Ethiopia loses British aid for hiding famine
By Damien McElroy | October 18, 2008
ADDIS ABABA - Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, told Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's prime minister, that Britain would not guarantee future payments to the country. On a two-day visit, Mr Alexander toured a hospital in the town of Kebri Dehar, in the Somali region. Before his arrival, local officials forced starving infants out of the emergency ward and on to the street.

"I put it to him [Mr Meles] that severely malnourished children had been removed from the hospital prior to my arrival," said Mr Alexander. "I made it clear that, if true, that was unconscionable and wholly wrong."

Mr Alexander added that he had given the prime minister a "candid and forthright" message – diplomatic code for a blunt rebuke. He said he would reject official advice and decline to make a cast iron pledge of future aid to Ethiopia. "In the months ahead I will be discussing the funding position within Europe and the United States," he said. "I am not making a decision now because of the continuing issues I have seen here."

Ethiopia is Africa's biggest recipient of British aid – spending this year totalled £130 million – and under Tony Blair, Mr Meles was hailed as the model of a progressive African leader.

Ethiopia wanted a long-term promise of British aid to bolster its negotiating position with international lending agencies and outside investors. But its internal repression has grown too harsh for its allies to ignore.

Since a disputed election in 2005, Mr Meles has become increasingly authoritarian. His government is waging a campaign against rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in the Somali region.

This presents the international community with its greatest dilemma. Aid agencies have only recently been granted permission to deliver food to the bleak desert region. Convoys must still be accompanied by the army, which dictates the safety considerations that allow a delivery to go ahead. The movement of aid workers is severely restricted.

Despite the burgeoning presence of relief agencies in Kebri Dehar, famine is not allowed to show its human face. Mr Meles says he cannot separate the food crisis from the struggle to crush the ONLF.

"I don't believe that it's an effective strategy by the government of Ethiopia to starve the people in that area when we are trying to defeat an armed struggle," he told Mr Alexander. "My military are under clear instructions to facilitate the distribution of food."

Eager to paint himself as a regional leader, Mr Meles has viewed Ethiopia's latest drought and famine as a return to the humiliations of the 1980s when its name was a byword for suffering. Only this week, the government acknowledged that 6.4 million people were threatened with starvation. Oxfam warned that the figure could be higher.

Mr Meles, a former guerrilla leader who earned an Open University degree while in prison, promised to address Britain's complaints. But there was considerable anger in his office at the tone of the meeting. "What are they doing?" asked Bereket Simon, a key lieutenant of Mr Meles. "They are following their own agenda and keeping us waiting."

Britain withholds aid as Ethiopia hides famine victims

Britain is to withhold future aid commitments to Ethiopia over concerns that its Government is obstructing efforts to help millions at risk of famine in the drought-stricken Somali region in the east of the country.

Douglas Alexander, the Minister for International Development, flew to Ethiopia on Thursday with a proposal committing millions in funds to the vast African nation over several years.

After visiting the Somali region and hearing the testimony of aid organisations as well as evidence of attempts by the authorities to hide the scale of the crisis, Mr Alexander told the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, that he had reconsidered. “In light of our continued concerns, I said I was now not prepared to make a multi-annual commitment,” Mr Alexander said.

At the moment Britain gives Ethiopia £130 million a year in aid.

He characterised the Government's reaction to the crisis as “deny and delay,” fuelled in part by Ethiopia's extreme sensitivity to its global image as a famine-stricken nation, which the Government views as an impediment to foreign investment.

Mr Alexander saw the sensitivity at first-hand on his trip to Somali when he was taken to the infant malnutrition ward in Kebri Dehar hospital to see seriously ill mothers and babies being treated.

Aid workers were surprised to find that the most severely malnourished babies and their mothers had vanished from the ward where they had been for several days, leaving only one mother and her fast-recovering child.

The health worker who had taken them to the hospital expressed fears that the children had been spirited away before the minister's arrival to avoid “embarrassing” press pictures of starving Ethiopian babies.

“I come here every day and they are always here,” the health worker said. “I don't know where they are now.”

“They've hidden them,” an international aid worker with a lot of experience in the region said.

“The Government doesn't want to acknowledge this crisis because it's bad for their image. It's not the image of Ethiopia they want to project. It doesn't encourage investment.”

Mr Alexander raised the incident later in his meeting with Mr Zenawi. “If it's true that they moved severely malnourished children, that is unconscionable,” he said. Mr Zenawi promised to investigate, calling the incident “despicable”.

In Kebri Dehar, Mr Alexander also heard concerns from local and international aid workers that the Ethiopian Government was actively frustrating efforts to reach the worst-affected areas of the region, using the insurgency as an excuse - an allegation that Mr Zenawi denied.

Aid agencies are unable to conduct surveys into the scale of need in the region because they require government permission and military escorts, which the Government is failing to provide.

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