US concerned over situation in Ethiopia

September 18, 2008 — The United States expressed concern on Thursday over an Ethiopian bill that could restrict the activities of foreign aid groups and sounded alarm bells over the food situation in the country.

The draft bill allows more government interference in the affairs of foreign NGOs and bans them from working on issues related to ethnicity, gender and children’s rights.

“We take the law seriously. We’re concerned about it, and donors have raised the issue to the government,” USAID assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian issues Michael Hess told reporters in Addis Ababa.

The bill was unveiled earlier this year and slightly watered down in June, but it continues to spark concern among the aid community. It now is due to be submitted to parliament after the new session opens in October.

Hess said Washington, Ethiopia’s staunchest international ally, was urging Addis Ababa to reconsider the bill.

“We’re in discussions with the government about the law. I think they’ll continue refining it,” he said. “We have a healthy relationship with the government and Ethiopia is a strategic partner to the United States.”

Hess, who is on a four-day visit, also expressed concern over food delivery delays in Ethiopia’s restive Somali region, where almost half of the population requires food aid.

“We estimate that only 41 percent of distribution in July reached affected areas (due to delays). We want to make sure that 100 percent reaches the beneficiaries,” he said.

In early September, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes called on Ethiopia to grant aid agencies more access in the conflict zone.

Hess said there was unfettered access in most areas, but stressed that some difficulties remained.

“There are still tough areas but in the past few weeks there has been an improvement,” he added.

Ethiopia’s military launched a bruising military crackdown last year after the Ogaden National Liberation Front, an ethnic-based separatist group, attacked a Chinese-run oil venture, killing 77 people.

The United Nations says 4.6 million people in Ethiopia need emergency assistance while another eight million require food relief due to the latest drought.

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