Critical findings by Inter-agency humanitarian evaluationon the failures in UN’s response to needs of humanitarian protection and aid during the war on Tigray.

Mekelle፡4 June 2024 (Tigray Herald)

Critical findings by Inter-agency humanitarian evaluationon the failures in UN’s response to needs of humanitarian protection and aid during the war on Tigray.

Inter-agency humanitarian evaluation of the response to the crisis in Northern Ethiopia

The independent inter-agency humanitarian evaluation (IAHE) assessed the collective humanitarian response to the crisis in the three northern regions of Ethiopia between November 2020 and April 2023. The evaluation finds that although humanitarian organizations overcame numerous obstacles to deliver critical aid, the collective response to the needs of people in Northern Ethiopia was not adequate.

Local NGOs made critical contributions, and there were strong examples of area-based coordination. However, humanitarian leadership was fundamentally disunited, which hindered its effectiveness. A principled humanitarian approach, crucial during armed conflict, was not adequately realized.

The evaluation makes eight recommendations to improve humanitarian action, including the development of a coherent UN-systemwide country strategy in situations of armed conflict.

Executive Summary

Introduction and approach

1. This Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation (IAHE) is an independent assessment of the collectivehumanitarian response to the crisis in the three northern regions of Ethiopia, Afar, Amhara and Tigray, fromNovember 2020 until 1 April 2023. The Principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) activatedthe IASC System-Wide Scale-Up Protocols for Northern Ethiopia on 28 April 2021 in response to theoutbreak of the armed conflict in Tigray in early November 2020. This Scale-Up activation, which sought tomobilize system-wide capacities and resources beyond standard levels, triggered this IAHE.

2. This IAHE reviewed the System-Wide Scale-Up and assessed the extent to which the collective humanitarianresponse met the needs of the people affected by the conflict in Northern Ethiopia. Its purpose is to ensureaccountability for the extent to which IASC member organizations strategized and worked collectively tomaximize the humanitarian outcomes of their work. The findings and recommendations also enablelearning for future IASC Scale-Up activations.

3. For the purpose of this evaluation, the evaluation team used documentation and the strategies of theNorthern Ethiopia response to reconstruct a theory of change at the beginning of the evaluation. This wasbased on the objectives and rationale for the Scale-Up and the available Ethiopia and/or Northern EthiopiaHumanitarian Response Plans, and the Ideal Model-Impact Pathway for humanitarian coordinated action,provided in the IAHE terms of reference.

The evaluation relied on a mix of primary and secondary data. Primary data collection included directobservation; 186 key informant interviews; 44 focus group discussions with 325 participants, of which 52per cent were women and 48 per cent were men; and an online survey targeting providers of humanitarianresponse that 151 people participated in. Secondary data analysis consisted of an extensive documentreview, including documents identified by the evaluation team through desk review and/or provideddirectly by the Evaluation Management Group. The documentation included relevant HumanitarianResponse Plans, collective strategies and plans, recent IAHEs and previous or ongoing agency-specific orinter-agency evaluations that assessed the Ethiopian/Northern Ethiopia context, such as those undertakenby UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF, agency meeting minutes, statements andcommunications. Exceptionally, the review also included audio recordings and related materials of formaland informal meetings.


The evaluation team carefully reviewed all primary data and then tagged and catalogued it by theme. Thetriangulation of the perceptions of stakeholders reflected in interviews, survey responses and documents

were key in developing a shared analysis, given that much of the data was qualitative in nature.For each evaluation question, the evaluation team established the strength of evidence available from the


main data sources used by this evaluation, i.e., documentation, key informant interviews, focus groupdiscussions and a survey. The survey has mainly been used for triangulation purposes. When evidence isfound in multiple sources and the triangulation of the sources shows convergence, evidence is rated asstrong. With fewer data sources available, it becomes less strong, and it has been rated as medium or weak.


