“In September 2005, the government suspended general food aid in favor of food-for-work,” Peter Smerdon, Public Information Officer of the World Food Programme based in Nairobi, told The Media Line.

“While we would like to be working in Eritrea, we’ve had no food assistance operation there since April 2006, when the government announced the new cash-for-work policy.”

NGOs have long been at odds with the Eritrean government: in 2005, the national media launched a smear campaign against NGOs, claiming the various organizations providing aid were corrupt and trying to promote a culture of laziness among Eritreans.

In September 2005, the government initiated a shift in policy that drastically affected the already dire nutrition situation: direct food aid was banned in favor of a “work for food” program, and later cash-for-work, intended to counteract what Eritrean officials thought to be an NGO-cultivated culture of dependence. Only five NGOs officially remain in the country. 

The rising cost of food cripples Eritreans from buying their own food, which the government advocates to promote ‘self-reliance’. 

“Work permits for international humanitarian staff have not been issued; there are restrictions of movement,” Smerdon said.  “Some of our key partners have had their activities curtailed – it’s hard to get an accurate portrait of the situation there.”

Because aid organizations have been shut out, it has become difficult to collect data on the degree of devastation.  Before they were expelled, international organizations and NGOs partnered with the Eritrean Ministry of Health to provide statistical data on the famine; however, since 2006 this has been difficult for organizations to do on their own. 

When asked if he knew the extent of the population affected by the famine, Smerdon replied, “We don’t know.  We don’t know that it’s a famine either.  In technical terms it’s widely used by the public to mean the lack of general availability to food, but we can’t say whether the situation even meets the technical definition of a famine.”

“Historically, they have had a large proportion of the population that in previous years has needed food assistance,” he said. 

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