What’s happened to principled humanitarian action in conflicts? The case of Tigray — Stories behind the State of the Humanitarian System
This blog is part of a series of articles we are publishing that tell the humanitarian stories behind key findings and lessons emerging in ALNAP’s State of the Humanitarian System 2022 report.
Since 2018, conflict has continued to be the primary driver for humanitarian need. In 2021, 27 out of the 30 humanitarian response plans were for countries with active conflicts. In today’s world, new complex emergencies are emerging faster than old ones are resolved.
For civilians living in active conflicts, hunger and disease are often a greater threat to life than direct attack. How the system responds in the hardest to reach active conflict situations is often taken as the litmus test of the humanitarian endeavour.
Evidence from ALNAP’s 2022 State of the Humanitarian System report suggests that the humanitarian system is struggling to reach some of the most vulnerable people in many conflict situations, especially in highly politicised contexts where the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality are severely tested.
‘In Ethiopia, access to conflict-affected communities in Tigray remained highly compromised, and aid workers reported a high degree of government pressure on how needs were reported and aid was delivered.’
The case study from ALNAP’s 2022 State of the Humanitarian System report, featured below, looks at one of the newest conflicts to erupt in recent years.
Tigray: ’The worst response in decades’?
Conflict broke out in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia in November 2020 following escalating tensions between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government (supported by Eritrea). Millions of people fled their homes in the Tigray region and later in Amhara and Afar as the conflict spread.¹
The conflict exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities, including drought and desert locust swarms. By the end of 2021, an estimated 9.4 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.² A joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and UNHCR found serious violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law by all key parties involved in the conflict.³
“the humanitarian system was strongly criticised for its inadequate response as it struggled to shift from development and food insecurity mode to responding to a conflict to which its long-standing state partner was a party.”
After a decade of closer cooperation and engagement with the Ethiopian government, the humanitarian system was strongly criticised for its inadequate response as it struggled to shift from development and food insecurity mode to responding to a conflict to which its long-standing state partner was a party. One senior aid worker interviewed described it as ‘the worst response in decades’.
The conflict was heavily politicised at every level, and the humanitarian system was widely felt to be naive in its response to this: too closely aligned to the government, and lacking experience and unity.
‘…agencies had to give regular reminders to staff about neutrality and impartiality.’
National staff often held partisan views on the crisis, while many international staff had deep relationships with government officials built over many years of living in Addis. After multiple incidents of partisan social media posts and leaking of online meeting recordings, agencies had to give regular reminders to staff about neutrality and impartiality.
Meanwhile, poor access and data quality meant it was difficult to build an accurate picture of the situation in Tigray. Between December 2020 and June 2021, the response centred on the urban areas of Mekele and Shire in eastern Tigray, but huge parts of rural eastern Tigray and the entire West Tigray zone were almost completely cut off, with just a handful of NGOs working in hospitals or conducting ad hoc activities. For months, this led to significant underestimates of the number and needs of IDPs.⁴
More worryingly, the available data was contested within and between agencies: reports from staff in Tigray differed from those prepared by UN agencies’ Country Directors, which tended to reflect statements from the Ethiopian government. UN headquarters staff were uncomfortable overriding the judgement of senior country staff, despite their proximity to the government as a development partner and the lack of preparedness for conflict. Several interviewees were critical of the lack of conflict experience among country leadership and one questioned why headquarters ‘were not able to intervene in a way that put humanitarian needs on the ground as a priority’.
Challenges to principled engagement
There were daily challenges to principled engagement at the local level. With a dynamic and active frontline, NGOs were guided and escorted by parties to the conflict, to understand which roads could be used. Struggling to build relationships with different groups in order to secure access, staff found it hard to balance principles with aid delivery, with one aid worker reflecting that ‘the practice is not as easy as we say it is’. The perception that NGOs lost neutrality contributed to distorted information, a lack of trust and concerns around sharing information, as well as risks around access and targeting of aid workers.⁵
Scale up of funding and staff
Donors were slow to act, with European donors held back by their historical relationships with the government, concerns about absorption capacity and slow contracting mechanisms.
