From the IRIN, we find out more about the government policy that is questioned with the recent failed harvest.
According to a recent report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), rates of acute malnutrition in the northern provinces of Gash Barka and Anseba were above the emergency threshold of 15 percent; by February 2009, admission rates to therapeutic feeding centres were already two to six times greater than in 2008.
UNICEF warned that higher global food prices could be affecting up to 2 million Eritreans, more than half the population of 3.6 million. UN agencies have projected that the 1.3 million people living below the poverty line would suffer most.
Heruy Asgodom, head of Eritrea's agriculture department, acknowledged: "The rains have been poor again this year," but added, "We don't need food aid - we don't believe in it."
Eritrea is difficult terrain for humanitarian agencies, a result of strained relations with the UN system, allegedly flowing from its border dispute with archrival Ethiopia.
Marcus Prior, spokesman for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), said the government was not issuing work permits to international humanitarian staff, and with "movement restrictions, and the curtailing of project activities by key partners, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the real needs in Eritrea at this time".
The agency is feeding 17 million people in the Horn of Africa, which is still struggling to recover from its worst humanitarian crisis since 1984. Prior said WFP was "concerned" that malnourished children and pregnant mothers in Eritrea might "need the same level of assistance that the agency is already providing in neighbouring countries".
Eritrea suspended food aid in favour of a cash-for-work policy in 2006, "integrating" 94,500 tons of donor food into its new programme. Aid workers speculate that food-for-work was funded by "redirecting" supplies "seized" from a WFP warehouse. According to the US government, "this food aid later appeared on the local market". WFP still has an office in Asmara, the capital, but currently runs no operations in the country.
The government argues it rejected general food distribution because a "few have tended to use relief assistance as a political tool, and in a manner that would ultimately perpetuate dependency rather than eliminating it". It bred "lethargy", which the more dignified food-for-work programmes avoid.