Ethiopia’s long running war against the Somali Ogaden people has been costly. The government’s continued refusal to enter into any dialogue with its opponents and to find a political solution to the conflict, while continuing its policy of occupation, oppression and intimidation, has helped to destroy the economy of Ethiopia and ensure that it remains one of the poorest nations on earth.

Since 2007, the Ethiopian army’s brutal assault on the Ogaden has been accompanied by a media blackout, a ban on cross-border commerce and flights into the region, and severe restrictions on the delivery of aid and the operation of humanitarian relief programmes. NGOs and UN agencies have little or no access to the Ogaden, so have to operate from Addis Ababa. Many of the staff running these organisations’ aid programmes have never visited the area or seen the results of their work. NGOs that are able to operate in the Ogaden only do so as long as they do not report the true extent of the humanitarian crisis or the daily abuse of human rights. Any organisation pushing its own humanitarian agenda beyond what the Ethiopian government considers acceptable faces expulsion from the country. Aid workers and journalists have been arrested, abducted, tortured and murdered by the army or militia. Food aid entering the region is closely monitored by government forces and is delivered only to areas where there is a military presence, and is then not fairly distributed.

Harsh anti-terrorism laws

In 2007, following the publication of a Save the Children UK report on malnutrition in children, two workers were expelled for ‘diverting food aid to rebels’, and many local employees of the charity were also arrested or forced to give up their jobs. In 2010, two United Nation World Food Programme (WFP) workers disappeared in the Ogaden after their convoy was attacked by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The workers were freed a month later. Abdirahaman Sheikh Hassan, a United Nations security officer who had acted only as an interpreter between WFP representatives and the ONLF, was arrested and detained without charge for two years before receiving a seven year sentence for violating Ethiopian anti-terrorism laws. These laws are wide-ranging and ambiguous, denying the presumption of innocence, which allow for the suppression of political demonstrations and the silencing of any criticism of government policy, including any reporting of the conflict that the government judges to have provided moral support to ‘terrorist groups’. These are only two of many similar cases where the Ethiopian government routinely punishes both the Somali people of the Ogaden and representatives of the NGOs that work with them, by accusing them of supporting rebel groups.

Medical aid

There is a real fear that the continuing conflict in Ogaden, with the brutality of the Ethiopian government combined with the often self-serving, uncritical response to it by the NGOs, who would otherwise be expelled from the country, means that aid does not go to relieve suffering in the conflict areas where it is most needed but instead goes to where the regime directs it. The result is that the people of the Ogaden receive no aid or very little, and there are critical shortages of drugs and other medical supplies. A complete re-evaluation of the medical support that is needed in the area would be only a first step towards a more effective use of resources. Politics should not influence any decisions about medical care. In conflict areas, medical help is vital—because of the risks of injury and disease, but also because people are more likely to suffer psychological ailments or a range of harmful addictive behaviours as a result of trauma. In Ethiopia, malaria is a growing problem due to increased insecticide and drug resistance, and this is exacerbated, as elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, by cheap and ineffective remedies, either fake anti-malaria drugs or drugs that have expired.

Employment crisis

Government influence over the NGOs extends to the recruitment of Ethiopian workers. The vast majority of Ethiopians employed by NGOs and UN agencies are from the highland regions. This has inevitably worked against the people of the Ogaden, who do not have the same contacts within government or administrative circles. When it’s a matter of pulling a few strings, the people of the Ogaden are non-starters. The result is that hundreds of workers from these more favoured areas are employed by the NGOs, despite having fewer qualifications and less experience than their Ogaden colleagues, who are only able to find work in a few low-level positions. It’s also no surprise that most of these under-qualified, high-level workers—the department heads, managers, advisors, etc.—have links to the security services or armed forces. The low-level workers have no job security, earn low wages and have no opportunity for staff training, skill development or promotion.

It often seems to be the case that the Ethiopians who do work for the NGOs are the least suitable. For example, in Dollo Ado there are about 3,000 workers employed by about 40 different NGOs and UN agencies, but most of these are from the highland regions. The result is that, in the refugee reception centres, most workers lack the basic language skills to deal with ethnic Somali refugees and have little knowledge of their background and culture. The situation is the same in Warder and Gode. One NGO official has been quoted as saying that they recruit their staff ‘through recommendations made by local government officials.’ With their links to government officials and the ruling party, these recommendations are necessarily skewed.

Part of the UN World Food Programme’s mission statement is that it should ‘help to build assets and promote the self-reliance of poor people and communities, particularly through labour-intensive works programmes.’ In the Ogaden, this principle is conspicuously absent. All agencies—the UN, NGOs and government and local community initiatives—should work together to achieve these aims, and the creation of jobs for local people is essential for the viability of these communities, and to avoid the negative effects of a generation that has become unemployable.

Melissa Newland.

ONA.

 

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