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US Must Reverse Ethiopia Funding Cuts to Avoid Further Horn of Africa Destabilization

The Biden administration’s response to the Tigray war must not undermine efforts to prevent conflict in other parts of Ethiopia.

All eyes are currently on Ethiopia’s Tigray, as they should be given Amnesty International’s recent report documenting Eritrea’s military’s massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians last November. However, Tigray is not the only conflict in Ethiopia.

The country is increasingly unstable and riddled with ethnic community violence. The Biden administration’s response to the Tigray war must not undermine efforts to prevent conflict in other parts of Ethiopia.

Washington is currently deciding whether to reverse some of Donald Trump’s foreign assistance cuts to Ethiopia. It is critical to get diplomacy and foreign assistance right to prevent further destabilization of Ethiopia and the region.

Ethnic Violence in Ethiopia

Last August, the Trump administration halted critical foreign assistance funding to Ethiopia over its Nile River dam dispute with Egypt. The cuts impacted the security sector and government-to-government programs, but they also affected critical programs to protect human rights and reduce and prevent ethnic violence.

When the Trump administration halted some assistance, Ethiopia was experiencing a major drought. Additionally, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s political reforms were faltering, national elections had been postponed once again, and community ethnic violence and protests were increasing.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Photo: AFP

While the cuts did not impact emergency humanitarian relief, food assistance, or health programs to address COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS, the cuts did impact broader development assistance, including anti-human trafficking and human rights programs. They also eliminated much-needed aid aimed at preventing and reducing increasing ethnic violence.

Increasing Conflict Dynamics

Ethiopia needed more aid at this critical time, including significant investments in conflict prevention and governance, climate resilience, and reconciliation.

Despite the political reforms, conflict watch lists predicted increasing conflict dynamics in Ethiopia could erase the new government’s positive gains. They also anticipated a high chance Ethiopia would be one of the most worsened states in 2020. Little did we know how accurate this prediction would be.

Experts also warned about increasing tensions between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Additionally, some analysts viewed the country’s prime minister’s cooperation with Eritrea as a conspiracy against the TPLF, which had controlled Ethiopia’s government for more than three decades. Last November, the Ethiopian government ordered a military attack against the TPLF. The ongoing violent conflict has displaced over two million people and caused significant destruction to Tigray’s infrastructure.

Now the Eritrean army, allied with Ethiopia in the war with Tigray, is accused of massacring hundreds of civilians. These reports are making the US government rethink reversing cuts to Ethiopia.

US Government Must Review Assistance to Ethiopia

While Washington must assess its assistance to ensure aid is not going to governance sectors, including the security sector, it must take a nuanced approach to its funding.

The US should not continue to withhold critical funding needed to stabilize Ethiopia and the region. Specifically, it should reverse cuts to programs, including USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) program launched in early 2020 and allow other human rights, reconciliation, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding programs to go forward.

OTI/Ethiopia’s fast and flexible grant programs allow assistance to quickly adapt to meet the changing conflict dynamics and are ideally suited for Ethiopia’s ongoing conflict dynamics. All of these programs are as critical to saving lives as health and humanitarian assistance. Currently, OTI’s pipeline funding is about to run out and other critical programs cannot start.

The US government should review its assistance to Ethiopia carefully and make a nuanced determination about each one. Failure to reverse cuts to critical programs, including support for human rights, civil society, and preventing and reducing conflict, will not only further destabilize Africa’s second-most populous country but also the entire Horn of Africa region.

The last thing Ethiopia or the region can afford is widespread, ethnically based conflict. The Biden administration must lean in with its diplomatic and assistance approach and recognize conflict prevention programming is as critical to saving lives as humanitarian aid and health programs.


Headshot Elizabeth HumeElizabeth Hume, JD, MA, is the Vice President of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, which represents over 120 of the top conflict prevention and peacebuilding organizations working in 153 countries. She is an expert in conflict analysis, policy, and programming.


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