7. Fighting between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on one side and the Ethiopian National DefenseForces (ENDF), the Eritrean Defence Forces and allied regional special forces on the other broke out inTigray in early November 2020. As of July 2021, Tigrayan forces launched offensives into the Afar andAmhara regions. These continued well into the same year, including an offensive towards Addis Ababa. In
December 2021, Tigrayan forces announced their retreat from both regions, prompting the FederalGovernment to announce a halt of the ENDF’s advance. Despite this, hostilities of varying degreescontinued throughout 2022, particularly around the Afar-Tigray and Amhara-Tigray regional borders, withAfar and Amhara regional forces backed by the ENDF. On 24 March 2022, the Federal Governmentannounced an indefinite humanitarian truce, but fighting continued in the other northern regions. InAugust 2022, however, hostilities in the three regions rapidly escalated. On 2 November 2022, the federaland Tigray authorities declared a cessation of hostilities, which led to a reduction of the armed conflict.Amhara regional authorities were absent from the negotiations, causing unrest in the region that continuesin early 2024 and is further heightened by historical tensions between Amhara and Oromia regions.

8. The armed conflict was marked by mass killings, serious and gross human rights violations, violence againstcivilians, conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) and starvation as a method of war. These crimes,amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been documented, including by the speciallycreated International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. Some have estimated that 600,000people were killed in the two-year period of this armed conflict.


In this context, humanitarian needs surged. On 28 April 2021, the Emergency Relief Coordinator and the

IASC Principal activated an IASC System-Wide Scale-Up for Northern Ethiopia. The May 2021 Northern

Ethiopia Response Plan estimated some 5.2 million people in needfood aid across the region, withadditional reports estimating that 350,000 people were faced with catastrophic famine conditions in Tigray.and the neighbouring areas of Amhara and Afar. The Ethiopia 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan does notspecify numbers for the Tigray region, but the World Food Programme estimated the number of peoplerequiring food assistance to be 4.8 million in May 2022.10. Access of humanitarian organizations to Tigray and parts of Afar and Amhara and the freedom of movementof affected people were extremely constrained. For much of the armed conflict, the Government imposed

a siege and prevented the unhindered delivery of services and materials. Humanitarian aid was blocked,resulting in a situation when, at times, only 10 per cent of aid needed for the Tigrayan population reachedthe region. A communication blackout, lack of fuel and significant interruptionsUN Humanitarian AiraService to the region also created major challenges, including regarding duty of care for humanitarian staff.Aid worker security reports for 2020 and 2021 showed a rise in targeted violence directed at humanitarianstaff, pushing the country into the ranks of the five most dangerous operational contexts globally. As ofAugust 2023, 36 humanitarian staff had lost their lives in Ethiopia since the outbreak of the conflict.


11. When the hostilities started in early November 2020, humanitarian actors were not prepared to provide aresponse in a situation of armed conflict. This was compounded by an under-estimation of the scale ofviolence and destruction of essential infrastructure. The Scale-Up declaration, made six months into thearmed conflict, was not timely. The benchmarks that the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) developedwere not tailored to the context and thus did not move the Scale-Up forward. Though presence andoperational capacity improved somewhat, it did not significantly increase, even during times of improvedaccess. The inability to improve and adjust response capacity led to significant levels of dissatisfactionamong senior humanitarian leadership, within and beyond Ethiopia. The fact that Scale-Up efforts differedin Afar, Amhara and Tigray and that they focused disproportionately on food insecurity in comparison withmassive protection issues, such as CRSV, further compounded the inadequacy of the Scale-Up.

The blockade of aid imposed by the Government of Ethiopia was among the top defining characteristics ofthis crisis, yet there was no collective access strategy for Northern Ethiopia. Humanitarian access in armedconflict ties in closely with a principled humanitarian approach founded on the core principles of humanity,impartiality, neutrality and independence and in line with international humanitarian law. For example, theaccess agreement signed in November 2020 by the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) with the FederalGovernment did not include any references to international humanitarian law, and it ignored the HCTendorsed “Guiding Principles for Humanitarian Operations in Tigray and border areas of Afar and Amhararegions.” In reality, the agreement became a control mechanism for the Government.

13. There was a lack of agreement about what a principled approach entails. Some felt that with the outbreakof the conflict, a more independent course from the Government was needed, while several othersfavoured continuing close relations. As part of this disagreement, the HCT did not define red lines, i.e., thethreshold at which aid agencies make it clear that they are unable to deliver on their mandates and eventhe most basic humanitarian aid can no longer be provided. The absence of thresholds meant that thesystem failed to implement the duty of care towards members of staff, which proved to be a significantissue as humanitarian UN and non-UN agency staff were harassed, arbitrarily arrested, detained andtortured. UN and the HCT did not speak out about these incidents.

