UN agency joins US in suspending food aid to Ethiopia after diversions

By Giulia Paravicini

NAIROBI (Reuters) – The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday it was suspending food aid in Ethiopia due to the widespread theft of donations, a day after the United States announced it was doing the same.

More than 20 million people need food assistance in Africa’s second most populous nation, largely due to the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in decades and a two-year conflict in northern Ethiopia that left tens of thousands dead.

WFP has helped 7 million people affected by those two crises, while the United States is by far the biggest donor to Ethiopia, providing $1.8 billion in humanitarian assistance in 2022.

Neither WFP nor the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) gave details about the diversions of aid that led to their decisions.

But an internal briefing by a group of foreign donors, seen by Reuters, said USAID believes food has been diverted to Ethiopian military units as part of a scheme orchestrated by federal and regional government entities.

Spokespeople for Ethiopia’s government, military and foreign affairs ministry have not responded to Reuters requests for comment.

“Our first concern is the millions of hungry people who depend on our support, and our teams will work tirelessly with all partners to resume our operations as soon as we can,” WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain said in a statement.

McCain said she welcomed the Ethiopian government’s commitment to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the thefts, echoing comments made by U.S. officials on Thursday.

WFP said that nutrition assistance to children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, school meals programs and activities for building the resilience of farmers and pastoralists would continue uninterrupted.

USAID and WFP both suspended food aid last month to the northern region of Tigray where a two-year civil war ended in a ceasefire last November, saying large amounts of aid had been diverted and sold.

An aid worker in Tigray, where millions are hungry, said food stocks had been completely depleted as a result, leaving humanitarian agencies unable to help people displaced by the conflict.

(This story has been refiled to remove superfluous text from paragraph 11)

(Reporting by Giulia Paravicini; additional reporting by Dawit Endeshaw in Addis Ababa; editing by Aaron Ross, Alexander Winning and Mark Heinrich)