Ethiopia: The UN-led response in Ethiopia was a failure. It’s time to be accountable.

Geneva – Understanding why the UN fails in civil wars is crucial to improving its functioning.

It must have been earlier this year, in the middle of a seven-month editing process, that I was told that the word “failure” appeared too many times in the draft assessment report on the aid response in northern Ethiopia. More than a matter of editing, the report was expected to present examples of good humanitarian practice.

However, there is little good news to report. I led a team tasked with assessing the inter-agency humanitarian response to the crisis in the Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions of northern Ethiopia between November 2020 and April 2023. Our findings, published on June 3, describe the aid collective led by the UN. effort as a systemic failure.

We had unparalleled access to understand what went wrong. In hundreds of interviews with aid workers, government officials, and war-affected communities, we detail the government’s obstruction of aid, the lack of unity among UN agencies, and the international community’s failure to respond to the violence. large-scale sexual harassment and harassment of humanitarian workers. staff.

It is true that the Ethiopian federal government was very effective in blocking aid. In the two-year war, civilians starved to death, their basic health structures were destroyed, telecommunications were cut off, and the banking system was prevented from functioning. These circumstances may partly explain a suboptimal humanitarian response. However, they should also be a reason to try harder.

Recognizing that inaction risked further tarnishing the UN’s reputation, António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, called on the heads of the UN and other humanitarian agencies to mobilize, seven months into the war. But our evaluation found that the so-called system-wide expansion that followed was largely unsuccessful.

UN agencies were largely divided when it came to engagement with authorities. There are 28 UN organizations and offices in Addis Ababa, but these representatives failed to agree on protecting civilians in the three northern regions. Leaked audio recordings of UN meetings illustrate that some of the agency heads in Ethiopia even denied credible reports of large-scale sexual violence in the conflict.

In the following 24 months, several heads of UN agencies, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, the US Secretary of State and other senior officials met with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The crisis was reportedly frequently discussed at these meetings, but without any tangible improvement on the ground. Meanwhile, humanitarian staff negotiating access to Tigray reported having little information about the outcomes of such meetings in the capital. While active staff in Tigray were making extra efforts to step up service delivery, in reality all they could do was keep track of the few convoys allowed into the region.

Most revealing is the UN’s silence regarding the numerous cases of harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention and torture of humanitarian personnel (many, but not all, of whom were of Tigrayan ethnic origin) by security forces. Ethiopians during the war. For Gaza, Guterres drew the line in December 2023 when he invoked Article 99 of the UN Charter, indicating that conditions there were such that significant humanitarian operations could not be carried out. A similar step should have been taken during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.

Several failures could have easily been avoided. The dismal action in response to large-scale sexual violence was primarily the result of a lack of leadership in the response and the absence of clear reporting lines and responsibilities. Estimated numbers of people in need were largely unreliable due to interference by authorities, a finding that appeared in a previous assessment report, but on which no action was taken. And with early signs that humanitarian coordination in Addis Ababa was in disarray, UN chiefs should have been replaced in the response.

Ironically, several waves of humanitarian reform initiatives since the mid-2000s sought to address failures like these. However, the implementation of these reforms is still insufficient. Last year, the main focus of improving Ethiopia’s humanitarian response was the distribution of food aid following reports of substantial diversion of supplies. In reality, food aid has been instrumentalized in Ethiopia for years, if not decades. The issue that captured the attention of international donors was a convenient distraction from holding perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable.

The assessment report is one of the few public documents that provides evidence of the seriousness of the failure of the international response in northern Ethiopia. But what about its impact? It is standard practice for the UN-led humanitarian team in a country subject to such a review to develop a management response. In this case, most of the recommendations are aimed at addressing the functioning of the global humanitarian coordination mechanism, known by its acronym, IASC. However, the IASC is preoccupied with other crises and is undergoing a leadership transition. The chances of this evaluation report being buried are high.