Addressing Food Aid Theft: Exploring Effective Solutions
On August 18, 2023, BBC News reported that at least 1,400 individuals had tragically perished due to starvation in Tigray since April 2023. This devastating loss occurred as a result of international humanitarian organizations’ suspension of food aid. In March, the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) and the United States’ leading aid agency (USAID) decided to cease providing food assistance to Tigray after discovering large-scale theft. USAID subsequently announced the suspension of food aid to the rest of Ethiopia in June.
Following this suspension, Tigrayan authorities conducted an investigation and discovered that nearly 500 individuals were involved in the theft, as revealed by an official in an interview with the BBC. Furthermore, the BBC obtained evidence of food items bearing the emblems of aid agencies, including the WFP and USAID, being sold in markets across Tigray, including the capital city of Mekelle. In June, a leaked memo from an independent donor group, cited by various media outlets, alleged that federal and regional government entities orchestrated a coordinated and criminal scheme. This scheme purportedly involved military units across the country benefiting from the misappropriation of food aid.
According to The New Humanitarian, out of the 6 million people residing in Tigray, a staggering 5.4 million are still dependent on food aid. The delivery freeze that has been in effect since mid-March has left the majority of Tigrayans without any assistance.
A courageous relief worker, who wishes to remain anonymous to speak candidly, has shed light on the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Tigray as reported by The New Humanitarian. Astonishingly, the current situation is even more dire than during the war, when access to aid was severely restricted. The suspension of food aid has resulted in an alarming number of people starving and, tragically, losing their lives. These firsthand accounts paint a harrowing picture of the suffering endured by the people of Tigray.
On the other hand, food aid theft poses a significant challenge that hampers the successful distribution and implementation of these programs. In an attempt to relieve this situation, this essay aims to delve into the issue of food aid theft, discussing its underlying causes and potential solutions. We can explore viable strategies to mitigate this problem and maximize the impact of food assistance efforts rather than punishing the vulnerable.
Understanding the Nature of Food Aid Theft
Food aid theft refers to the intentional misappropriation or diversion of food intended for vulnerable populations. It can occur at various stages, including transport, storage, and distribution. This illicit activity deprives individuals of nutrition essential to their survival and undermines the overall effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian assistance programs.
Root Causes of Food Aid Theft
To comprehensively address the theft of food aid, it is essential to identify its root causes. The invasion of Tigray by Ethiopian, Amhara (Fano) and Eritrean forces exacerbated the vulnerability of Tigrayans, making them susceptible to internal and external theft.
On June 19, 2023, Capital Ethiopia reported that a shocking revelation emerged from an investigation conducted by the Tigrayan authorities. It was disclosed that both regional and federal government officials, along with Eritrean soldiers, were complicit in the theft of food aid in Tigray.
General Fiseha Kidanu, head of peace and security in Tigray’s interim regional administration, revealed the shocking findings of the investigation during an interview with Tigrai TV. He confirmed that more than 860 kilograms of wheat and 215,000 liters of food oil had been stolen. Investigators also identified 186 suspects implicated in this heinous scheme, and 7 were detained.
Strengthening Governance and Accountability
Efforts to curb food aid theft should prioritize strengthening governance and accountability mechanisms. Implementing transparent procurement processes, involving local stakeholders, and clearly documenting the distribution and utilization of food aid can foster accountability and combat corruption.
Strengthening governance and accountability to combat food aid theft in Tigray is a pressing and imperative task that demands swift action. This necessitates tightening regulations, implementing rigorous oversight mechanisms, and holding perpetrators accountable without exception. Fortifying governance structures, empowering independent auditing bodies, and employing stringent screening procedures for aid distributors are essential. Involving local communities in monitoring and reporting irregularities is also paramount to instilling transparency and fostering responsibility.
Technological Innovations and Tracking Systems
Applying advanced technological solutions, such as track-and-trace systems and biometric identification tools, can enhance the monitoring and tracking of food aid. These innovative approaches enable real- time monitoring of food shipments, ensuring timely detection of any unauthorized handling or diversion.
