Aid suspension threatens millions of Ethiopian lives


Halting of humanitarian assistance that began in Tigray has now spread to the rest of Ethiopia, imperiling livelihoods in one of the world’s most vulnerable countries.

International food assistance to Tigray has been suspended for more than two months pending an investigation into reports of theft and diversion, which is expected to be completed this month.

The World Food Programme (WFP) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have yet to release any concrete findings and the probe does not appear to be finished, but the verdict has already been passed on those in need.

Tigrayans will continue to starve, and food aid will now also be cut for all 20 million people in Ethiopia who are known to be in urgent need of food assistance.

The impact of the aid stoppage in Tigray will be devastating for the 5.4 million people known to be in desperate need and threatens to destabilize the fragile system that kept people alive in the region through two years of siege warfare before a peace deal was signed last November.

If the suspension of food aid continues and expands, a tragedy similar to the humanitarian meltdown in Tigray could soon engulf the entire nation of more than one hundred million people, many of whom live in areas that are affected by the worst drought in decades.

To the extent that any temporary suspension of aid is justified, it must be done in a transparent manner and exempt those most at risk, two necessary conditions that have thus far been absent.

Breaking the Silence

In separate announcements on 8 and 9 June, USAID and WFP confirmed pervasive rumors that food aid was being suspended across Ethiopia. Both agencies have been piloting a food stoppage in Tigray for the past two months and the predictable result has been an increase in starvation-related death.

WFP and USAID will only confirm that the distribution of food aid in Ethiopia is not currently possible because diversion has been observed to some degree in at least seven of the country’s nine regions. An internal by foreign donors indicated USAID believes federal and regional governments and security forces are responsible for some of the theft.

In the absence of their findings, Tigray’s authorities released their own investigation which accused 186 individuals. The study claimed 50 percent of the diversions were from federal structures, 33 percent by Eritrean forces, and 17 percent by Tigray’s officials, and also laid blame on humanitarian organizations.

Frustration with the lack of transparency and current practices of USAID in Ethiopia were expressed with unusual candor by Senator Jim Risch, a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who issued a statement last week that read in part:

“U.S. agencies have been busy highlighting their self-proclaimed progress at getting food to those in need and ending a war that has destroyed millions of innocent lives. Yet, we now know that leaders at the top of these organizations in Washington, New York, and Rome were aware that implementers on the ground could not guarantee the aid was getting into the right hands […] The lack of oversight and guardrails of U.S. humanitarian assistance should not stand.”

If USAID and WFP are exploring alternate means of providing large-scale food assistance in Tigray, they aren’t talking about it. Currently, there are small-scale activities happening in Tigray, but it’s unknown if WFP and USAID are directly involved.

Both agencies have remained tightlipped about the humanitarian meltdown in Ethiopia and everything that is currently known about the suspension started with leaks to the media that were only later confirmed through official statements.1On 8 June, USAID said it was suspending food assistance to Ethiopia after a “countrywide review” uncovered “a widespread and coordinated campaign” designed to divert food assistance from Ethiopians in need. The next day, the WFP said it was doing the same while it rolled out “enhanced safeguards and controls that will ensure humanitarian food assistance reaches targeted, vulnerable people.”

On 19 June, WFP announced that it hopes to resume some food aid distribution in Ethiopia next month after it has secured better control over how the beneficiaries are selected by increasing its own role and that of its partners while reducing the authority of local and regional government officials.

Phased Shutdown

The suspension of food aid in Ethiopia has proceeded in three stages.

The first stage occurred between 30 March to 14 April and affected only Tigray. Stage two began around 19 April, again in Tigray, after a period of limited distribution to a small number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mekelle. Stage three began on 9 June when the food aid suspension was implemented nationwide. As of writing, the last two stages are still underway.

The first stage of the aid suspension is described in the following email dated 22 April. According to a WFP representative, the causes of the suspension were “issues of beneficiary verification and the sale of humanitarian food destined for Tigray and other regions in the market.”

However, the suspension itself was not temporary, it was only temporarily lifted. According to the multi-agency Food Security Cluster, around 12,600 IDPs in Mekelle received rations in the week ending on 19 April and nothing after that.

