsbi (65%) and Irob (62%) in the Eastern zone, and Adwa (62%) and Adet (60%) in the Central Zone. 

As reported previously in TGHAT, USAID officials have told the US Congress that nutritional aid continued to reach Tigrayans over the course of the suspension. In reality, the cuts to these programs have been severe and children have died as a result. According to the UNICEF-led Nutrition Cluster, in the two months prior to the food suspension, more than 20,000 children and pregnant or lactating women received nutrition support in Adet, Adwa (district and town), Atsbi (district and town), and Irob. In the past two reported months, that figure was less than 3,000. Access to emergency nutritional assistance is the last line of defense against starvation-related death in children. 

In February and March, 3,587 children under five years old were able to access treatment for severe acute malnutrition (SAM). In the past two reported months only 222 children under five accessed services for SAM, of which Adwa accounted for 198. Treatment for pregnant and lactating women and for moderate malnutrition decreased even more sharply despite an obvious increase in demand. The immediate cause of this is not entirely clear, because this level of decline is evidently not worth noting by USAID. It is impossible to attack a rationale that has not been provided. 

The last criterion of a famine determination, a death rate of 1 in every 5,000, makes the classification highly problematic. To put this requirement into perspective, consider the US Commonwealth of Virginia. If in December, 1.7 million people in Virginia were known to be facing an “extreme food shortage,” 151,000 children were suffering from acute malnutrition, and 50,000 people had died then everyone would call this a famine. The IPC would call it a food “emergency.” For a population the size of Virginia’s (8.7 million), there would have to be 54,001 deaths in December to meet the IPC threshold for the famine designation. 

By the IPC criteria, famine is more than food scarcity and even more than mass starvation. If Tigray’s population is 6 million, then famine means that at least 50 people are dying every hour or 100,000 deaths every 84 days. 

Enduring Peace

When the Pretoria Agreement was signed last November, the number of food rations distributed in Tigray over the past six weeks represented 26% of the total six-week caseload. The world’s largest food aid groups waited two years to be able to deliver unhindered aid. It took two months to scale up, then two months after that it stopped immediately and without warning. Then Tigray was made to wait for eight months while children starved to death, crops were devoured by locusts, and drought threatened the harvest. Now food aid is coming back, but at a level below where it was during the siege. 

In last month’s congressional hearing, Congressman Brad Sherman asked the USAID representative if we would be sending enough aid food to “all the very hungry people in Northern Ethiopia.” The first answer he got was: “We are going to do our best on this.” (HFAC, “Ethiopia: Promise or Perils, The State of U.S. Policy” 1:09)

Congressman Sherman pressed again, asking directly: “Do we have sufficient funds and trucks and logistics to get the job done?” To which USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa, Tyler Beckelman responded:

“We’re confident in the logistics chain and we’re confident in our partners’ ability to deliver and with the very generous support of Congress which we greatly appreciate, we think we are in a good place to continue to make a difference in the lives of the Ethiopian people who are hungry.”

Beckleman didn’t exactly lie to Congress because he didn’t answer the questions. His first response looked like a lie because spending eight months to clear the way for only 20% of people in urgent need to receive food aid is clearly not USAID’s “best.” He dodged the question with his second response, which showcased the kind of vaguely optimistic language that USAID has used since the suspension began to hide their activities and decision-making in Tigray. He should have mentioned that the “difference” that USAID was going to make in the lives of hungry Ethiopians included cutting food distribution so drastically that Tigray and parts of the Somali region would be sent spiraling into famine. 

There is no penalty in Washington D.C. for ignoring all semblance of “do no harm” and steering Tigray towards famine. The situation in Ethiopia has once again proven that no level of incompetence or negligence is severe enough to merit reproach if the impact can be confined to places like Tigray and Somali region. No one at USAID or WFP has been fired for this. No one has even broached the idea that anyone at WFP or USAID bears any responsibility for where we are now. 

According to the most recent mortality study of just 10% of the population of Tigray, more than 1,329 people had starved to death prior to the start of the lean season. This is collateral damage and not collective punishment, according to USAID and WFP. The crime, for which at least 1,329 people in Tigray were executed, was the theft of some bags of wheat. That number is clearly much higher across the region and has increased since the end of that assessment, but the urgency and risk of consequences outside of Tigray has not increased with it.

Western officials and the African Union keep reminding that the “guns have been silenced” in Tigray. This has been the common objective of colonialist regimes and dictators in Africa when faced with resistance from groups that they seek to eliminate. The current conditions are further reminders of what happens when “guns are silenced” in absence of peace: the only fighters protecting the people are stripped of their power. Now, the Tigrayan people are forced to plead for compassion that in 2023 is still, in the halls of Western power, reserved for whites only.

Duke Burbridge was a Senior Research Associate at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) for fifteen years where he provided research support for community-based peacebuilding programs in conflict-affected countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Colombia. During his time at ICRD, Mr. Burbridge also conducted research on the role of education in radicalization and recruitment into violent extremist groups in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and the role of conservative religious leaders in countering violent extremism in Yemen and North and East Africa. He left the field in 2021 to write a book on reforming outside-led peacebuilding. He has put the book on hold to raise awareness of the genocide taking place in Tigray.

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