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Open Letter to the Director General of FAO

Letter to FAO - Ethiopia

Honorable Dr. Qu Dongyu
Director General, Food and Agriculture Organization
The United Nations

Your Excellency,

As Director General of FAO, on January 28, 2024, you congratulated Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for his “leadership, commitment, and passion, which have led to a big, historic revolutionary change of agrifood systems, and for rural development.” In the award ceremony, you said you are honored to present “the prestigious FAO Agricola Medal, the highest award of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations conferred by the FAO Director-General.” 

As a follower of Ethiopian affairs for more than 25 years, I would have joined your excellency in congratulating the Prime Minister if the series of news of conflict, hunger, and rights violations from Ethiopia had not been disturbing me. I left Ethiopia for Europe in August 1984, at the peak of the then famine. Government media by then was silent when the drought was changing to a full blown famine. The government of the day denied the problem and prioritized the celebration of its 10th year of accession to power with pomp. The television pictures of the 1984 famine shocked me when I landed in Brussels. It had a serious effect on our  studies and remains vivid to this day. At about the same time, Professor Amartya Sen wrote his groundbreaking book where he successfully demonstrated the link between drought, famine, and government accountability. I am certain that FAO’s agricultural economists are aware of the link between famine and public accountability of Heads of States and Governments.      

Your Excellency,

Puzzled by the continued aid dependence of Ethiopia’s population, about two and half years ago (September 25, 2021), the team I am associated with (FESP) organized a virtual conference under the theme of “Agriculture and food security.” Four notable scholars in the field presented their work. The session chair was a sociologist (Dr. Zelalem Tefera, Associate Professor of Sociology, Addis Ababa University). The speakers were Professor Assefa Gebre-Amlak, Former Dean of Hawassa (Agricultural) University and Emeritus Professor of Entomology at Colorado State University, the late Dr. Mulat Demeke (rest in peace!), the Former Dean of Faculty of Business and Economics, Addis Ababa University, and Senior Policy Officer at FAO, Dr. Tsedeke Abate, Former Director General of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and Principal Scientist at International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), and Dr. Dejene Makonnen, Former Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, First President of Alemaya/ Haramaya (Agricultural) University, and Former Senior Agricultural Advisor (FAO). None of the speakers predicted that Ethiopia would be food self-sufficient in the short term without a major change of policy or alluded to the type of leadership your excellency depicted. Please see the video link above.

As your excellency knows, the link between armed conflict and food insecurity is obvious and a well-documented matter in the literature. Between 2018 and 2023 over one million Ethiopians have perished in the Tigray war (Obasanjo, November 19, 2022). As you know there was no meaningful agricultural activity in the region during the two yearlong devastating civil war. At the time of writing this email, the government has continued its war against the Amhara Fano movement and OLA. International organizations have been issuing a series of statements about the conflicts. Historic churches, mosques, revered shrines, and the clergy are being attacked and desecrated. Orthodox Christian persecution has reached alarming levels (Pope Francis Nov 3, 2019, Providence Feb 25, 2020; Russian Orthodox Church October 2020). The news is dominated by gruesome atrocity and war crimes, drone strikes, mass imprisonment (International Committee of Red Crosses, July 18, 2021; United Nations September 18, 2023; Human Rights Watch August 9, 2023; Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, September 23, 2023; December 10, 2023). Academics, professionals, and elected parliamentarians and a member of the cabinet are in jail. On February 1, 2024, a few days after the award of FAO’s accolade the government renewed the sweeping state of emergency that witch hunts people suspected of being associated with political opponents. A bigger agricultural landmass is unfarmed, and the government has been facing a “peasant revolution” in part because of the non-delivery of agricultural input on time and pricing. The much-talked wheat production is not reaching the market because of pricing, insecurity, and transport problems. It is severely hurting the urban poor. The news of food aid diversion is another stigma associated with the type of leadership observed in Ethiopia. 

Amid all this negative news comes the surprise from FAO. The news must have surprised your own experts in that FAO’s own website has been containing information about food insecurity (November 7, 2023). In its food security alert of June 15, 2023, FAO documented a “dire food security situation due to multiple shocks.” It stated that “about 20.1 million people are estimated to be in need of emergency food assistance.” In its October 2023 report, the World Food Program (WFP) indicated that its “November – April 2024 net funding need is USD 178 million.” Another wing of the United Nations, UNOCHA’s situation report of December 1, 2023, contained a similar picture. In its Situation Overview of February 2, 2024 UNOCHA stated “ Drought drives millions of people to suffering and desperation, but there is an opportunity to prevent further deterioration.” In short, your excellency must have been ill-advised and someone and somewhere in the FAO system is wrong.

Beyond accountability, there is concern that your excellency’s statement, perhaps inadvertently, has increased the misery of the hungry in that it has the potential to mislead the donor community. Furthermore, as the election fever in the largest donor country gets momentum the voices of those who advocate for the defunding of UN agencies are likely to gain traction. Hence, I request Your Excellency to take off the pride associated with being a Director General and take the necessary corrective steps so that the needy gets the attention of the international community on time.    


Minga Negash, Professor
Denver, Colorado

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of 


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