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Ethiopia's Meles Goes from Strategic Starver to UN Partner in a Day, Ogaden Games in the Times

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, July 23 -- Does the UN system have humanitarian access to the Ogaden region of Ethiopia or not? In the July 22 New York Times, the director of the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia, Mohammed Diab, was quoted that ''Food cannot get in."

            Further inquiry by Inner City Press yields responses that imply either that the New York Times misquoted the UN official or the UN system is backing away from the statement -- or both. Two separate UN explanations are quoted extensively below.

   The after-the-fact spinning may be explained by the fact that the UN, whose Security Council declined to criticize Ethiopia's ongoing incursion into Somalia which began last December, and whose humanitarian coordinator in Somalia urged uncritical support of the Ethiopia-backed Transitional Federal Government, is in a conflicted position with regard to human rights violations by the government of prime minister Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia.

    The Times article had another, seemingly non-UN quote: "'It's a starve-out-the-population strategy,' said one Western humanitarian official, who did not want to be quoted by name because he feared reprisals against aid workers. 'If something isn't done on the diplomatic front soon, we're going to have a government-caused famine on our hands.'"

            Perhaps the UN now wishes that WFP's director of Ethiopia had also demanded anonymity -- some say that his candor, meant to highlight the impending starvation of civilians, is not kindly looked upon by others in the UN system who have a more go-along to get-along attitude.

      Or was the tough talk, and then stepping-away, a sort of high-stakes diplomatic game in which bad press is threatened if food is not released? Already in the U.S. Congress there are moves to condemn or de-fund Ethiopia. Will a retraction or amplification not be sought from the New York Times because the story, from the UN's point of view, fulfilled its purpose? Is this the function of journalism, or more specifically of humanitarian journalism?

            At Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson's noon briefing on July 23, Inner City Press asked:

Inner City Press: The people in that region called for some kind of UN inquiry.  So one, are you aware of that call for an inquiry?  And two, what is the UN going to do if its humanitarian agencies are denied access to regions they are supposed to be serving?

Deputy Spokesperson:  To be completely truthful, I have received many pages of reaction from the humanitarian agencies on this report.  So, I think I'd rather share with you this report afterwards.  OCHA -- the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs -- the World Food Program and the World Health Organization, all of which have programs in this region which they consider to be the poorest area of Ethiopia, have reactions to this.  And rather than go through the whole Q&A here, I think I would rather share the whole thing with you afterwards...  (Video here, from Minute 10:06).

            But the "whole thing" wasn't shared. When Inner City Press afterwards asked for the three sub-agencies' reactions, at first the (mis) direction was to contact WFP. While Inner City Press sent WFP's New York spokesperson an e-mail, the response at the noon briefing was that three agencies' reactions -- "the whole thing" -- would be shared afterward the briefing. It was never explained why, as to a fourth agency, UNICEF, involved in the polio program described in the Times article, no reaction was provided, or even apparently sought.

            Ten hours later, no World Health Organization reaction had been provided. As to OCHA, the deputy spokesperson said that, "as I mentioned earlier, John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs will be here tomorrow.  So, I think maybe he will in a better position to also brief you on that."

            The WFP written statement provided tried to back away from the agency's Ethiopia director's quote, and stated that the New York Times presented it out of context:

Subj: response on your ethiopia question from WFP 

From: unspokesperson-donotreply [at]

To: Inner City Press

Date: 7/23/2007 1:34:26 PM Eastern Standard Time

Following from: Bettina Luescher, WFP Chief Spokesperson, North America

The New York Times quoted WFP Country Director Mohamed Diab as saying this was the first time he had heard of such diversions, but in fact Mr. Diab said it was the first time he had heard of allegations of a government blockade on the region... The New York Times quotes Western humanitarian officials as estimating that up to 30 percent of food aid to the Somali region is diverted and that to cover their tracks soldiers and government administrators tell aid agencies that the food assistance has been spoiled or been stolen or hijacked by the rebels.

