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Published: January 12, 2022

When to evacuate? – diplomatic pressure and acceptance challenges for international NGOs in Ethiopia

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Over the last months, the situation in Ethiopia has constantly been changing. It has become increasingly difficult for international NGOs (INGOs) operating in the country to decide on when and how to evacuate international staff, further complicated by the pressure of states’ diplomatic missions aiming to avoid another Afghanistan-like evacuation chaos. This blog discusses the dilemmas INGOs have been facing and the many challenges this has caused for their acceptance with the Ethiopian government and local communities.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen increasing pressure by the Ethiopian government on the humanitarian community over the Tigray crisis. This pressure has taken the form of increased checks on staff and new processes and procedures for entering the Tigray Region. Even those agencies who left due to the conflict faced issues entering federal government-controlled areas again, including the confiscation of equipment and harassment. In other instances, agencies were expelled from the country while the media’s reporting and governments’ comments added to the Ethiopian government’s fury.

In late October and November 2021, the US advised that its nationals should consider leaving the country and by the end of November, many other diplomatic missions followed suit. In some cases, they contacted INGO staff directly, as it looked like the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) moved towards Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Many missions suggested that international staff leave by civil aviation routes immediately as they could not guarantee the supply of evacuation flights. Still, the information from the missions varied – while primarily the European and US missions were pushing for evacuations, most representatives from African countries appeared to be more relaxed about the situation.

The legacy of the Afghanistan crisis 

Diplomatic missions’ decisions to reach out to INGOs and advise their nationals to leave the country this early appears to have been made on the back of Afghanistan. Many of those exiting Afghanistan complained that they felt that the sudden deterioration of the situation was exacerbated by a lack of communication between the diplomatic missions and INGOs. Due to the perceived failure of early warning triggers in Afghanistan, this time around, governments aimed to avoid bad press and criticisms for not acting in a timely manner. In many cases though, INGOs already worked at a local level with predominantly national teams and reduced international staff usually in Addis or relocated them out of Tigray due to significant access constraints.

The dynamic security situation in Ethiopia meant that INGOs and security managers were already closely watching developments in the country. However, the diplomatic pressure added to the situation’s complexity and further constrained INGO’s ability to effectively respond based on their assessments.

A dilemma for the humanitarian community

The humanitarian community faced a three-fold dilemma as a result of this evacuation pressure.

  1. Firstly, INGOs had to consider the security and safety of their staff by evaluating the real threat that local and international staff faced vis-a-vis the effects that an early evacuation could have on national staff and programmes.
  2. Secondly, organisations had to ask themselves how a refusal or disregard of donors’ or national governments’ advice could affect future relationships and funding.
  3. Thirdly, INGOs had to assess the Ethiopian government’s response to the international community’s actions. The government stated that the international community was biased and that they had evidence that the TPLF was using third-party troops – a fact that was never established. Several demonstrations took place in Addis with placards denouncing US President Biden and condemning international pressure, asserting that the crisis was an internal matter that the international community should stay out of. There were also concerns that agencies could be targeted now or in the future if they were seen to be adding to the departure of international staff.

A challenge for acceptance and access

In cases where INGO staff were evacuated, or INGOs withdrew their staff from programme areas, the Ethiopian government has been extremely critical of the reduction of services and, in some cases, has written to INGOs demanding that they return or risk being refused permission to work in Ethiopia in the future. The extent to which this is true will only become visible when agencies who have completed full evacuations try to return or apply for visas and work permits. However, the signs already suggest that this may be a challenge. Several INGOs and international missions have alleged that staff have been refused visas. In some cases, staff were also refused entry at the airport and effectively deported back to their countries of origin.

The future of contingency planning in humanitarian contexts

The humanitarian community can learn from how these events unfolded in Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Contingency planning has to be in place but must be reviewed constantly, especially as situations evolve. Also, early warning triggers must be clearly identified. Moreover, alongside security issues, we need to pay attention to diplomatic and media dynamics that may affect staff on the ground.

In some cases, headquarters or regional staff must also consider that information flow can be unintentionally biased or manipulated, therefore delaying decisions that may put staff at risk. This is difficult to anticipate but needs to be included in crisis management scenarios.


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