Displacement and humanitarian response in Ethiopia: challenges and dilemmas in complex crises

Source: Médecins Sans Frontières
Country: Ethiopia

This report looks at conflict-related displacement crises that occurred in 2018: the crisis in Gedeo and West Guji Zones; and the violence in the Kamashi Zone in Benishangul Gumuz Region.

Executive summary

Conflict-related displacement is nothing new in Ethiopia, but since the end of 2017 the number of people internally displaced by violence has risen significantly. As a result, the humanitarian community — including MSF — has suddenly found itself needing to adapt and scale up its response to meet the acute needs in conflictdriven crises.

This report looks at two examples of conflict-related displacement crises that occurred in 2018: the crisis in Gedeo and West Guji Zones that started in April 2018, and the violence in the Kamashi Zone in Benishangul Gumuz Region in September 2018. Based on interviews with over 50 humanitarian workers and decision-makers involved in both responses, it examines how humanitarian needs on the ground were assessed and met by the different actors and what some of the key dilemmas or constraints towards an effective response were.


The crisis started in April 2018. Inter-communal tensions between Gedeo and West Guji Zones escalated and then peaked at the end of May 2018 when renewed violence displaced more than 800,000 individuals across the two zones.

In contrast to previous conflict-related crises, in June 2018, the Ethiopian Government rapidly identified needs on the ground and facilitated access to the area for humanitarian actors. The humanitarian community reacted to the call and a large-scale response was mounted.

In August 2018 however, external factors started to heavily influence the response. Authorities publicly announced that peace-making efforts between the communities and authorities in Gedeo and West Guji had reached a successful conclusion and that Internally Displaced People (IDPs) could finally return home.

Despite reassurances given regarding the voluntary nature of the return process, humanitarian workers raised concerns about events and practices on the ground, which posed severe dilemmas on how to direct the response.

In Gedeo Zone, a pattern of systematically targeting aid by status rather than needs emerged, with relief items and food exclusively distributed to individuals registered as IDPs. This was combined with the substantial exclusion of displaced individuals from West Guji from beneficiary lists.

In West Guji, the situation of IDPs returning home was also a source of concern: in many cases, individuals were unable to return to their housing — because of destruction or security concerns — and often found themselves in secondary displacement sites, living in public buildings deprived of basic services. Moreover, substantial reports of biases in targeting and penalising the returning IDP community started to emerge, once again challenging the effective delivery of relief to the most affected population.

Caught in this situation, IDPs often found themselves moving between different Zones and between host communities and collective sites in search of services, aid, and security. This led to a substantial deterioration of the humanitarian situation. In March 2019, when reports of malnutrition among the IDP community started to emerge from social and international media, a change in the authorities’ attitude was witnessed, which led to the long-awaited re-opening of access to the Gedeo Zone to provide support to displaced communities. Whether this leads to a drastic change of pace and strategy in the handling of the crisis is yet to be seen at the moment of drafting this report.


While the political and humanitarian focus was on Gedeo and West Guji, other displacement crises unfolded across Ethiopia. At the end of September 2018, inter-communal clashes in the Kamashi Zone of Benishangul Gumuz Region in the west of the country resulted in the displacement of 250,000 people.

Despite the obvious need for humanitarian relief, the humanitarian community was already struggling to respond in Gedeo and West Guji and was unable to react rapidly, something almost all interviewed humanitarian workers recognised.

Moreover, political and military tensions between Government authorities and opposition groups contributed to a perception of high insecurity, further delaying humanitarian intervention. A response plan was only made public at the end of December 2018, three months after the onset of population displacement.

Eventually, a response to the crisis started to materialise in early 2019. However, it was implemented at varying pace depending on geographical areas. As of early April 2019, virtually no humanitarian actor was yet present in the Kamashi Zone of Benishangul Gumuz, the initial epicentre of the crisis.


Both crises highlight a number of internal and external challenges for humanitarian response to meet conflict-driven needs in Ethiopia.

External challenges were numerous. Conflict-related displacement crises are political by nature and access, aid allocation, and population movements were heavily influenced by political agendas, over which humanitarian actors have very little influence. Dilemmas on if and how to engage in certain scenarios, in particular in “return areas” in which the safety of IDPs were at stake were particularly complex.

However, there were also a number of internal hurdles and limitations within the Ethiopian humanitarian community itself, including perverse incentives and shortcomings, which, when intertwined with the contextual challenges, posed significant obstacles to an effective humanitarian response.

First of all, the humanitarian system in Ethiopia has been mostly geared towards drought response for many years, operating within a strategic framework shaped by the so-called “nexus” that promotes the use of humanitarian resources to address longer-term needs and focuses on capacity-building of Government systems rather than direct aid delivery.

Whether it was intentional or not, the push towards “ending humanitarian needs” has had some very tangible consequences on how current needs are met. Insisting on rapidly seeking “sustainable solutions” seems to have led to downplaying the prioritisation of rapid response to meet acute needs; or, at least, to have provided political actors with enough material to portray the latter as a driver of “aid dependency”.

The prevailing policies, mostly positioning humanitarian partners as supporters of Government-led service provision, seem to have also legitimised practices on the ground that marginalise the role humanitarian organisations play in critical areas such as beneficiaries’ targeting. This can have dire consequences when it comes to meeting the needs of the affected population as well as on the humanitarian community’s perceived impartiality.

More broadly, this framework seems to have heavily influenced the operational modalities of many humanitarian actors, who have made rather limited investments to increase their capacity to respond to complex crises. This can be seen in the profiles of staff employed as well as overall strategic orientation, geographic focus, and modus operandi. With large numbers of actors strongly focused on longer-term objectives in areas deemed a priority for drought recovery, engagement in conflict-affected crises required a substantial change of gear and mind-set not easily achievable within the tight time frame of rapid-onset disasters. Moreover, the costs of these adjustments, not just in terms of resources but also in re-framing engagement with authorities, may be high for organisations legitimately wanting to protect their longer-term investments.

The reflex for access negotiations and security management also seems to have endured a substantial loss. Adapting to work effectively in conflict scenarios with multiple political and armed actors on the ground has been feasible only for a few humanitarian actors able to mobilise staff with this type of expertise.

As a consequence, long delays in assistance, such as in Western Oromia and Benishangul Gumuz, have been reported due to high-risk perception.

The above elements are legitimately perceived as constraints by agencies, based on their modus operandi in Ethiopia for years. Yet, they also represent a humanitarian eco-system struggling to respond to non-predictable crises, focusing more on systems rather than people.

On-going reforms provide a window of opportunity for creatively rethinking current working methods. There is momentum to adapt the humanitarian set-up to a new context, asserting the value added by the humanitarian community well beyond funds mobilisation. Identifying different operational strategies and modalities of intervention would not provide a solution to all the challenges and dilemmas linked to humanitarian assistance to IDPs in Ethiopia. But increasing capacity and adapting operational frameworks to respond more effectively to complex crises are, at least, choices that are in the hands of the humanitarian community itself.

Quick decisions are however needed to avoid turning this window into a missed opportunity.