A UN insider provides evidence of bias of officials of the UN taking sides in Ethiopia’s ten-month old conflict

UN Insider

Editor’s note : The article was provided by anonymous writer who claims to be a UN insider. The writer says there is ” bias of officials of the UN taking sides in Ethiopia’s ten-month old conflict.

Is the UN biased in the conflict in Ethiopia? Not the organization as such, but some of its high level staff are

A UN insider provides evidence of bias of officials of the UN taking sides in Ethiopia’s ten-month old conflict.

By anonymous writer

In November 2020, the government of Ethiopia sent troops into Tigray to remove the leaders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whose officials admitted to conducting a pre-emptive “storm attack” against the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). The TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics for almost three decades until Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in mid-2018.The ENDF was apparently backed by fighters from Ethiopia’s Amhara region and forces from neighboring Eritrea, whose government has been a longtime foe of the TPLF. 

What started as a military confrontation at first morphed into a humanitarian crisis with reports of atrocities against civilians. A number of UN agencies and other international non-governmental organizations have been involved in the delivery of much needed aid to the people in the war-torn region. Amidst a complicated environment for aid operations as a result of continued fighting, there were accusations and counter-accusations relating to atrocities against civilians and the free flow of humanitarian aid. The UN and NGOs have been caught in the crossfires of this acrimony.

On 3 August 2021, the Ethiopian government leveled accusation of bias against aid agencies citing the case of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) that it said “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 rumors about the provision of armaments to the TPLF. Social media activists that wrote in support of such accusations were circulating a de-classified 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. The UN has not been saved from such accusations either. Some activists would, for example,refer to a picture that went spiral on social media showing a TPLF spokesperson using a satellite phone apparently belonging to a WFP staffer who stood by his side in the photo.  In a very important part of his press briefing in response to the above-mentioned rumors on 3 August 2021, Martin Griffiths, UN’s humanitarian chief, said that the “blanket accusations” of humanitarian aid workers need to stop because “they are unfair, unconstructive, need to be backed up by evidence if there is any, and are frankly dangerous.” Many Ethiopian UN staff working closely on the crises that accompanied the war in Tigray talk of 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. Surprisingly, most other African UN staff also tended to share this view of bias predominantly among staff of aid agencies who are of western/European origins.They would tell you that 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. However, these Ethiopian and African staff are afraid to go in the open to make such a statement, and even worse, to present evidence to that effect for fear of reprisals. Nobody wants to lose a UN job!

In the spirit of providing evidence, an aid insider shows how some UN staff played a role in misrepresenting facts about the humanitarian crisis in Tigray. The information gathered relate 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 piece attempts to flag some issues in the genesis of these data and investigate if there were practices that could amount to bias in their generation and usage.This is however in no way an attempt to downplay the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the war in Tigray.

The Health Cluster Coordination is a humanitarian intervention arrangement that is led by WHO in partnership with the Ethiopian Government and with the participation of other UN agencies and international and national NGOs. The cluster generates data on people in need of health services and devises ways of targeting them. The Cluster has had a national coordination and a sub-national team in the Tigray region that is supported by experts in the country and regional offices. In January 2021, the Cluster estimated the people in need to be 2.8 million based on globally approved methodology and data availed by other agencies including UN OCHA.When this data was shared for information with the team in Tigray, they sent the number back corrected as 3.8 million without any explanation. After exchanges with the sub-national team, the country team submits 2.8 million as the number to be used for intervention. 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 a data of 3.8 million people in need, which she never justified to the team in Ethiopia and even 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. As the Cluster Coordinator unabashedly declared when she arrived in the Ethiopia office, her mission from Geneva was to help elevate the Tigray crisis to Level 3”, which leads to more international attention as well as more budget and staff allocation.