The suspension that started on 30 March was only formally announced on 2 May, when it was again described as “temporary”. By the second week of June, not only was the suspension in Tigray still in place, but it was also expanded to include the entire country.

There is never a good time to suspend food assistance in an area where hunger is nearly ubiquitous and the surviving population has recently endured two years of siege warfare with genocidal undertones.

However, following the surge of aid which began in late February, the first two weeks of April offered a brief window of opportunity to suspend distribution for all but the most vulnerable without completely destabilizing access to the basic staples of survival.2The food distribution charts in this paper are based on data collected by the Food Security Cluster in Ethiopia and presented as the “Tigray Response Weekly Dashboard.” When aid is being delivered, the Food Security Cluster produces a weekly update for each food distribution cycle, which often overlap. The last dashboard was published on 19 April. Subsequent monthly updates confirm that no distribution of food rations occurred after the final dashboard was released. These updates can be found here:

As shown in the following chart, with the exception of the Western Zone and Mekelle, the number of six-week rations distributed over the previous two months represented at least 95 percent of the caseload in every zone of Tigray when the suspension began on 30 March.3That 95 percent of the caseload was met does not imply that 95 percent in those areas received food. Due to the phasing of the distribution cycles, each of the beneficiaries of food rations should have been unique during this period. However, it has become obvious that a lot of people were missed, which could mean diversion but is also likely due to mistargeting.

As noted in the above email, the first stage of the aid suspension was to last two weeks. This was a painful exercise but would have reflected ‘good practice’ on the important condition that the suspension was not applied to individuals and households who did not receive rations over the past two months.

This should have made Mekelle almost entirely exempt from the aid suspension. Newly displaced households should have also been exempt.

Uneven Distribution

After the resumption of fighting on 24 August 2022, hundreds of thousands of displaced Tigrayans converged on Mekelle to be safe from military occupation and close to primary depots of humanitarian aid.

Some are living with family, others in communal spaces with no running water or electricity. Those more fortunate are in better equipped IDP camps built by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and partners after the first invasion of Tigray in 2020. Some were receiving food aid, others were not.4See IOM-Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). Round 9 Site Assessment. Northern Region Tigray. (Updated Jun 22, 2022). Available at:

When the suspension began on 30 March, only around 126,000 people in Mekelle had received a six-week food ration in the past eight weeks and 120,000 of these received their ration during the week ending on 29 March.

Mekelle is also an area of Tigray where the total people in need almost certainly exceeds the WFP target. As shown in the two images below, the target for Mekelle in the last completed round was unchanged from the one set prior to the most recent mass displacement event that brought hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians to Tigray.5Sources: Top: Tigray Crisis Response Weekly Dashboard – Food Assistance: New Round of 2022 (as of 17 August, 2022) | Food Security Cluster, Bottom: Tigray Crisis Response Weekly Dashboard – Food Assistance: Round 3 of 2022 (as of 25 January, 2023) | Food Security Cluster (,

The true number of people in urgent need of food assistance in Mekelle is unknown, but it’s certainly higher than it was before the resumption of fighting in Tigray.

Mekelle is not the only place in Tigray where starving people were missed by the last food distribution round. The last official figures from IOM showed that the town of Sheraro in the Northwestern Zone was host to nearly as many IDPs as Mekelle. More recent, unofficial figures shared with the author by an aid worker in Shire put the current population of IDPs in Sheraro at 140,000.

If there was significant theft of food aid in Sheraro, the WFP should have immediately sought alternate means of getting food to the people there. In areas like Enda Baguna, an estimated 37,000 people arrived recently and had not received any food.

This also may have been the case in several areas of the Eastern Zone documented in a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report that was only available between 3 to 8 March, after which it was inexplicably removed from the website.

Worsening Conditions

Under the conditions outlined above, a temporary suspension of food distribution by the WFP and USAID would not likely have resulted in preventable death.

Due to the uneven distribution of aid during the surge prior to 30 March, however, the number of rations distributed in the Northwestern Zone in the previous six weeks still exceeded the total caseload for this zone, but levels plunged dangerously across the rest of Tigray.6It is not known if the theft of food aid in Sheraro affected the distribution figures. No correction has been made.

Still, with the exception of Mekelle and the Western Zone, the number of food rations distributed in every other zone of Tigray over the previous two months was close to or exceeding the total caseload. Even if food distribution was only able to resume on a limited basis that was below the minimum need in Tigray, international humanitarian groups should have restarted aid, particularly in Mekelle.

