Since the attack against the northern command of the Ethiopian national defence force by the TPLF, several misleading pieces of information have emerged from the region. The military confrontation that morphed into a humanitarian crisis has seen a number of UN agencies and other international non-governmental organizations involved in the delivery of much-needed aid to the people in the war-torn region. However, there have been accusations and counter-accusations relating to atrocities against civilians and the free flow of humanitarian aid.
Following an investigation on the unfolding of events in the region, the Ethiopian government on August 3, 2021, accused the Norwegian Refugee Council and Médecins Sans Frontières of bias, citing that they “have been disseminating misinformation on social media and other platforms outside of the mandate and purpose for which the organizations were permitted to operate”. The accusations go to the extent of rumours about the provision of armaments to the TPLF. Political watchers were quick to relate the incident to a CIA memo from the 1980s where reference was made to using aid as a cover to ship in ammunition to then rebels TPLF being one of them that were fighting the military dictatorship of Ethiopia. Responding to the accusation, UN’s humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths, called them “blanket accusations”. However, many Ethiopian UN staff working closely in Tigray, confess that there has been an overall bias among international aid agency workers, who they say have faulted the federal government of wrongdoing in the war to the extent of blurring their judgment on important matters.
Ethiopian and African UN staff who are afraid to make their statements openly for fear of reprisals share this view of bias predominantly among the staff of aid agencies who are of western/European origins. They reveal that the WHO, OCHA, WFP and IOM staff come from their respective headquarters with preconceived ideas of the crisis that are not often in sync with the reality on the ground.
Misrepresentation of facts
An insider shows how some UN staff played a role in manipulating facts about the humanitarian crisis in Tigray. The information gathered relating to the three most important highlights of the crisis, namely, 5.2 million people are in need of aid, 2 million people have been displaced, and at least 400,000 people are in conditions approximating famine. This is however in no way an attempt to downplay the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the war in Tigray. However, the Health Cluster Coordination which is a humanitarian intervention arrangement led by WHO in partnership with the Ethiopian Government and with the participation of other UN agencies and international and national NGOs estimated in its January 2021 report the people in need to be 2.8 million, based on globally approved methodology and data availed by other agencies including UN OCHA. Unfortunately, this data was changed to 3.8 million in Tigray without any explanation. In April 2021, an international staff from the Global Health Cluster coordinator (called Emma), came to the WHO Ethiopia office “to support” the Health Cluster team. She then came up with data of 3.8 million people in need, which she never justified to the team in Ethiopia and did not share the file she worked on. Against the resistance of the Africa team, this data was published on the OCHA bulletin as the final data from the Health Custer.
Insiders reveal further that the Cluster Coordinator had unabashedly declared when she arrived in the Ethiopia office that her mission from Geneva was to ‘’help elevate the Tigray crisis to Level 3”, which will lead to more international attention as well as more budget and staff allocation.
In the same vein, when the January 2021 data on health needs was generated, the number of displaced people was set at below one million based on IOM data. The number suddenly jumped to two million and it is still reported as such within and outside the UN. In June 2021, a cholera vaccination campaign in Tigray targeted 1 million IDPs. However, the team members would tell you that they couldn’t find anything close to that number and had to administer the vaccine to residents in their homes.
FAO insiders have also specifically asked the single IPC staff in the Ethiopia office if he went to Tigray and how the data on famine was generated. The Officer said that he went to Mekelle once and travelled to the city of Axum in a convoy and that IPC has no staff in Mekelle to do data collection. The report does not provide details on the data collection methodology it employed. One cannot help but wonder how such surveys can be conducted while the project has no staff or clearly identified collaborators that were operating on the ground.
The IPC Ethiopia officer specifically admitted to the FAO insiders that “his bosses in Rome” generated the data without going into details.
From what FAO insiders know, the IPC project is led by an FAO Project Officer in Rome, who is supervised by a certain Ethiopian-born Deputy Director of the Emergencies Division of FAO (called Shukri). This Official is known to be an outspoken supporter of the TPLF-led regime in Ethiopia before its removal from central power in 2018. In the same team is a Senior Officer who is a Tigrayan and a vocal TPLF supporter (called Berhe). While the IPC officer in the FAO Ethiopia office did not want to give details, the two Ethiopians are definitely among “his bosses’ ‘ who generated the IPC data without a single staff on the ground to collect evidence. However, the data has not been endorsed by the Government of Ethiopia, which normally was supposed to be the case. The above anecdotal evidence is by no means an attempt to diminish the magnitude of the crisis and human suffering in Tigray, which has been horrible. It is rather driven by a quest for truth, i.e., disproving the overblown generalization of the Ethiopian government while at the same time showing that the UN is constituted of people with their own dispositions and possible biases.
How the Tigray crisis was elevated to Level 3
The above-mentioned statistical data have led to the elevation of the Tigray crisis to Level 3/L3 by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which is the highest-level humanitarian coordination forum of the UN system that brings together the executive heads of 18 UN and non-UN organizations. L3 is an exceptional measure to be applied only for exceptional circumstances where the gravity justifies mobilization beyond normally expected levels. This outcome leaves many to conclude is the reason why the Health Cluster Coordinator from Geneva declared on her arrival that she wanted to elevate the crisis to L3 and prepared the data to fit that purpose by sidelining normal procedures. The questionable data generation and the related elevation of the crisis to the highest level have indeed been used to sway opinion against the Government of Ethiopia and in favour of TPLF, which was equally responsible for the crisis.
UN officials fail to act with neutrality!
The rules of the UN require political neutrality, but as the above examples show, those rules do not seem to have been followed strictly at the highest levels. Observers say they are surprised to have read the tweets and news feeds of the WHO Director-General on Facebook and Twitter on the situation in Tigray. Looking into how things worked from within the UN with regard to the Tigray crisis, as the anecdotal pieces of evidence shared above show, one cannot help but conclude that the conduct of some UN staff has fed into the claim of organizational bias.
While opinion leaders have condemned the accusation of the UN for being bias, they have also urged the UN as well other organizations in the humanitarian community to look into their practice and the conduct of their staff to make sure that the core value of neutrality is maintained at all times.