Ethiopia’s Starvation Crisis: The Devastating Impact of Aid Theft

Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray is facing a severe humanitarian crisis, with at least 1,400 people reported to have died of starvation since food aid was suspended four months ago. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) halted their aid efforts in Tigray after discovering that the food donations were being stolen and diverted. An investigation by Tigrayan authorities revealed that nearly 500 individuals were involved in the theft. This crisis comes as a result of the brutal conflict that hit Tigray in 2020, causing famine-like conditions and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The conflict, which ended in November 2020, saw Ethiopian government forces and Eritrean troops fighting against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The region was under a blockade during much of the war, severely limiting humanitarian access and exacerbating the already dire situation. Reports estimate that around 600,000 people lost their lives as a result of fighting, starvation, and lack of healthcare. The situation in Tigray worsened when the WFP and USAid discovered that their food aid was being diverted to local markets instead of reaching those in need.

While it is unclear whether the food aid was corruptly diverted or sold by desperate recipients in need of cash, this crisis underscores the urgent need for accountability and improved distribution systems. The involvement of government officials, NGO staff, camp coordinators, and even business owners has further highlighted the deep-rooted corruption that hampers humanitarian efforts in Ethiopia. A leaked memo from an independent donor group suggests that a coordinated and criminal scheme involving military units across the country may be behind the theft.

The impact of this aid theft is devastating. Families in Tigray, like Mebrhit Hailay’s, are forced to beg for food, often surviving on a meager diet of injera and salt, lacking essential nutrients. Children, already vulnerable, suffer the most, with many facing severe malnutrition and even death. Mothers like Hiwet Lebasi are left grieving the loss of their children, believing that if the aid had been properly distributed, the crisis could have been avoided.

The consequences of this crisis extend beyond Tigray’s borders. In June, the WFP and USAid announced a suspension of food aid to the rest of Ethiopia, impacting millions of people who were already struggling due to conflict, drought, and soaring living costs. The international community must take note of the urgent need for assistance across the country and work towards ensuring that aid reaches the intended vulnerable populations.

Addressing this crisis requires immediate action and collaboration. The WFP and USAid have pledged to resume food aid once they are confident that measures are in place to prevent further theft and diversion. Local and international authorities must prioritize investigations into the aid theft, holding those responsible accountable, and implementing robust accountability and transparency mechanisms. It is crucial to work with local communities, civil society organizations, and trusted partners to rebuild trust and ensure that humanitarian aid reaches those who need it most.

The tragedy in Tigray is a wake-up call for governments, aid agencies, and the global community. It exposes the vulnerabilities of humanitarian assistance and highlights the urgent need for systemic changes to prevent aid theft and corruption. The lives of thousands in Tigray and millions across Ethiopia depend on swift action, transparent distribution systems, and a renewed commitment to providing sustainable food security and assistance. Together, we must strive to prevent future tragedies and ensure that aid reaches those who are most in need.