NAIROBI, Kenya — The United Nations World Food Program said Friday it was temporarily suspending food aid to Ethiopia because its supplies had been diverted, a day after the United States Agency for International Development did the same.
WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain said: “Food diversion is absolutely unacceptable and we welcome the commitment of the Government of Ethiopia to investigate and hold those responsible accountable. The program’s headquarters in Rome declined further comment when contacted by The Associated Press.
About 20 million Ethiopians out of the country’s roughly 120 million people are in need of food aid due to drought and conflict. Most of the aid comes from USAID and the World Food Program.
The suspensions raise concerns that malnutrition could increase in Africa’s second most populous country.
USAID, WFP and the Ethiopian government have not said who is responsible for the food diversion, which the US has described as “widespread and coordinated”.
But an internal memo prepared by a group of foreign donors and seen by the AP this week pointed to government involvement.
“The system appears to be run by Ethiopia’s federal and regional governments, with military units across the country receiving humanitarian aid,” the Humanitarian and Resilience Donor Group, a group of bilateral and multilateral partners, said in a document.
In a joint statement with USAID on Thursday, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry called the revelations “deeply troubling” and said it was investigating with the United States “to bring the perpetrators of such hijacking to justice.”
The nationwide food aid suspensions follow USAID and WFP announcing last month that they had suspended food deliveries to Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region while they investigated reports of food aid theft there. The region is recovering from two years of conflict.
The suspension of the World Food Program and the accusations related to the diversion of aid in Tigrai were first reported by AP. About 5.4 million of the region’s 6 million inhabitants are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Earlier this year, USAID Administrator Samantha Power told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the aid thefts in Tigray “represent collusion between both sides” of the conflict, which ended in November.
In a statement on Friday, WFP said it was running other programs in Ethiopia for children, mothers and herders affected by drought.
“WFP is working closely with UN and humanitarian partners, as well as local stakeholders, to reform the way aid is delivered in Ethiopia and in all high-risk operational environments where we work,” he said.