File photo: A World Food Programme convoy travels to Ethiopia s northern Tigray region last year. AFP
"We made the difficult but necessary decision that we cannot move forward with distribution of food assistance until reforms are in place," said the US government's main international aid agency.
"Our intention is to immediately resume food assistance once we are confident in the integrity of delivery systems to get assistance to its intended recipients," the statement added.
The decision will affect millions of Ethiopians facing severe food shortages due to a devastating war in the northern region of Tigray as well as a punishing drought in the south and southeast that has also struck Somalia and parts of Kenya.
It comes on the heels of an announcement by USAID and the World Food Programme (WFP) last month to freeze food aid to Tigray after the agencies discovered that shipments were being diverted to local markets.
Neither USAID nor WFP have identified those responsible for taking the aid and reselling it.
The US agency has discussed the matter with Ethiopia's government, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen on the sidelines of a ministerial gathering in Saudi Arabia.
Blinken "welcomed the Ethiopian government's commitment to work together to conduct a full investigation into the diversion of US food assistance and to hold accountable those found responsible", State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Thursday.
Nearly 32 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in the grip of the worst drought in decades, and aid agencies have raised famine warnings unless more funding is made available to help the affected regions.
In addition to the crisis in the drought-hit south, northern Tigray suffered from dire shortages of food, fuel, cash and medicines during the two-year conflict between forces loyal to Ethiopia's government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front.
A peace deal signed on November 2 just passed the seven-month mark, implementation of the accord has progressed slowly without a major return to fighting, and some basic services have resumed to the region of six million people.
But media access remains restricted, and it is impossible to independently verify the situation on the ground.
Michael Ryan, emergencies director at the World Health Organization, told a press briefing in Geneva that although humanitarian access had improved in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia, "significant gaps" remained.
"There are still some areas that are not accessible," he said, pointing to the contested region of western Tigray, which is controlled by militias from neighbouring Amhara and claimed by Amharas and Tigrayans.
"We estimate that in Ethiopia as a whole, about 17.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance," Ryan added.
According to a USAID statement published in March this year, the US "remains the single largest humanitarian donor to Ethiopia, providing more than $1.8 billion in lifesaving assistance since fiscal year 2022".