July 24, 2023

IntelBrief: Stalled Humanitarian Aid in Ethiopia and Haiti Put Millions at Risk of Starvation

AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Ethiopia and Haiti, both in distinct but dire humanitarian situations, have been cut off from aid amid reports of corruption, aid theft, violence, and insufficient funding, putting well over a million people at risk of starvation.
  • The United States and UN halted humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia following a USAID investigation that discovered widescale theft and misappropriation of the aid by parties on both sides of its recent civil war.
  • Haiti has been facing a humanitarian crisis for at least a decade, with a combination of natural disasters and the disintegration of government control exacerbating the toils of the already impoverished nation.
  • Lack of funding and brazen gang violence has caused the UN and Doctors Without Borders to cut or halt their aid programs to Haiti.

Stalled humanitarian aid could push Ethiopia and Haiti even deeper into their respective human crises. While a ceasefire ended Ethiopia’s civil war in late 2022, the aftermath of the Tigray War has left millions at risk of starvation. Those conditions have become all the more dire since the United States and UN halted their respective food aid programs to the country in May after separate internal investigations revealed wide-scale diversion and theft of food aid by the Ethiopian government and their opposing parties in the conflict. Meanwhile, in Haiti, brazen gang violence and a lack of funding have caused aid organizations to cut or temporarily halt medical and food assistance to the rudderless Caribbean nation.

As a result of war, drought, and subsequent flooding, approximately 28 million people in Ethiopia require humanitarian aid, 20 million of whom are experiencing food insecurity. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided Ethiopia with $1.8 billion of humanitarian aid since 2022, making the United States the single largest donor to the country. However, massive amounts of aid theft – U.S. officials have said it may be the largest diversion of food aid the agency has ever seen – prompted the agency to halt its program in May, following in the footsteps of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). After the pauses, not one of the 6 million residents of Ethiopia’s previously conflict-struck Tigray region received food aid during the month of May, according to a UN memo.

Blame has been aimed at all sides over the theft and negligent oversight. USAID’s internal investigation found all parties of the conflict – the Ethiopian government, the Tigrayans, and the Eritreans – guilty of theft and looting. The head of USAID, Samantha Power, called her agency’s delayed identification of the “widespread and coordinated” theft of aid by all sides of the conflict “a systematic failure,” while one anonymous senior USAID official told the Associated Press that COVID-restricted limited the agency’s on-the-ground oversight. A former Tigray official accused the UN World Food Programme (WFP) of dropping off aid deliveries and leaving them unsupervised in the middle of towns, where Eritrean forces could loot them. Meanwhile, the WFP’s regional director for East Africa said that although his organization may have had “shortcomings” in monitoring its deliveries, the Ethiopian government was responsible for managing distribution. The Ethiopian government, which has agreed to a joint investigation with the United States, has dismissed the whole scandal “propaganda.”

The United States and the UN are demanding Ethiopian government officials end their involvement in the aid system and instead allow humanitarian organizations to directly handle aid delivery. With negotiations between the three parties seemingly stagnating, the passing of Ethiopian harvest season, and the recent collapse of the Black Sea grain deal, the UN humanitarian agency fears the possibility of “mass starvation” in parts of Tigray, as hospitals are already seeing large increases in child malnutrition cases. As many as 600 thousand Ethiopians may have died during the Tigray War, according to the African Union’s envoy to the conflict. That would not only put the country’s death toll approximately three times higher than that of the ongoing war in Ukraine but would make it one of the deadliest conflicts in recent memory. A University of Ghent research group has estimated that somewhere between half and two-thirds of these deaths were civilians suffering from starvation, massacres, and lack of medical care.

Meanwhile, some 700 miles off the U.S. coast, Haiti has been facing a humanitarian crisis for over a decade, with natural disasters and political collapse exacerbating the needs of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Still recovering from a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 that resulted in at least 220 thousand people dead, 300 thousand injured, and 1.5 million left homeless, the country again plunged into chaos following the 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Gang violence, which was already well established prior to Moïse’s assassination, exploded as groups fought to secure territory and ports. With the presidency vacant since Moïse’s assassination and the last legislature’s term expired in January, protests have erupted calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was never sworn into office and whose constitutional mandate ended over a year ago.

A long history of corruption, which many argue stems from the country’s colonial history, has eroded Haiti’s already weak democratic institutions, making it nearly impossible to curb gang activity and restore order. Since a 1991 military coup ejected Haiti’s first democratically-elected president from power, Haitian presidents have empowered gangs to secure their own grips on power against the military and police. With the decades-long reliance on and sponsorship of gangs, corruption has seeped its way into many levels and branches of government and gangs have become more autonomous, controlling vast swathes of the country. As of March, gangs controlled up to 90 percent of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, according to Pierre Espérance, executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Network. Meanwhile, the UN estimates that police force membership is down 40 percent from three years ago. National police operations have been ordered to retreat moments before capturing key gang leaders, according to Espérance, in what appears to be a sign of high-level corruption. Vigilante violence by citizen militia groups, encouraged by police officials who have lost faith in the government, has seen over a hundred gang members killed by mobs, some of whom were burned alive.

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders has had to suspend its services at numerous hospitals throughout the Port-au-Prince metro area over separate instances of violence, going so far as to even permanently shut down an emergency center in the city’s largest slum. Most recently, on July 7, it announced the suspension of treatment at one hospital after armed men forcibly removed a patient as he was being treated for gunshot wounds. In addition to the closure of medical facilities, on June 17, the WFP announced a 25 percent cut to its Haiti food program due to a severe lack of funding, which the program said would affect some 100 thousand Haitians. WFP’s Country Director for Haiti, Jean-Martin Bauer, said “further devastating cuts cannot be ruled out” unless the organization receives “immediate funding.” Without $121 million in additional funding, that number could rise to 750 thousand through the end of the year. Nearly half of Haiti’s national population requires food assistance, according to the WFP.

Gang violence only adds to Haiti's food crisis, by impeding the free movement of people and goods within the country. As the collapse of the Black Sea grain deal increases global food prices, it will likely become all the more difficult for the impoverished nation to receive humanitarian aid funding and food. Despite calls for an international security force to be dispatched to assist Haiti’s National Police with suppressing gang violence, a lack of concrete action risks allowing Haiti to spiral deeper into crisis.