The U.S. government is suspending food aid to Ethiopia after an investigation uncovered a widespread scheme to steal donated food, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said Thursday, a move that will affect millions of the world’s poorest people. Leaked documents given to donors and shared with The Washington Post indicate that the scheme was coordinated by elements within both the country’s federal and regional governments.
Officials have been diverting aid from those who need it to feed the military and ex-combatants, and selling it on the open market to millers who re-exported the flour, according to an investigation by USAID that was summarized to The Post by officials familiar with the investigation.
“After a country-wide review, USAID determined, in coordination with the Government of Ethiopia, that a widespread and coordinated campaign is diverting food assistance,” USAID said in a statement to The Post on Thursday. “We cannot move forward with distribution of food assistance until reforms are in place.”
The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry later put out a statement saying that “the two governments are conducting investigations so that the perpetrators of such diversion are held to account.” The government spokesman did not respond to specific questions, but documents and interviews by The Post laid bare the extent of the scheme in one of the world’s poorest countries.
“Extensive monitoring indicates this diversion of donor-funded food assistance is a coordinated and criminal scheme, which has prevented life-saving assistance from reaching the most vulnerable,” said a report by the Humanitarian Resilience Development Donor Group, an organization of donors briefed by USAID. “The scheme appears to be orchestrated by federal and regional Government of Ethiopia (GoE) entities, with military units across the country benefiting from humanitarian assistance.”
The suspension comes as the Africa’s second most populous nation is struggling to feed about 20 million citizens — about a sixth of the population — following a civil war, drought and rampant inflation. The United States provides the vast majority of food aid to Ethiopia through two programs, one administered by aid groups and the other by the United Nations.
Stopping the aid will further roil the volatile Horn of Africa region, already hammered by a civil war in Sudan that has displaced more than 1.3 million people in six weeks and after constant fighting pushed drought-stricken Somalia to the edge of famine. It may also push Ethiopia further into the arms of Russia, after a period of icy relations with the United States over massive human rights abuses committed during a two-year civil war in the north. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released a report saying ethnic cleansing was continuing in parts of the northern region of Tigray.
It’s unclear exactly what proportion of the food was stolen, but the donors’ report said the investigative team had visited 63 flour mills in seven of Ethiopia’s nine regions and found “significant diversion” across all seven regions. Food from the United States, Ukraine, Japan and France donated to the United Nations World Food Program has been stolen, the report said. It called on all donors who sent food aid to check how it is being used.
An aid worker with knowledge of the program said it appeared that local officials responsible for creating lists of beneficiaries had inflated the number of households in need and prevented food from reaching hungry families. The aid worker and other diplomats spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Yibrah Yemane Tesfay, who was forced to flee his home in the town of Humera to the capital of Tigray, said his family had received only one portion of aid since a peace deal in November that ended the civil war — 15 kilos of wheat for each member of his family. Sometimes he was able to work as a laborer, he said, and other times he begged in the street to feed his children, ages 2, 6 and 13. He said displaced families were angry about the theft of aid and took part in demonstrations last month.
“This is a matter of life and death for us,” he said. “We are very sad. We want the people to be held accountable. We see it as if they sentenced us to death.”
Haftu Hagos, a father of five who fled his home in western Tigray, said his family had received aid just twice since the peace deal. It has been five months since they received anything, he said, and they are sheltering in a vocational school in the town of Tembien. “We are dying and in desperate need of help,” he said. “My wife had a miscarriage due to malnutrition.”
Ethiopia is the largest recipient of U.S. food aid in the world. The revelations about the scale and ubiquity of the looting mean awkward questions will be asked about why the lists of beneficiaries, made by local governments, were not checked more carefully. Questions are also likely to arise about when U.N. partners detected the theft and what kind of third-party monitoring was in place to prevent such plunder.
USAID announced just over a month ago that it was suspending all aid to the northern region of Tigray, where a civil war killed hundreds of thousands of people. The May 3 statement from USAID chief Samantha Power said, “Food aid, intended for the people of Tigray suffering under famine-like conditions, was being diverted and sold on the local market.” But it did not apportion blame.
A day after USAID’s Tigray announcement, the World Food Program, whose former executive director David Beasley bonded with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed over their shared evangelism, said it had also suspended aid in Tigray last month over diversion concerns. WFP plans to carry out real-time needs assessments, strengthen its checks on beneficiary lists, reinforce centralized oversight and improve the tracking of commodities, spokeswoman Annabel Symington said.
The country director for WFP in Ethiopia, who had been in the post only a year, is on leave, she said. A colleague said he has stepped down. Symington did not respond to questions about whether the director would return to the role, and it was unclear if it was related to the investigation. She also did not respond to requests for comment about countrywide diversion.
One diplomat, who had knowledge of an investigation into the diversion, said that USAID found evidence that food aid was being used to feed both the military and former rebel fighters in Tigray. More than 90 percent of Tigrayans need food aid. The interim president of Tigray, Getachew Reda, did not respond to requests for comment.
Flour made from donated wheat was being exported to Kenya and Somalia even as Ethiopians starved, the diplomat said, adding that WFP was “negligent or complicit.”
In the Somali region, which has been grappling with the worst drought in generations, mill managers told the investigation team that they routinely bought bags of wheat in bulk that were branded with USAID and WFP logos, the diplomat said. The bags were unopened, indicating it was not middlemen buying from families who had sold part of their rations, said the diplomat. The border town of Dolo Ado in Ethiopia has two functioning flour mills even though the nearest wheat production is more than 300 miles away, he noted.
A witness who visited one of the mills in Dolo Ado this week sent The Post photos of 50-kilo bags labeled USAID and WFP stacked outside it.
The USAID investigation team witnessed the direct involvement of the Ethiopian National Defense Force in the diversion in the city of Harar, the diplomat said.
Ethiopia has a long had a rocky relationship with the United Nations. The top U.N. aid official accused the government of using starvation as a weapon and blockading food convoys from reaching Tigray during the height of the civil war there, a charge the government denied.