However, there are major challenges in this regard. One of the key challenges in utilizing technological innovations and tracking systems to prevent food aid theft in Tigray is the lack of reliable infrastructure. The region, which has experienced prolonged genocide, has suffered from a severe deterioration of basic services such as electricity and telecommunications. This poses significant obstacles in establishing an effective digital tracking system for food aid distribution. In addition, limited internet connectivity hampers real-time monitoring and data analysis, hindering authorities’ ability to swiftly respond to potential instances of theft. Overcoming these challenges requires investment in infrastructure and tailored educational programs that foster understanding and acceptance of technological solutions.
Furthermore, the potential weaponization of biometric data with regards to aid recipients’ ethnic identity in the wake of Tigrayans being subjected to ethnicity-based attacks must be considered. Therefore, if such a mechanism were to be implemented, privacy and security of aid recipients would need to be guaranteed by international aid organizations and accountability mechanisms in place were such an abuse to occur.
Community Engagement and Empowerment
Engaging local communities in the planning, implementing, and monitoring of food aid programs can cultivate a sense of ownership and responsibility. This involvement empowers communities to identify and report instances of theft, bridging the trust deficit often associated with external actors or authorities.
Community engagement and empowerment play a pivotal role in effectively preventing food aid theft in Tigray. It is imperative that community members be involved and mobilized, as they are the ones who have firsthand knowledge of the local dynamics and can identify potential instances of theft. Empowering the community through education and awareness programs enables them to actively participate in monitoring food distribution, therefore deterring any attempts at theft by creating a sense of accountability amongst all stakeholders. Additionally, fostering a strong sense of ownership within the community helps establish a collective responsibility toward safeguarding the aid meant for those in need. By engaging with communities and providing them with the tools and knowledge necessary to actively combat food aid theft, international aid organizations can ensure greater transparency and accountability, ultimately ensuring that food aid reaches its intended recipients.
Capacity Building and Training
Investing in capacity building and training programs for individuals involved in food assistance initiatives is crucial. Equipping local staff and volunteers with the necessary skills and knowledge enhances their ability to detect and respond to potential theft and fosters professionalism, integrity, and ethical conduct.
Regional and International Cooperation Addressing food aid theft requires both regional and international cooperation. Collaborative efforts among governments, non-governmental organizations, and international agencies can promote information sharing, joint monitoring, and coordinated responses at local, national, and regional levels.
Accountability and Legal Frameworks
Robust legal frameworks are also necessary to address food aid theft. Locally driven community-based restorative justice emerges as a potentially effective solution for addressing the issue of food aid theft. This approach recognizes that food aid theft affects individuals who rely on these resources, damages trust within the community, and undermines the very purpose of providing food assistance.
Restorative justice enables communities to actively participate in finding solutions by fostering dialogue, understanding, and accountability. It advocates for locally led initiatives that focus on preventing future food aid theft rather than solely punishing the offenders. By harnessing local knowledge, resources, and expertise, such an approach encourages collective responsibility and creates opportunities for rehabilitation, reconciliation, and reintegration. Through facilitated conversations between affected stakeholders and those responsible for food aid thefts, restorative justice aligns with principles of fairness, inclusivity, and social harmony—ultimately promoting long-term sustainable change that addresses underlying causes while restoring faith in community support systems.
Through well-established institutions, such as community-based forums and assemblies, Tigray has successfully integrated traditional conflict resolution mechanisms into the modern justice system. These institutions focus not only on punishing offenders but also on nurturing dialogue among all affected parties, encouraging empathy and understanding to repair broken relationships. Furthermore, they prioritize the participation of marginalized groups such as survivors or victims, and women, empowering them as active agents in seeking truth, justice, and effective reparations. Utilizing these systems in thwarting food aid theft is imperative. However, every effort must be made to ensure that democratic principles and freedom prevail in these procedures.
Targeted Interventions and Risk Assessment
Tailoring interventions that account for the unique context and risks associated with the Tigray region can significantly impact the prevention of food aid theft. The invasion and siege of Tigray, coupled with a staggering lack of accountability, has devastated the region’s infrastructure and heightened the extent of corruption and food aid theft. But, further comprehensive risk assessments would allow stakeholders to identify vulnerabilities and implement appropriate safeguards accordingly.
Food aid theft remains a serious challenge that compromises the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance programs, further burdening vulnerable populations. By embracing these proposed solutions, including strengthening governance and accountability, leveraging technology, and promoting community involvement, we can enhance the impact of food aid initiatives and contribute to sustainable development. But taking food away from the vulnerable is never the solution.
Batseba Seifu – Omna Tigray External Contributor, August 2023