While aid provision did resume around 19 April and a small amount of aid was distributed thereafter in Mekelle, this was only for a matter of days and aid was then halted once again. It wasn’t until the day after the Associated Press reported on 1 May that food distribution in Tigray had stopped that the WFP and USAID confirmed the suspension publicly.

Starvation-related deaths were the predictable outcome of the new iteration of the suspension. Note in the chart below from 3 May the severe drop in the percentage of people who received the food aid they so urgently needed in the prior six weeks compared to the prior two months.

Since then, the people of Tigray have found themselves in a tragically familiar position. It was logistically possible to deliver food to most of those who were known to be in urgent need of outside food assistance, but manmade obstacles had been constructed to deprive even the most vulnerable from accessing aid. Every IDP hosting site in Tigray and every host community was completely cut off from the food they needed to survive.

According to Northwestern Zone Interim Administrator Teklay Gebremedhin, more than one hundred starvation-related deaths have already been reported at IDP hosting sites in that zone in the past three months, but the figure is likely much higher. The very young are particularly vulnerable, as evidenced by recent reports of a 28 percent increase in starvation related deaths in children under five in Tigray.

Broadened Suspension

After the complete meltdown of the humanitarian response in Tigray, USAID and the WFP announced on 8-9 June, respectively, that not only would the suspension of food assistance continue in Tigray, but it would also be expanded to the entire country.

The implications of this latest version of the aid suspension are immeasurable for the tens of millions of Ethiopians who need outside food assistance to survive the historic drought that has gripped the Horn.

As shown in the chart below, the overwhelming majority of people in Tigray who are known to need food assistance did not receive anything during the three months prior to 7 June.

If the suspension of food distribution in Tigray continues until next month, the 12,653 IDPs who received food in Mekelle during those few days in April when the suspension was lifted will be the only people in the region who have received food assistance in the past three months. The following week, the number will be zero.

Siege Revived

The causes of Tigray’s famine conditions reflect a deliberate wartime strategy, as documented most recently in a comprehensive report by Yale Law School’s prestigious Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic.

The Yale study complemented the work of the International Commission on Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE), which found in September 2022 that the Ethiopian government, the Eritrean military, and allied militia and regional forces laid siege to Tigray’s civilian population during the two-year war.

While the ICHREE investigation covered a full spectrum of human rights abuses in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar, the Yale study focused solely on the siege. Specifically, the Lowenstein team found that:

“Ethiopian federal government and allied forces have extensively looted food, water, and health-care systems in Tigray, imposed a siege that has decimated civilian life in Tigray, and denied the passage of humanitarian relief to civilians in need in Tigray.”

During this time, the federal government tried to strangle Tigray by blocking food from reaching starving families, but it never truly succeeded. Dozens of aid workers lost their lives, considerable resources were spent, and endless rounds of negotiations and broken promises brought aid levels up to a trickle.

The Lowenstein Clinic’s analysis ended before the reports of food diversion broke in March and the suspension of food aid began. Currently, the siege of Tigray described in its determination is confined to areas along the borders with Eritrea and the Amhara region.

The rest of Tigray has subsequently been cut off by the WFP and USAID, as the Ethiopian government’s “law enforcement” campaign designed to defeat the rebels by starving all of Tigray has been replaced by the suspension of food aid by the very agencies who are entrusted to deliver humanitarian aid.

The cruel reality is that, despite its efforts, the Ethiopian government never managed to suspend food assistance so completely as we have witnessed since late March.

Responsibility Abdicated

It’s important to note that the combined WFP/Ethiopia Joint Emergency Operation Program (JEOP) caseload of 5.3 million people does not cover everyone who is starving in Tigray.7Documents reviewed by the author indicate that the IOM may be monitoring a just a quarter of the number of IDP sites that existed in 2021 and significantly fewer people than its own displacement estimates in Tigray.

