Violating the humanitarian space in Ethiopia

Posted on: December 15, 2020 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

“Humanitarian organizations are not free from politics.”

-Samual Lemma, humanitarian

Violating the humanitarian space in Ethiopia #notatarget


National humanitarians killed
The recent violence in Ethiopia has led to the death of four humanitarians, three working with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and one for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). UN staff have been targeted as they attempted to reach those in need of humanitarian assistance in the hotly contested Tigray region. Cell phone and wifi access has been limited since November 4th when these services were cut off by the central government. Ethiopian leadership, based in the capital Addis Ababa, is pushing the narrative that this is an internal matter. The leaders are providing limited cooperation with both UN and INGO organizations.

This conflict has generated many IDPs and refugees, and among those impacted are Eritrean refugees in Tigray Regional State.  The UN and the Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) are working to both gain information and provide support, though access seems limited at this time.

The underlying roots and current status of this conflict are complicated, involving the entire Horn of Africa. See here for an informative summary and explanatory video. After reports of Eritrean troops becoming involved, possible escalation of the conflict is raising international concern.

Historically, by a ratio of nearly ten to one, national aid workers are much more likely to be killed or wounded as compared to international staff, and this is apparent with these recent deaths. This is, in part, due to the fact that national humanitarians make up approximately 80% of the total work force in the sector. However defined, these workers are in ‘the field’, more often than not on the front lines of any humanitarian response, and hence in harms way more frequently.

One humanitarian’s view
Below is a conversation I had with an Ethiopian humanitarian Samual Lemma based in Addis Abada. Samual serves as a consultant to both national and international humanitarian organizations and has worked in the sector for most of his adult life.

What do you think the world would need to see about this right now? From a humanitarian worker perspective?

“According to my view, the current situation in Ethiopia is a type of battle between a once rebel group that struggled for disintegration of the country and came to power and led the country for almost 30 years, and Ethiopians. TPLF, a group of mafia, has killed many people in Ethiopia while they were in power. They also contributed for breaking away of Eritrea from Ethiopia, leading Ethiopia to become a landlocked country with large population size in the world.”

What can be done to bring peace?

“TPLF should be removed and labeled as ‘Terrorist Organization’. They killed many people. They are known as terrorists that led a country.”

How are the humanitarian organizations reacting to this war?

“It was difficult to access the region due to heavy shelling and war crimes targeting ethnic Amharas. TPLF has a history of using humanitarian aid to buy weapons while they were rebels. The 1984 famine helped them to get more money and weapons. International humanitarian organizations have supported TPLF in the past.

During the 1984 famine, most (80%) of affected people were under the control of the then government, but more than 50% of aid was provided to area controlled by TPLF. Having this experience, in 2004 the government led by TPLF refused to allow access to famine affected Ogaden area, where Somali people were affected by drought and famine. In this area there was a guerilla warfare organization called Ogaden Liberation Front. Humanitarian organizations are not free from politics.

Many people crossed Ethiopian border and moved to Sudan. Unlike, other humanitarian crisis, most of them are
young males that questions the humanitarian works. Ethiopian government is saying that these young males are the one who committed genocide and war crimes.”

Are humanitarian workers in mortal danger?

“There is news of the killings of four humanitarian workers due to the conflict between the government and the TPLF. There is continued danger for the humanitarian workers.”

What do you think should be the UN/international response to this conflict?

“I think, UN and other countries should not intervene in this case. Western and Arabian countries tried to interfere but government has sent a diplomacy mission and now they understood the situation. To be frank, I do not like the TPLF. They are renegade those betrayed Ethiopia. The rise and fall of this group is a shame.”

Are IDPs and refugees being created and how are humanitarian organizations responding?

“Yes, there are many IDPs most of them are ethnic Amharas. The Tigraians crossed border to Sudan as refugees but most of them are young males. The refugees in Sudan are being helped by UN. But the IDPs in Ethiopia are being helped by local residents.”

How are you personally handling this turn of events?

It is expected to have some economic and social impacts. During a time of unrest, consultancy works like the one I am involved decreases. Socially, we are very worried about our relatives, friends and other civilians in Tigray.”

How is the response to the COVID-19 being impacted by this conflict?

“Due to this conflict, the rate of testing Covid-19 has declined. Before, we used to have daily tests of above 10,000. But now it is below 5000, and the positive reported cases are more than 10% of the total tests.”


Observations about the humanitarian response in Ethiopia
Samual provides some good insights but his observations raise many questions, some of which have only unclear answers. One point he makes is that “humanitarian organizations are not free from politics.” True, that. Aid and development work has come under increasing scrutiny as inherently perpetuating neocolonial power structures. It is with distorted irony that I write this just 10 days away from the major Christian holiday of Christmas. It was in 1984 in reaction to the ongoing famine in Ethiopia that Band Aid recorded “Do They Know Its Christmas“, perhaps the most tone deaf and patronizing holiday song in history. That the some of the money raised by Band Aid was siphoned off by the TPLF to buy weapons is a cautionary note that remains unread by too many within the sector. We are again reminded of the fact that any aid, especially in a conflict zone, can and will be used to cause more harm. Indeed, “humanitarian organizations are not free from politics.”

That Abiy Ahmed wants to limit UN and INGO interference may be the right call. But even writing that sentence cuts at the core of what I believe to be the humanitarian imperative. How do you decide -as an individual or as an organization- when, if, and to whom to offer humanitarian assistance?  As James Dawes puts it in That the World May Know,1How do we weigh the unforeseen and unforeseeable negative results of our humanitarian interventions.” I am reminded of the way one humanitarian described the sector in an interview.  She offered the all-too-true cliche, ‘”you’re damned if you do and you’re damed if you don’t.”

The situation in Ethiopia is likely to get worse before it gets better. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seems quite willing to use violence against his fellow citizens. I find it deflating that yet another2 Nobel Peace Prize winner -Abily won in 2019- has tarnished their award by fostering war.

1Dawes, James, That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity, Harvard University Press, 2007.

2 I have watched, researched, and written about the genocide in Myanmar unfolding under the authority of the 1991 Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. Her embrace of the Tatmadaw seems complete and grotesquely complicit.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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