‘It was five months until the UN scaled up its response… By this point, an estimated 4 million people needed urgent food assistance.’
In 2021, nearly 80% of funding to the Northern Ethiopia HRP came from the US alone.⁶ While early CERF funding was deemed critical for UN agencies to act, INGO representatives told us that agencies also relied on their own flexible funding in the initial stages of the response, but that this quickly proved insufficient.
It was five months until the UN scaled up its response. It took the deployment of the acting humanitarian coordinator in April 2021 to establish a cluster team for the crisis and then publish the first response plan. By this point, an estimated 4 million people needed urgent food assistance.⁷
Progress remained limited in the face of government-imposed bureaucratic impediments to deployments. These put huge pressure on staff already in the country, who faced a lack of logistical support, basic equipment and security guarantees.
Organisations struggled to manage the risks to their national staff — during 2021, 23 humanitarians were killed and three disappeared. An additional 10 UN staff were in prison. Staff described the need to internationalise the response in order to protect and support their national colleagues, but recruitment was challenging; into the start of 2022, staff shortages remained across the response, particularly at senior level.
UN agencies were slow to start negotiations especially with the Eritrean military and the TPLF, only beginning in earnest in early 2021. Negotiations were difficult: an interim government was installed in Tigray and personnel were regularly rotated while the Eritrean military proved hard to engage.
Nevertheless, following deployment of senior negotiators between March and June 2021, access — albeit it constrained — was secured into Tigray, allowing in vital convoys and pre-positioning of supplies across northern Ethiopia.
In mid-2021, the Ethiopian government imposed a physical and bureaucratic blockade on humanitarian aid. Negotiations stalled, and by the end of the year there was almost no movement of food or essential supplies: staff travel, telecommunications, electricity supply, banking and logistics were effectively blocked, as was information-gathering on human rights violations.⁸
‘by the end of the year only 1,317 trucks had entered Tigray, providing supplies to address just 13% of the critical humanitarian needs in the region’
According to OCHA reports, by the end of the year only 1,317 trucks had entered Tigray, providing supplies to address just 13% of the critical humanitarian needs in the region.⁹ Seven senior UN staff were made persona non grata, including some of those responsible for negotiations.
As the crisis moved into its second year, at the start of 2022, the UN estimated that more than 40% of the population in Tigray — 4.6 million people — were food-insecure, with 9.4 million people across northern Ethiopia in need of food assistance. The capacity of the humanitarian system to overcome external and internal barriers to reaching them remained in doubt.
The 5th State of the Humanitarian System Report was published in September 2022. Read the full report on ALNAP’s website: https://sohs.alnap.org.
 IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, ‘EthiopiaEmergencySiteAssessment7(1–26June2021)’ (IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, June 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/ethiopia- emergency-site-assessment-7–1–26-june-2021.
 OCHA,‘Ethiopia–NorthernEthiopiaHumanitarianUpdateSituationReport’ (Ethiopia:OCHA, December 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/ethiopia-northern-ethiopia-humanitarian- update-situation-report.
 EHRC and OHCHR,‘TigrayConflict:JointUNHumanRightsOffice-EthiopianHumanRights Commission Investigation Report’ (Geneva: Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)/ Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 2021). www.alnap.org/help-library/tigray-conflict-joint-un-human-rights-office-ethiopian-human- rights-commission.
 Key informant interview, Ethiopia.
 Key informant interview, Ethiopia.
 According to OCHA FTS, data downloaded June 2022.
 USAID, ‘TigrayCrisisFactSheet’ (Ethiopia:USAID,O42021). www.alnap.org/help-library/ tigray-crisis-fact-sheet.
 Key informant interview, Ethiopia.
 OCHA, ‘NorthernEthiopiaHumanitarianUpdate.SituationReport’(Ethiopia:OCHA,2022). www.alnap.org/help-library/northern-ethiopia-humanitarian-update-situation-report.