For decades, aid agencies in Ethiopia have been responding mainly to refugee influxes and needs flowing from slow-onset recurrent natural disasters. This has been in line with certain requirements of the context, but also the preference of the government to frame humanitarian action as subsidiary to development goals and within a state development agenda. Operating within the strict parameters dictated by the authorities, humanitarian organisations have hence largely come to follow an idea of humanitarian action that is synonymous with resiliencebuilding. The priority has been to strengthen the capacities of local communities and institutions to anticipate, prepare, and respond to climate-driven needs. At the same time, while conflict-induced displacement – both because of regional and internal dynamics – is a long-standing issue in Ethiopia, it has gained significantly in proportion over the past two years. With this recent increase in acute conflict-induced needs, organisations failed to quickly shift gears. Not only did the timeliness and effectiveness of the response hence suffer, but tensions surfaced between organisations’ humanitarian identity and principled stance and the government humanitarian/ development agenda largely followed until then.
The pivotal moment for INGOs can be traced back to the passing of the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) in 2009. The way INGOs have navigated the space given to them within the parameters of the CSO law has in practice shaped their primary identity in Ethiopia. INGOs have had to manage tensions between an Ethiopian/non-Ethiopian narrative, between the state development agenda and their own humanitarian identity, and between domestic priorities and international norms and principles. Hence, INGOs were historically largely not set up in Ethiopia to respond to conflict-driven needs. Gaps in the humanitarian response were therefore inevitable.
The recent waves of conflict-induced displacement and the inability of the humanitarian community to respond effectively to many of them have provided a shock to humanitarian actors in Ethiopia. Organisations noted a marked departure in the humanitarian response since the end of 2018. The positive effect of the shock is that humanitarian INGOs, but also parts of the UN system, have started to question their added value and their approaches to date. If organisations let the context take over their identity, this can lead to a misalignment between a global and a local strategic vision and can make it difficult for organisations to better adapt to changes in the context. Those organisations that were quicker to change gears were the ones that more quickly realigned their country response to their global strategy. External support from HQ was strategic in a few instances to highlight the gaps in the response and introduce necessary readjustments. Notwithstanding external constraints, how organisations set themselves up – in terms of strategy, structure, and protocols – is essential to be able to break the path dependency if, and when, a change in context requires it.
With the current political opening towards civil society at the federal level, witnessed by the adoption of a new CSO law, humanitarian INGOs are at a crossroads. They have an opportunity to redefine the balance between encouraging state responsibilities and intervening in a subsidiary way while maintaining their humanitarian identity and upholding humanitarian principles. It will not be easy, but the alternative is not an option.
Recent responses have reportedly been more timely, and there is also strong collaboration among INGOs for collective advocacy to address operational constraints. Further change will need to happen as a thoughtful strategic realignment between humanitarian identity, principles, and operations to better respond to humanitarian needs in Ethiopia.
At the same time, contextual constraints will still limit the timeliness and effectiveness of humanitarian response, and this will need to be accounted for. Change will need to happen as a thoughtful realignment to better respond to humanitarian needs in Ethiopia, while recognising that such a process will be hard to achieve and may be unequal across all levels of government. Expertise built to address recurrent climate-related disasters, such as droughts, should not be lost. Humanitarian organisations should however integrate the necessary expertise, mindset, and protocols to better address all types of assistance and protection needs in their response. With regard to the principles, for example, they should not only become relevant when there is a conflictinduced situation. They need to be thought about strategically. Consequences flowing from compromises made need to be considered in advance. Notably, where the principle of independence is not prioritised from the outset, it is difficult to suddenly change the terms of the relationship between humanitarian actors and the state. If humanitarian assistance and protection interventions are implemented on the basis of long-standing agreements with local authorities and unverified targeting lists, for example, it may take time to (re)evaluate and (re)negotiate whom the aid is/should be prioritising. In the meantime, those most in need risk being cut off from all interventions.