Coordination and working collectively

14. The disagreements within the HCT on access and advocacy caused tensions and contributed to the lack ofcollective strategies more broadly. HCT-endorsed documents carried little to no weight, and there was atotal lack of accountability. Moreover, two shocks affecting the humanitarian community had far-reachingimplications for working collectively. The first shock came in September 2021 when the FederalGovernment declared seven UN officials as persona non grata and expelled them. These seven officialswere known for their advocacy for a principled approach. Ten days later, two UN agency chiefs wereremoved from their positions by their superiors because they were implicated in conversations expressingopinions that did not correspond to the principles and values of their agencies. More specifically,theleaked recordings, they can be heard expressing doubt in early evidence of widescale CRSV, calling itanecdotal, and speaking against some of their UN colleagues who favoured the principled stance. Thesecond shock came in May 2023, when a donor government and the World Food Programme paused theirfood assistance following initial results of an audit pointing to widespread aid theft on an “industrial scale.”The misuse of food aid included beneficiary lists that had not undergone independent verification.

15. The Humanitarian Country Team failed in its function to provide a forum for policy dialogue and strategicdecisions. There was a high turnover of participants. A tally for the 28 months that this evaluation coversshowed that nearly 350 different agency representatives attended HCT meetings. Further to this, as theHCT is a body that depends on collective leadership, it requires all participants to take responsibility for themechanism’s success or failure. In this case, however, OCHA-led efforts to produce common plans,positions on key policy issues or strategic advocacy messages yielded no results. When there wasagreement on a policy, the follow-up was little to none, resulting in a lack of mutual accountability. As thechair of the HCT, the Humanitarian Coordinator/Resident Coordinator did not make efforts to improve thefunctioning of the HCT. In late 2021, a Regional Humanitarian Coordinator was deployed. While this rolehad a positive impact on inter-agency relations and exchanges, it was a compensatory measure withoutsufficient transparency and accountability in terms of reporting lines.

16. The early appointment and presence of a Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Tigray had a positive impacton inter-agency coordination at the subnational level where structures were put in place, including an AreaHumanitarian Team. The Area Humanitarian Team contributed to a spirit of working collectively, although

some clusters were more advanced in their work than others. Protection, and in particular the area ofresponsibility covering gender-based violence, lacked a meaningful presence and strategy. Three agenciesshared leadership of this area of responsibility, which contributed to confusion and a lack of accountability.Overall, the collective response lacked coherence and coordination between the global, regional andcountry levels was weak.

Needs and data

17. It is necessary to preface these findings with an acknowledgement of the fact that flaws in publicly availablehumanitarian data in Ethiopia are far from new. The IAHE of the 2015-2018 drought responses found thatmuch of the data at the time was unreliable, to the extent that it recommended accountability measuressuch as verifying the data against the views of drought-affected communities. This recommendation wasnot implemented by the IASC or HCT.

18. Independently collected key humanitarian data, especially on mortality and malnutrition, was not availablefor this response. There were few efforts to keep track of certain key statistics: in one instance, WorldHealth Organization published but then withdrew a report on functioning medical facilities followingcomplaints from the Federal Government. This episode does not stand on its own. When the authoritiesdid not agree with the data collected, humanitarian actors were instructed to use different figures and/orto use beneficiary lists that they could not verify. In addition, government-provided data typically lacksdetailed breakdowns by gender, age or special needs, making it challenging to analyse and address specifichumanitarian concerns.

19. In general, humanitarian data in Ethiopia can only be published following the Government’s approval. Asthis vetting led to delays and risks of undue interference, agencies preferred using unvetted data, whichwas more up to date. Different data collection efforts and databases on numbers of people displacedcreated a degree of confusion and tensions, however.

20. In terms of needs, there was a tendency to frame food insecurity as this conflict’s main narrative. Food aidhas traditionally dominated the humanitarian response in Ethiopia. The number of people in need ofprotection was about half the total number of those identified needing food aid. Nonetheless, much of thethree northern regions was an active combat zone where protection needs were acute, marked by masskillings, serious and gross human rights violations, violence against civilians and conflict-related sexualviolence.

21. The lack of humanitarian access, coupled with a communication blackout, made establishing a consolidatedpicture of needs and the response highly challenging. For a significant period, OCHA’s Situation Reports(SitReps) were the main collective source of data. Further to these SitReps, OCHA also published overviewsof available operational humanitarian capacity with regard to cash to pay staff salaries, fuel and supplies,which served as an important advocacy tool. These overviews were disallowed by the Federal Government.The data made available to the evaluation team do not, on their own, allow for meaningful analysis in termsof coverage and delivery. The picture of who received what and where is incomplete.