The theory is that the International Health Cluster Coordinator that manipulates the data on health needs, and later the Incident Managers posted in Tigray were picked and sent directly by the Director General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom, who is a Tigrayan himself and was a member of the Executive Committee of the TPLF before he assumed this position. In fact, WHO staff deployed in Mekelle would tell you that the Incident Managers were rotated every two months and were constantly on direct calls with the Director General himself. They exercised powers that extended to firing staff that didn’t tag along with their way of reporting about the crisis. On the day when TPLF re-took Mekelle, the Incident Manager at that time (namedAndrew), called a meeting to openly make a congratulatory remark that “Tigray is liberated” to the amazement of other foreign staff present. For anybody familiar with how the UN system works in practice, doing the bid of your boss under such circumstances can easily land you a promotion. Auditing the records of the WHO staff who were deployed in Tigray in the last 9 months could surely give a revealing picture.

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 on residents in their homes.

The data on people in famine conditions resulted from the report of the FAO-hosted Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), whose Famine Review Committee (FRC) confirmed“that there is clear evidence to support the Ethiopia Analysis Team findings that roughly 400,000 people are acutely food insecure in IPC Phase 5 (Catastrophe) between July and September 2021”.In the first place, it is worth noting that the IPC, particularly its phase 5 classification, is a highly sensitive and politicized exercise that has so far been applied only in states that are considered to be weak such as Somalia (2011) and South Sudan (2018). Ethiopia refused to work with the project under the TPLF-led government, and the IPC managed to operate in the country with a single international staff only after the political transition in mid-2018. 

The report was presented as an IPC global product that is “based on the conclusions reached by the Ethiopia IPC analysis team”. FAO insiders have 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, but talks of “purposive sampling surveys conducted in the most affected kebeles (non-representative)”. 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. In the absence of information on who the members of the IPC Global Steering Committee and “the five independent international food security, nutrition and mortality experts” that constituted FRC are from the IPC website, it is hard to find out who these “bosses” could be. However, from what FAO insiders know,the IPC project is led by a 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), who was promoted by the TPLF-led government to hold the position of Director of the Livestock Department. When he was recently removed from that position by the new Director General of FAO, he somehow landed the post of a Senior Programme Officer At the Emergencies Division.  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. Needless to say, as the report specifically mentions, it 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. 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. In fact, one would be surprised to read the tweets and news feeds of the WHO Director General on Facebook and Twitter on the situation in Tigray. He has literally been acting like a political activist for some time (significantly reduced since he started to campaign for a 2nd term in office) and that seems to have set the tone for staff in the country, especially those in the Tigray office, who are mostly recruited on language requirements, and those handpicked and sent from Geneva.

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. The WHO Director General and the data his staff helped generate held a pride of place on this forum.An IASC Humanitarian System-Wide Emergency Response (‘Level 3/L3’ Response) activates a system-wide mobilization of capacity (leadership, staffing and funding) to enable accelerated and scaled-up delivery of assistance and protection to people in need. It also brings huge political attention to the crisis from the international community and media outlets. L3 is an exceptional measure to be applied only for exceptional circumstances where the gravity justifies mobilization beyond normally expected levels. One can easily relate this to 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 apparently questionable data generation and the related elevation of the crisis to the highest level  has indeed been used to sway opinion against the Government of Ethiopia and in favor of TPLF, which was equally responsible for the crisis. In fact, whether by coincidence or design, the IPC report was released right in time for the US-EU dialogue on Tigray that was organized in the run up to the G20 summit. Since the first use of the “UN data ”on famine in that meeting, almost all reporting on Tigray referred to it, mostly blaming only one side to the conflict for that. 

In all, the crisis that resulted from the war in Tigray, for the start and continuation of which both TPLF and the Government of Ethiopia are responsible, is reprehensible in all senses. Many who knew Ethiopian politics and closely followed the reporting on the crisis have been surprised by the extent to which the already bad situation has been sensationalized. It is no surprise that Ethiopians take sides in the war, but one would expect UN post holders to have acted more neutrally despite their personal political dispositions and interests.The exaggerations by the parties to the war and their supporters may also be understandable, but to accuse the whole of the humanitarian community and the UN as biased is just too much. However, 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. The UN as well as other organizations in the humanitarian community should look into their practice and the conduct of their staff to make sure that the core value of neutrality is maintained at all times.

Note :
1. An African colleague who was in a meeting with a whole lot of white staff of aid agencies once told me how hollow his statements on some progress from government side and problems caused by TPLF forces sounded with the complete silence of the other meeting participants, who generally spoke only of government misdeeds.

__this content was also published on borkena website


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