British minister withholds aid as Ethiopia hides famine victims

October 19, 2008

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.