Coverage and delivery

22. Due to the extreme conditions under which the response was carried out, it was clear from the outset ofthis evaluation that for much of the two-year armed conflict and the months thereafter, people in need inthe three regions did not receive the quantities and quality of humanitarian services they were entitled to.

23. Despite the many challenges, UN and non-UN aid agencies made strenuous efforts to increase theirapresence and programmes. Participants in focus group discussions for this IAHE were near-unanimous: thelittle aid that they received helped them to survive and presented a lifeline. To overcome the challenges

and to make best use of time in communities outside the main cities, needs assessment, service deliveryand monitoring were often done simultaneously. Nonetheless, evidence shows differences betweensectors, between organizations within sectors and between regions in terms of the level of success. Tigraywas perceived as receiving more attention than Afar and Amhara. Even after the response there wasincreased, communities in Afar expressed frustrations as they felt left behind.

As for the quality aspects of the humanitarian response, consideration was given to protection andaccountability to affected people but not to the scale needed. The protection cluster at the national leveldesigned a protection strategy that was too general to be meaningful. Limited capacity further hindered itsability to respond to the enormous challenges. The response to gender-based/conflict-related sexualviolence was particularly inadequate and did not consider the need for justice felt by survivors of sexualviolence. Limited alternative approaches were developed for engagement with affected communities,given the communication blackout.

The evaluation has found various examples that the integration of local capacities in the collective responsewas valuable. The Ethiopia Humanitarian Fund allocated an increasing percentage of funding tolocal/national organizations, while the organizations remained frustrated by obstacles to access funding. Ingeneral, local NGOs and local staff felt abandoned or isolated in the response and did not feel recognizedfor the lifeline they kept in place when many international staff had been evacuated at the beginning of theconflict.


26. The brutal non-international armed conflict in Northern Ethiopia saw extreme levels of violence againstcivilians and grave and systematic violations of international law amounting to crimes against humanity andwar crimes.¹ In this context, the UN and humanitarian partners had extremely little room to deliver effectivehumanitarian response in the three northern regions. It is more than commendable, therefore, thathumanitarian organizations stayed and delivered services to communities in dire need under challengingcircumstances. Especially (but not only) in the first months of the conflict, it was mainly national staff andlocal NGOs, many of whom were experiencing the trauma of the armed conflict first-hand, who kept alifeline in place where they could.

27. The quality and appropriateness of the limited aid that reached communities, particularly concerninggender-based violence responses, did not align with the actual scale and nature of CRSV experienced in thethree regions. The data environmentEthiopia is complicated, with serious shortcomings found incollecting and processing humanitarian data. This existed prior to this conflict, including the way in which afood aid and beneficiary data have been handled. Public data on humanitarian needs lack the necessarydegree of independence. The dominance of food aid in Ethiopia has overshadowed other sectors,particularly protection. Ironically, the changes in the distribution of food aid following the allegations of thediversion of food in May 2023 could have a positive influence on the way in which all humanitarian datawas handled in Ethiopia and the principle of independence was operationalized. This change could alsofurther strengthen a humanitarian mindset in the country.

While humanitarian organizations strived to deliver assistance and protection within their capacity, thecollective response was subject to several crucially important systemic flaws. Two flaws stand out. First,while agencies’ interventions contributed to humanitarian outcomes, a collective response underpinnedby joint strategy and planning was missing. Put in simple terms, agencies were doing their own thin Second, the response was not underpinned by the humanitarian principles and the UN failed to reframethe relationship with the Federal Government in line with international humanitarian law, at the outset ofthe conflict. These omissions were caused by strong disagreements about the relationship with the FederalGovernment among country-based senior UN humanitarian leaders.

29. The consequence of the deep division was a dysfunctional Humanitarian Country Team and a lack ofaccountability. Agencies who fell behind in their scaling-up efforts or Cluster Lead Agency responsibilitieswere neither held responsible nor replaced. Furthermore, HCT members did not hold each otheraccountable, and there was a gap in oversight from the global level. The extent to which performanceappraisals of the Humanitarian Coordinator raised questions such as to the functioning of the HCT, includingefforts to establish mutual accountability, is unknown to the evaluation. Efforts of non-UN representativesat the HCT, including NGO and donor representatives, to make the HCT a meaningful leadership forumwere insufficient. The Area Humanitarian Team in Mekelle (Tigray) provided a valuable alternativecoordination arrangement but was, ultimately, dependent on the leadership of the HCT at the nationallevel.