WFP is surprised by such a statement - we take seriously this allegation of major food diversion, and will quickly investigate together with the government and other agencies. In Ethiopia, a number of agencies as well the government provide food assistance  - we will ensure this allegation is raised with all relevant parties...

Contrary to what is implied by the WFP quote in the New York Times, WFP does not consider there is a government 'blockade' on the Somali region as multi-agency and government assessment teams are currently working on the ground in three zones, and WFP food distributions are underway in three other zones.  WFP, however, like FEWS holds that restrictions on commercial trade and movement of humanitarian aid because of military operations as well seasonal floods, rising prices, and other factors could lead to a humanitarian crisis among pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in some areas unless the restrictions are lifted soon. 

The dispatch of emergency food assistance was delayed in some areas because of restrictions on movements of commercial traffic and humanitarian assistance since a security operation began in parts of the region in May.

The government has allowed WFP food assistance into three zones -- Shinile, Afder and Liben – in the Somali region and the food is moving now and being distributed. We have monitors on the ground to check it is distributed to the people in need. 

In addition, the authorities this month allowed multi-agency and government assessment teams into the most restricted zones: Fik, Degehabur and part of Gode zone. The government has also assured us that if those assessments find there is a need for emergency assistance then food can be distributed.  The assessment teams will move onto other zones once they complete the assessments in those three zones. Assessments are continuous in the region. 

The Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Agency allocated a total of 9,600 tons of relief food, a one-month ration, for 530,000 beneficiaries in the Somali region in May before the assessments. Part of that 9,600 tons is what is being distributed in the three regions where assessments were completed. 

            That is certainly a more upbeat picture of the situation in Ogaden than was painted by the New York Times.  Inner City Press asked WFP, early Monday afternoon, if it is saying that Mr. Diab was misquoted by the Times. In the ten hours since, this direct questions was not answered.

Ban Ki-moon in Ethiopia, January 2007

The OCHA response, received later, is set forth below, as it mentions WHO:

The United Nations today welcomed efforts by the Government of Ethiopia to provide much needed humanitarian assistance to the people of Somali Regional State. On Saturday, 21 July, the President of Somali Regional state ordered the release of food to five zones in the region that have been the subject of security operations since May of this year.

The United Nations, like other humanitarian actors, holds that restrictions on commercial trade, including the delivery of food to rural areas as well as seasonal floods, rising prices and other factors could lead to a humanitarian crisis in the region unless restrictions are eased soon.

Roughly 4.6 million people reside in Somali Region – the poorest area of Ethiopia. The region is overwhelmingly rural and consists almost exclusively of pastoralists / agro-pastoralists, who depend on a delicate lattice of local and international trade with Somalia for their survival. There are ongoing concerns about such health issues as Acute Watery Diarrhoea, polio, malaria, measles and other infectious diseases. Approximately 530,000 vulnerable people currently receive Emergency Food Assistance. Approximately 1.1. million people are chronically food insecure. Malnutrition accounts for 8 percent of all deaths. Last year, a series of floods disrupted the lives of more than 361,000 people, more than half of the total flood-affected population of Ethiopia. These events took place after severe drought affected the lives of 1.4 million.

Recent press reports have stated that UN assistance to Somali Region has been diverted by Ethiopian military and militias. The United Nations takes these reports seriously and investigates all information regarding misappropriation of resources. However, since Ethiopia-based food distributions have not taken place during the period of military operations due to new modalities in performing assessments, it is hard to imagine that such diversions existed.

Reports have also indicated that some diversion may have occurred from the World Health Organization’s Polio Eradication Program in Somali Region. The WHO program in the country is unaware of any funds being diverted from the our polio vaccination program to members of the Ethiopian Defense."

            For the record, we understand that the Polio Eradication Program is a partnership between WHO and UNICEF. More generally, one wonders how much the differences between these UN statements and the reporting and (UN) quotes in Sunday's is attributable to the fact that the UN needs to maintain good relations with the Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi in order to maximize (remaining) access. 

   The impact such backing-away will have in Addis Ababa, and more importantly in and for the people of Ogaden, remains to be seen.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540