It has become obvious by now that the UN-IOM cannot account for a significant number of IDPs and the WFP and JEOP have both been unable to reach many of them with food aid, even those in large population centers like Shire, Adigrat, and Mekelle.8See “Analysis: IDPs in Mekelle complain lack of adequate aid despite improved humanitarian access to Tigray.” Addis Standard.; see also the reasons given by returnees for leaving IDP sites in Ethiopia: Protection Monitoring and Solutions (PMS) Report #1 Tigray Region | Eastern Zone. UNHCR. (Feb 2023). (the report is accessible through a link in this article)

Additionally, as mentioned previously, there are still large areas of Tigray, like the Western Zone and districts along the northern border, that remain occupied by Eritrean and Amhara forces. Both have made illegal and unconstitutional claims over Tigray’s territory and, according to plentiful evidence, have committed – and continue to commit – ethnic cleansing and blocked humanitarian aid from reaching innocent Tigrayan families who couldn’t flee these areas.9See, for Irob: For eyewitness testimony of the Irob Massacre see:; for Western Tigray “We Will Erase You from This Land”: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing in Ethiopia’s Western Tigray Zone. Human Rights Watch/Amnesty International. (Apr 6, 2022).; Ethiopia: Ethnic Cleansing Persists Under Tigray Truce. (Jun 1, 2023), Human Rights Watch., International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. Report of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (A/HRC/51/46). Advanced Unedited Version. (Sep 19, 2022),

This is happening in clear view of:

  1. The AU monitoring team, which is tasked by the Pretoria Agreement to monitor humanitarian access in Tigray.10See Article 11 of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement; the jurisdiction of the AU Monitoring team over humanitarian access was also directly confirmed by Mike Hammer in a subsequent USAID-facilitated meeting with Tigrayan diaspora.
  2. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which has a standing obligation to oversee international aid in Tigray and everywhere else they operate.11See section on “Coordination” UNOCHA website:
  3. Multilateral human rights bodies like the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Mandated ICHREE, the International Criminal Court, as well as unilateral agencies like the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy, and Labor.
  4. The Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray interim government, which are responsible for the human rights of every single person inside its borders.
  5. And, the UN Security Council, the U.S. government, the European Parliament, the UK Parliament, and other donors, which each have specific mandates that call them to action to stop weaponized starvation and to prevent the misuse of their humanitarian funding.

Each of the overseers of aid listed above are designed to operate independently of one another and have the human rights and humanitarian condition of Tigrayan civilians at the core of their charters, constitutions, and legal frameworks.

The failure of the humanitarian response in Tigray reveals the profound weakness of the international system. The lack of transparency from the USAID and WFP has caused a crisis of confidence that is being felt from the IDP camps of Tigray to the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

For the past three years, starvation and civilian deaths in Tigray have been normalized and accepted across a broad spectrum of influential actors. This continued indifference could result in further devastation for long-suffering Ethiopians.


Query or correction? Email us

Main Image: Sharing a meal; Tigray, 1 April 2014; Rod Waddington.

This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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About the author

Duke Burbridge

Duke Burbridge has been covering the humanitarian situation in Tigray for the past two years. Prior to that he was a Senior Research Associate at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD), providing research support for community-based peacebuilding programs in conflict-affected countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Colombia. His work can be found on and he is a regular guest on UMD Media's H-Panel program.


  • I am glad you advocate for Tigray Ethiopians but how come not enough recognition for more than 20 Mil else where in the Country? You should know Tigray is the center of Ethiopia unlike whatever the current TPLF politicians try to alienate the Country it helped create. May good will prevail in Ethiopia! My favorite Politician in the country once said the Federal Government should deliver food aid to Tigray even if it was known to be diverted by TPLF. He thinks what is left from TPLF would sustain the lives of Tigrayans. That is what should be done now too.

    • Your point that Tigray is not the only region that suffering from food scarcity is very fair. I focus primarily on Tigray, because I was closely monitoring the humanitarian blockade for two years. Prior to that, when I was in Ethiopia, my research was focused on Muslim-Christian relations and primarily centered on events in Oromia, Amhara, and the capital.

      While Tigray is certainly not the center of Ethiopia or the only area where people are starving, as you rightly point out; it often demands a very narrow focus because the issues affecting food scarcity in Tigray are unique. The same could be said for any other region in Ethiopia. I would not have been able to cover the challenges in aid delivery or the consequences of the humanitarian breakdown in each of the regions in the nuanced manner that the people of each region deserve.

      Thank you for reading the article.

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