30. Leadership of the humanitarian response to Northern Ethiopia was impacted by the absence of consistencyand coherence in the UN’s wide-ranging agenda in the country. Many of the 28 UN funds and programmesand specialized agencies present in Ethiopia have little or no mandate in humanitarian response. However,the absence of a mandate is not a reason for not being concerned with a large-scale humanitarian crisisand gross violationsrights. On the contrary, the UN Charter establishes as one of the purposes “toachieve international co-operation in solving international problems of a […] humanitarian character, andin promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”

31. The response made few, if any, collective statements against the blockade imposed against Tigray, theharassment, arbitrary arrests and detentions or torture of UN and non-UN humanitarian staff or thepractice of starvation as a weapon of war. The centrality of protection, a key humanitarian commitment,does not only mean to keep people in need safe when providing assistance but also to speak out loudly andclearly, in private or public, on gross abuses of human rights and grave breaches of humanitarian law.Protection was not prioritized in the development of strategies and in implementing operations. Instead,the HCT followed an approach that was out of sync with the reality on the ground.

32. Given the weaknesses in scaling up, working collectively and negotiating access, it was inevitable that thedelivery of the response was far from optimal. In essence, the framework and conditions to deliver effectivehumanitarian services during an armed conflict were missing. The serious mistakes made in responding tothe needs of the people of Afar, Amhara and Tigray amount to a system failure. The system should havebeen in a better position to meet the many challenges imposed by the context.


33. The recommendations stem from the findings and conclusions of this evaluation. The recommendationswere developed by the evaluation team in consultation with the in-country reference group, theHumanitarian Coordinator and IASC Operational and Advocacy Group (OPAG) and Emergency DirectorsGroup (EDG). The entity responsible for leading the implementation of each recommendation is indicated,but it should be noted that recommendations categorized as “Ethiopia-specific” are also relevant to thesystem.

Provide guidance to HCT/UNCTs for developing a coherent UN system-widecountry strategy. This is essential to fostering clear and effective dialogue with allparties to a conflict and ensuring a common approach leveraging the collectiveweight and authority of the system. Key to this approach is the alignment of preexisting UN programs with core humanitarian principles and protection standardsregardless of mandates. The strategy should include clear thresholds (red lines)

ERC, IASC Principals,EDG

for a principled response.

Ensure real-time monitoring of HC/HCT performance in rapidly evolving and/or ERC, IASC Principals,

complex contexts such as non-international armed conflicts. This is essential for EDG

the timely identification and resolution of any emergent leadership orcoordination deficits. Furthermore, consider the appointment of a dedicatedHumanitarian Coordinator early in the response when the Resident Coordinatormay not be optimally positioned to lead the humanitarian response. The 2009 HCTerms of Reference should be updated to include leadership responsibilities in

chairing the HCT and establishing mutual accountability.

Ensure a connection between political-level negotiations on issues related to ERC and IASChumanitarian access and the response at the operational level. Ensure that Principals, HC/RC andagreements madesenior political levels are transparent, consistent with HCThumanitarian norms and known at the operational level.

Ethiopia-specific recommendations

Enhance the effectiveness of the Humanitarian Country Team. Consider HC/RC, HCTimplementing structural changes, such as reducing the HCT’s size or forming a membersmore strategic core group. This can increase focus and decision-making efficiency.Consider reviewing the format and procedures of the HCT meetings to ensurefocus on concrete outcomes and the implementation of agreements to promote


Ensure responses to crises prioritize the centrality of protection, including support HC/RC, HCT, ICCGto affected communities facing serious rights violations, such as CRSV. Considerestablishing and using cross-cluster analysis to ensure a coherent, balanced

response and to identify gaps and discrepancies in data reported by each cluster.6.Enhance the approaches to gathering, processing and disseminating humanitarian HC/RC, HCT, ICCG

data to improve the accuracy and relevance of the information used inhumanitarian programming. These approaches should focus on adoptingindependent methods by humanitarian agencies to collect and analysedisaggregated data, ensuring that the insights gained are accurate and tailored to

the specific needs and circumstances of the communities affected by crises.


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