The Ethiopian government’s recently imposed state of emergency, which followed months of clashes between political protesters and security forces, has imposed new curfews, limited the movement of civilians and diplomats and outlawed opposition media.
It has also largely silenced the extensive international aid community operating in the country from speaking about what effect the current political dynamic is having on their work.
The quiet itself is telling of the fear NGOs and agencies are operating under. More than a dozen agencies working in a variety of humanitarian and development fields — including the United Nations’ resident humanitarian coordinator — either did not respond to interview requests or declined to speak to Devex for this story, most citing concerns about the potential risk to staff operating in Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, some development projects have been slowed by the government’s reaction to the protests, according to NGO officials. Security forces have fired tear gas and bullets into crowds and temporarily shut down some channels of communication. Transportation restrictions threaten to wreak havoc with the ongoing efforts to address food shortages following monthslong droughts. If violence broadens, it could precipitate a larger humanitarian crisis.
International officials — including from U.N. agencies — appear reluctant to speak candidly on the situation for fear it could cost them access to the communities they are trying to assist or even result in their agencies being expelled from the country. That could be devastating in a country where 9.7 million people are estimated to need food relief before the end of the year.
In Ethiopia, the U.S. Agency for International Development has a “crucial window of time” to use disaster response tools to prevent the very worst impacts of drought.
Yet if not aid agencies, human rights activists wonder who is going to speak up about the situation in Ethiopia. They say the state of emergency has presaged a crackdown on local journalists and civil rights groups. Most diplomats have been wary about offending a key regional partner, even as the situation looks set to worsen.
“Right now the general intolerance the government is demonstrating toward criticism is only fueling people’s frustrations,” said Clementine de Montjoye, the advocacy and research manager for the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project. With the violence looking to continue, aid agencies will remain in the precarious position of calibrating how — or whether — to respond.
Roots of discontent
The current protests date to November 2015 and began in Oromia, the region that extends over much of the country’s south and east like a sideways “V”. Demonstrators initially reacted to a government plan to take land from Oromia to expand the capital, Addis Ababa, which falls inside the region. The proposal stoked long-simmering feelings of marginalization among the Oromo ethnic group — the country’s largest, accounting for more than a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people.
Clashes recently spread to the Amhara region in the country’s north, home of the country’s second-largest ethnic group. Though the demonstrations are unrelated, they are both rooted in feelings of exclusion from the government, which is dominated by the Tigray — a community that makes up only 6 percent of the population. The government has acknowledged that more than 500 people may have died because of the security force’s response to the protests or in stampedes that have followed, as people have tried to escape.
The roots of the discontent extend beyond political marginalization, said Yared Hailemariam, the executive director of the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia. Cyclical humanitarian crises — including periodic food shortages — and the slow pace of infrastructural development have deepened frustration. Despite the country’s rapid economic growth over the past decade, progress has come unevenly and left some regions lagging behind.
Oromia and Amhara, in part because they are the largest regions, have the largest numbers of people in need of food assistance, according to a midyear review by the government and aid agencies. After a failed rainy season in 2015 and a drought so far in 2016, three times more people are in need of aid this year, according to the review.
Many areas in these regions rely on domestic and international agencies for support. If the state of emergency interferes with humanitarian relief efforts or development projects, Yare said it could push more people onto the streets. The declaration includes not just a ban on protests, but also a 6 p.m. curfew and a prohibition on foreign diplomats traveling more than 40 kilometers from Addis Ababa without approval.
“Some of the embassies have development projects, for example,” he said. “If they can’t visit those areas and can’t communicate with the staff on the ground, they won’t know what’s going on. Maybe it ignites another round of protests. It’s ridiculous.”
Impact on aid work
The few NGO officials willing to talk told Devex that they are still waiting to find out how the state of emergency will impact their work. Location seems to be the most critical determinant of whether aid projects are directly affected.
Most of Mercy Corps’ projects, for example, are far from the areas where the clashes have taken place, and their services have not been interrupted, said Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, the director of media relations. The organization works on emergency responses to the droughts as well as long-term climate change and other environmental adaptation.
Some of WaterAid’s projects, have been forced to slow down as contractors have refused to show up for work if there are nearby protests, said Lydia Zigomo, the organization’s head for the East Africa region.
Focusing on access to water and raising hygiene and sanitation standards, the organization has funded more than 50 projects in Ethiopia, including ongoing sites in Oromia and Amhara.
Officials and activists also said aid projects experience some overarching challenges in communication as the government regularly shutting down the internet and phone lines.
WaterAid’s Zigomo said the organization has been helped by the perception of the water and sanitation sector as nonpolitical. “We tend not to be in the first line of any problems that are going on.”
The danger of being viewed as political is something the international community is very attuned to, and their caution is likely warranted. The government maintains acute oversight of the international community, including through a 2009 law regulating the activities of nongovernmental organizations. That alone already makes it difficult for groups to even do their work, Yared said.
His own experience is telling of the challenges: Though he operates out of Brussels after escaping into exile in 2005, he said he still gets calls from international aid agencies asking him if he has reports from communities outside Addis Ababa he can share. Relief organizations “can’t get information,” he said. “The government restricts them from moving in these conflict areas.”
Yared said he understands international agencies are in a difficult position. Even the perception of commenting on the effect of the government’s policies could prove devastating for their programs. But he also wonders who will tell the world what is happening in Ethiopia.