NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The United States Agency for International Development said Thursday it has suspended all food aid to Ethiopia, Africa’s second most-populous country, after an internal investigation found donated food intended for millions of hungry people there was being diverted on a “widespread” scale.
While the agency’s statement did not say who was responsible for the theft, agency head Samantha Power, in briefing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this spring on initial discoveries of massive theft of food aid in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, said the theft appeared to “involve collusion between parties on both sides” in a government conflict with opponents there.
Power at the time called her agency’s delay in detecting the “widespread and coordinated” theft of aid there “a systemic failure” by her agency.
The U.S. is the biggest single donor to Ethiopia, providing $1.8 billion in humanitarian assistance, including food aid, in the 2022 fiscal year. In total, 20 million people across Ethiopia rely on aid because of conflict and drought, out of a total population of about 120 million.
A USAID official, speaking on condition of anonymity given the ongoing investigation, said the U.S. development agency was still providing other assistance in Ethiopia, including feedings for malnourished children, despite the suspension of delivery of food aid.
“Our intention is to immediately resume food assistance once we are confident in the integrity of delivery systems to get assistance to its intended recipients,” the agency said in a statement.
An internal memo prepared by a group of humanitarian donors and seen by The Associated Press also pointed to the involvement of Ethiopia’s federal government in the diversion of food aid.
“The scheme appears to be orchestrated by federal and regional government of Ethiopia entities, with military units across the country benefitting from humanitarian assistance,” said the document from the Humanitarian and Resilience Donor Group, which includes bilateral and multilateral partners.
In a joint statement with USAID, Ethiopia’s foreign affairs ministry spoke of “deeply concerning revelations” and said it was investigating with the U.S. “so that the perpetrators of such diversion are held to account.” It committed to reforms to safeguard future aid from theft.
The document said USAID staff members had launched inspection visits of 63 flour mills in seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions since March. They witnessed a “significant diversion of USAID-funded humanitarian food commodities” alongside food donated by France, Japan and Ukraine, according to the donor report.
The USAID announcement comes after both USAID and the United Nations World Food Program last month said they had suspended aid to Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region while they investigated allegations of food aid theft, which were first reported by the AP in April.
The Tigray region was the center of a devastating two-year conflict that ended in November and left 5.4 million of the population of 6 million relying on humanitarian help.
A USAID document from May 3 said its investigators discovered 2,000 metric tons of USAID-branded wheat — enough to feed 134,000 people for a month — for sale in a market in the Tigray town of Shire in March. The investigators also found USAID grain for sale elsewhere in the region, the document said.
With food aid suspended in the region, doctors in Tigray have reported an alarming rise in hunger. Child malnutrition cases rose by 28% from March to April at the region’s flagship Ayder Hospital in Mekelle, the provincial capital, while at Axum Hospital they rose by 96% over the same period, according to admissions data reviewed by the AP.
Simret Niguse, a pediatrician at Ayder, said seven children died from acute malnutrition at the hospital last month. They included a 6-month-old whose mother could not produce milk “due to hunger,” she said.
The acting U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Tracey Ann Jacobson, and Mike Hammer, the U.S. special envoy to the Horn of Africa, visited Tigray this week. The region’s interim president, Getachew Reda, said he discussed allegations of aid diversion with them.
Testifying to senators about the investigation in late April, Power said fighting had meant that USAID’s disaster response team was then unable to gain access to the region, which denied the agency the oversight it would have had on scene, she said.
“We know we owe you…not only accounting for what has happened but also some institution of additional safeguards,” Power told senators.
Ellen Knickmeyer contributed from Washington.