Opinion: What Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis can teach us about Ethiopia

Ethiopian refugees rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet border reception center, after crossing into Sudan. Photo by: Hazim Elhag / UNHCR

Earlier this month, tensions between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s national government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a rival political party that controls the Tigray region in the north, escalated into catastrophic violence. To-date, more than 40,000 civilians have sought shelter in neighboring Sudan, with additional reports of large-scale internal displacement. On Friday, the United Nations called for the opening of humanitarian corridors and predicted as many as 200,000 refugees could arrive within six months. 

The crisis recalls Myanmar in 2017, when the military unleashed a scorched earth campaign that drove more than 742,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh. Three years later, over 700,000 Rohingya remain in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp. The Rohingya have become a casualty of aid interventions that roll out and then pack up, leaving no structural support to help survivors rebuild.

Why development matters now

One year after their exodus from Myanmar, Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar reported high rates of hypertension, diabetes, and diarrhea, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Nearly 76,000 babies have been born in Cox’s Bazar to mothers without access to proper maternal care and into conditions “not suitable for children.” In May 2019, UNICEF found that “one third of the 416,000 school-age Rohingya children were still not accessing basic education.”

While the drivers of displacement and the experiences of the displaced are unique to each region, context, and moment in time, the destabilizing impact of forced migration is universally punishing. Each year of education leads to an 8.1% increase in earnings. Refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than their non-refugee peers. Unemployment drives instability, violence, and vulnerability — particularly among young people, entrenching refugee communities in cycles of poverty and insecurity.

To ensure Ethiopians not only survive the violence but also rebuild and thrive in its eventual aftermath, development initiatives should be mobilized with the same urgency usually reserved for stop-gap emergency aid. This means devolving greater responsibility and resources to the actors who will prioritize long-term outcomes from the beginning: local responders, host communities, and stakeholder governments.


The international NGO-driven distinction between emergency humanitarian aid and longer-term development aid leads to siloed interventions that fail to account for cycles of recovery and risk. Local actors deliver humanitarian and development work simultaneously, because, unlike many international organizations, they are frequently not structured to separate the two.

Wealthy nations can mobilize financial and technical support for Sudan and Ethiopia to implement policies maximizing the contributions of resettled and host communities — a goal that requires access to health care, education, and employment for both groups.

For local organizations to effect large-scale change, however, they need the resources to change course in response to evolving needs. This requires an increase in both the amount and flexibility of donor funding to ensure that local groups can keep pace with cycles of humanitarian and development demands.

The Grand Bargain, which committed major donors to devolving at least 25% of funding to local and national humanitarian actors by 2020, has primed the aid community for a more local approach. The UN Refugee Agency, a key responder in Ethiopia, has achieved particular success in its Grand Bargain commitments, including transferring 21.4% of its funding to local responders, improving financial transparency, and increasing the proportion of cash — versus in-kind — assistance.

Sustaining this commitment to local actors right now could pay significant development dividends for Ethiopia and Sudan down the road.

Host government support

As the vast majority of refugees are settled in low- and middle-income countries, refugee inflows are often threatening to host country governments with limited domestic resources. While evidence demonstrates the net positive economic effect of refugees on host communities, distribution of aid and supplies can promote hostility and erode opportunity for integration.

Government policy determines the extent and direction of a refugee population’s economic impact. Wealthy nations can mobilize financial and technical support for Sudan and Ethiopia to implement policies maximizing the contributions of resettled and host communities — a goal that requires access to health care, education, and employment for both groups.

The United States Institute of Peace has identified political negotiation as the only way out of the current crisis. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s national security nominee Jake Sullivan urged support for an African Union-led resolution. If this diplomatic pressure is applied to the humanitarian crisis, the U.S. could assume a supporting role to a localized political response that would promote long-term stability.

The compact model

With local organizations and governments leading on the ground, INGOs and multilaterals can limit their direct implementation to covering gaps in capacity or scale. Their emergency response could benefit from the 2016 Jordan Compact model.

The compact mobilized government, private sector, and U.N. representatives to increase Syrian refugee community’s access to education and employment, while achieving economic benefits for Jordanians. Engaging a similarly broad coalition of local and international actors to address the crisis in Ethiopia and Sudan would ensure participation of stakeholders who will be on the ground long after short-term humanitarian teams have gone home.

A compact approach would also encourage INGOs and multilaterals, like host governments, to deliver impact for both host and refugee communities. This will build social cohesion early on, allowing refugees to more quickly integrate and enjoy the development institutions already in place in their community of resettlement or integration.

Ethiopia’s twin emergencies

Although Abiy insists the unfolding crisis will be resolved quickly, evidence indicates Ethiopia is headed toward a protracted conflict likely to inflame tensions across the Horn of Africa.

TPLF rejected Abiy’s 72-hour ultimatum demanding their surrender, prompting Abiy to order the “final phase” of what he has called rule of law operations.

A state-appointed human rights commission announced that more than 600 civilians had been massacred earlier this month. Though information access is limited, rumors of killings that “amount to war crimes” have been leaked out of Tigray.

Compounding the crisis, Ethiopia is in a development tailspin. The International Monetary Fund projects zero economic growth for the country in 2021. Ethiopia reported 3.2 million people newly displaced in 2018, the third-highest levels of internal displacement in the world.

Beneath today’s humanitarian disaster is ongoing development collapse. Ethiopia requires a response that recognizes the urgency of both. If local organizations, governments, and host communities do not receive the resources and authority to lead this response, Ethiopia will, like Myanmar, see a refugee crisis deteriorate into a protracted human rights disaster with no end in sight.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Carolyn Nash

    Carolyn Nash manages human rights and governance programs in Myanmar. She has worked previously in Indonesia, East Timor, Kenya, and Uganda. The views expressed in this article are hers alone.