The Ethiopian government blocked a declaration of famine in its Tigray region, according to Mark Lowcock, the former United Nations under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.
By Sara Jerving // 07 June 2022
The Ethiopian government blocked a declaration of famine in its Tigray region, according to Mark Lowcock, the former United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.
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“At the end of my time in the U.N., it was clear to me that there was famine in Tigray, and the only reason it wasn’t declared was because the Ethiopian authorities were quite effective in slowing down the whole declaration system,” he said during an online event held by the Overseas Development Institute on Tuesday. Lowcock left his role at the U.N. last year.
Skirting around a declaration: Before he left office in June 2021, Lowcock said that “there is famine now” in the war-torn region, even though the U.N. put out a statement that didn’t go as far — saying people were “on the brink” and at “risk” of a “looming famine.”
Absent a declaration, the aid sector has used phrasing such as “famine-like conditions.”
Amid the conflict, the government imposed a long-standing blockade of aid into Tigray, which has only recently started to improve. However, the region remains cut off from some services. In 2021, an estimated 401,000 people reportedly faced “catastrophic conditions,” the designation for famine, under the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, or IPC — an initiative bringing together aid groups, humanitarian agencies, and governments. A recent U.N. report said this risk “might remain relevant, unless humanitarian access stabilizes.”
According to U.N. estimates, nearly half a million children are malnourished in Tigray this year, 116,000 of whom are severely malnourished.
The Ethiopian government is no stranger to deterring these kinds of declarations. It has a history of denying that the country was experiencing cholera outbreaks.
Broken system: Lowcock said the international system for declaring famine is broken. While it’s possible to publish underlying data on what constitutes a famine, such as malnourishment figures, getting a declaration is political.
“You have to fight your way through the [IPC’s] Famine Review Committee, and you can be blocked by the authorities of the country that you’re engaging with. And that’s what’s happened in Tigray,” he said. “The current system is not functional.”