Humanitarian Suspensions and the Politicization of Aid in Ethiopia

On August 3, 2021, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that the Ethiopian government had suspended part or all of their operations for three months each, effective July 30. Both organizations have a long-standing presence in Ethiopia, with recent activity centered in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region and the epicenter of a nine-month conflict. Al Maktoum Foundation, a humanitarian organization working in the education sector, was also suspended, but it is unclear whether the organization was operating in Tigray. The suspension of NRC, MSF, and the Al Maktoum Foundation is a substantial escalation in the Ethiopian government’s targeting of humanitarian operations and a continuation of a broader pattern of aid obstruction throughout the conflict.

Q1: What is the current humanitarian situation in Tigray?

A1: The humanitarian situation in Tigray remains extremely dire with an estimated 5.2 million people (90 percent of the population) in need of humanitarian assistance. Food insecurity and displacement continue to rise amid widespread sexual violence and conflict spillover into Tigray’s neighboring Afar and Amhara regions. As of July 2021, 400,000 individuals were facing catastrophic food insecurity—Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) Phase 5—the largest number of people since the 2011 famine in Somalia, with an added 4 million people facing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. Additionally, 47 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women are acutely malnourished and close to 2 million people have been internally displaced. Both Tigrayan refugees and refugees in Tigray face threats to their well-being. Recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed heightened concern for Eritreans in Tigrayan refugee camps; the Ethiopian government described UNHCR as being ill-informed. Despite an additional $149 million in assistance from the United States and additional commitments from Germany and Canada, the humanitarian response remains significantly underfunded with a $284 million funding gap. Without a dramatic increase of food and livelihood assistance, Tigray will remain at risk for famine-like conditions.

Humanitarian organizations face significant bureaucratic and physical access constraints from all parties to the conflict, hindering the timely and safe delivery of aid. The primary bureaucratic access constraint remains the Ethiopian government’s unofficial blockade of Tigray, an “unacceptable” situation, per U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Electricity and telecommunications remain cut off, banking services have yet to be restored, and aid workers are facing challenges importing key equipment, such as VHS radio and satellite phones. Aid workers also report lengthy searches at both Addis Ababa airport and road checkpoints.

Violence and insecurity further threaten the delivery of aid and the lives of humanitarian workers. Since November 2020, 12 aid workers have been killed, including three MSF employees in late June 2021. Other workers report being assaulted at checkpoints and having their aid convoys shot at. Rampant misinformation is exacerbating these risks, forcing humanitarian organizations to respond to false claims in real time to protect their workers, operations, and reputation.

Q2: Why did the Ethiopian government suspend MSF, NRC, and the Al Maktoum Foundation?

A2: According to a since-deleted tweet by Ethiopia Current Issues Fact Check, a pro-government website that has been cited by the Ethiopian government, MSF and NRC were reportedly suspended over public messaging concerns and a lack of compliance with certain rules and regulations. The tweet also alleged a lack of proper work permits for employed foreign nationals and the illegal importation of satellite radio equipment, as well as a lack of adherence to Covid-19 protocols by the Al Maktoum Foundation. In separate statements, NRC acknowledged the accusations, noting that the organization was in talks with the relevant authorities to clarify and follow up on any concerns so that its humanitarian work could resume, while MSF was urgently seeking clarification around the reasons for its suspension.

This suspension is emblematic of a broader pattern of aid obstruction and politicization by the Ethiopian government and an attempt at silencing the public communication of humanitarian organizations operating in the region. Despite official statements by the Ethiopian government granting unfettered humanitarian access in Tigray and lengthy humanitarian negotiations between the Ethiopian government and the United Nations, the situation on the ground paints a different picture. This is particularly true for UNHCR and the World Food Program, whose separate access negotiations with the Ethiopian government remain largely unhonored. Both organizations continue to face bureaucratic access hurdles, suggesting that initial claims of breakthroughs on achieving humanitarian access were premature. Additionally, humanitarian flights remain limited, humanitarian workers continue to face verbal attacks, and aid convoys are far below the 100-truck daily threshold that is required to meet current needs.

In July 2021, the Ethiopian government also escalated its attacks on foreign organizations and accused humanitarian workers of delivering equipment to rebel groups. These accusations threaten the safety of humanitarian organizations in the region, who rely on community engagement and perceptions of political neutrality to operate safely and effectively.

Q3: What are the broader implications of these suspensions?

A3: Civilians will suffer. Given the already constrained humanitarian environment, any reduction in the number of aid organizations in Tigray is sure to have significant effects on the civilian population. This includes diminished access to healthcare, nutritional support, education, water and sanitation assistance, shelter, and more—some of the services provided by MSF and NRC. The disruption of these services will likely disproportionately affect women, girls, and other minority groups.

Humanitarian organizations will be put on notice. Humanitarian organizations in the region may find themselves increasingly worried about their own suspensions. While MSF and NRC have remained vocal about the destruction of medical facilities and refugee camps in Tigray throughout the conflict, some humanitarian organizations may now alter their public messaging campaigns or self-censor to avoid facing suspension. This would further contribute to Ethiopia’s closing civic space.

The government will retain control of the narrative. Less eyewitness testimonies make it difficult to get a full and accurate assessment on humanitarian conditions. This was a serious problem at the onset of the conflict when journalists struggled with a government-imposed internet blackout, and it is now exacerbated by the expulsion of foreign journalists. Ultimately, these actions allow the Ethiopian government to retain control of the narrative and inhibit accurate and timely understanding of the ongoing humanitarian needs.

Kelly Moss is a research associate with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jacob Kurtzer is the director and senior fellow of the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kelly Moss