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ETHIOPIA: Government denies 'blocking' NGO

NAIROBI, 4 September 2007 (IRIN) - The Ethiopian government has denied claims by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) that the medical NGO was being prevented from working in the troubled Somali region. MSF claimed in a statement that it was prevented from responding to escalating health and nutritional needs and the region faced a "humanitarian crisis".

A spokesperson for the Ethiopian government told IRIN that MSF was "exaggerating the situation" and that the government had "never blocked any NGO" from the region.

Meanwhile, a UN humanitarian assessment mission continues its visit to the area, which began on 30 August. International aid access to the remote and arid region bordering Somalia, where government troops are cracking down on the rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), has been limited, sometimes due to insecurity, for months. The ONLF has claimed the government has been intimidating communities before they meet the UN mission, but has also declared a ceasefire for its duration.

The Somali region is poor and largely pastoralist, and the food security of the population is highly sensitive to changes in rainfall and market prices for livestock and staple foods. Loris de Filippi, operational coordinator for MSF Belgium's Ethiopia programme, told IRIN that although detailed hard data were not available on the nutritional and health status of the population, conditions "could be worse" than witnessed by his and the Dutch branch of MSF in June and July. The missions reported extensive health needs, food shortages, cases of forced displacement and that people are "living in fear".

In its statement, MSF said "humanitarian organisations must be allowed immediate access to the region, otherwise the medical and nutritional consequences risk becoming catastrophic".

However, Wahide Belay, spokesman for the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs, told IRIN that MSF were making "political statements", reporting "fabricated stories" and "have an agenda of blackmailing the Ethiopian government".

De Filippi countered the government's denial by describing how a mission from the regional capital Jijiga to the Fiq area was stopped on the road near the town of Babile and turned back on 30 August. MSF was told that written permission from the regional government was required to access the area. MSF says two letters in August to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi requesting access have gone unanswered.

"When any NGO comes to work in any region of the country, it first signs an operational agreement with the Federal Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency [DPPA]," Sisay Tadesse, public relations head of the DPPA, told IRIN. "However, it is the regional DPPA that allowed the NGO to work in the region after the latter signed a project agreement."

In a major security operation announced by Meles in June, tight controls have been reported by local human rights groups on commercial traffic, as well as the movement of people and livestock. The central Ogaden part of Somali region has been the most affected by the security operation. Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have claimed abuse of civilians in the course of the military operations, while restrictions on aid and trade have led to sharply increased food prices.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had earlier been asked to leave the Somali region, bringing its humanitarian programmes to a halt.

Wahide denied that journalists were being restricted access: "Anybody can go and see for himself."

Assessments and targeting

Planned assessments of the food security situation in the Somali region are incomplete, the Famine Early Warning System reported on 28 August. The results available from "non-restricted" areas, FEWS reported, reveal that the overall performance of the current 'Gu' rains is "below average", and food and cash income is also down. "However, in most livelihood zones the decline in income is not to the level where emergency intervention is required."

In areas affected by restrictions on trade and movement connected with the government's security operation, FEWS quotes the Pastoralist Livelihood Initiative as reporting the price of 50kg of sorghum in Degehabur town was 65 Birr (US$7) in May, before the restrictions, virtually doubling to 120 Birr ($13) in July. Similarly, the price of 50kg of rice in Gode town was 240 Birr ($26) in May, and had risen to 430 Birr ($47) in July, an increase of 80 percent.

FEWS points out that even though food aid distributions are under way in most areas of concern, making sure the aid reaches the neediest requires extra effort. "Targeting of food aid in pastoral areas has always been difficult. In a situation like this, where other sources of food are not available, extra efforts are needed to ensure that the food aid reaches all the people that require the assistance."

Food aid operations in the security operation's area are behind schedule, with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reporting "approximately 54 percent of June's food allocation has been transported to areas that are under military operation in Somali region".

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Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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