Sunday, 2 January 2005 - 3:25 AM GMT
While I'm at it, here is a piece about the truth about Ethiopa in the 1980s. It's from the Spectator. The use of bold is mine, to highlight the key points. It's pretty clear to me that a war aimed at ... guess what... regime change, would have saved far more lives than aid given to the wrong people.
What happened to the f***ing money
A pale, intense young man with a soft Irish accent and a mane of dark hair is banging the glass table: ?Don?t go to the pub tonight,? he says, ?there are people dying now. So please, stay in and give me the f***ing money.?
It is one of the indelible television moments. On that day ? 13 July 1985 ? Bob Geldof laced together rock music, live television and the extremes of human misery into a single, potent brew, inventing a new way, not just of giving, but of feeling. Live Aid initiated a global culture of direct emotional response to suffering, and a global demand for direct action to make the suffering stop. It was a great achievement. Unfortunately, the Geldof approach to humanitarian emergencies can also be a liability: it favours action in place of careful thought, gestures instead of an engagement with complex realities.
We are riding into the valley of anniversaries: next month, it will be 20 years since Geldof and Midge Ure set the ball rolling by founding Band Aid. Once again we will celebrate our remarkable generosity, once again we will hear that we ?saved? Ethiopia and ?fed the world?. Earlier this month, on BBC Radio 5, Geldof laid down a preliminary barrage, saying that, in Ethiopia in 1984, ?30 million people were about to die ...?. It is an absurd statement: the suggestion that everyone in a huge region would have died, had it not been for the emergency aid, ignores virtually everything we know about both famines and aid.
Yet, in the face of a Geldof campaign, it seems feeble to mention the facts. Why think about how to help when the only question on offer is whether? Geldof narrows the debate to one of compassion machismo: do you have the cojones to give? He promotes impatience as the greatest virtue, as typified by his recent comment, while touring Africa with Tony Blair, that a European commissioner was ?talking through his arse?. This is the sort of simplistic shtick that plays well in our media-saturated world, yet in a number of African crises, ill-conceived emergency aid has proved of questionable value. And the event that made Geldof?s reputation is a classic illustration of this awkward, unsettling truth.
When Michael Buerk?s first report on the Ethiopian famine was transmitted on BBC News on 23 October 1984, the idea immediately took hold that this was a natural disaster ? ?a biblical famine?, in Buerk?s words ? which would be alleviated by massive food aid. There was a severe drought in the region, but the creation of famine was a military tactic of the Dergue government of Colonel Haile Mariam Mengistu. For journalists like Buerk and activists like Geldof, the wars in Ethiopia were an inconvenience which were complicating relief efforts. Yet the wars were the principal cause of the tragedy.
When I spoke to Michael Buerk in the late 1990s, he still held the view that the wars had ?complicated matters?, but he did agree that self-censorship had played a role in his own and others? reportage at the time: ?You?ve got ... to make the decision, is this side story of any real significance? And also, at the back of your mind, is: if I overemphasise a negative angle to this, I am going to be responsible for ...inhibiting people from coughing up their money.?
In the time of Band Aid, ?negative angles? were out. It would have been negative, although true, to have emphasised that Mengistu was one of the most vicious African dictators of the previous quarter century, that he was fighting three wars at the time (two in the north, in Tigray and Eritrea, and one in the Oromo lands of the south), and that his troops were committing atrocities in the region where the famine was unfolding. It would have been distinctly negative to have reported that the dictator was using food as a weapon of war ? bombing crops and markets while setting up roadblocks to prevent the movement of food. The methods used by Mengistu?s armies were bound to create famine, and they did.
Journalists and aid workers were not the only ones wary of confusing viewers at home with ?negative angles?. While it was Band Aid and, later, Live Aid that caught the imagination of the world, they funded only a small proportion of the aid effort: 90 per cent or more of the aid came from Western donor governments. As the governments would only deal with a recipient government, not with rebel movements, most of the aid ? again, roughly 90 per cent ? was channelled through Mengistu?s hands. In a grotesque irony, we found ourselves supporting the very government that was causing the famine we were supposed to be alleviating. This was certainly a ?negative angle?, and therefore, unsurprisingly, it received hardly any attention at all.
Geldof was the front man, and he has played his part to perfection, then and ever since. This is not to impugn his motives: Geldof is undeniably charming and sincere, but that does not mean that what he says is holy writ. He told the international media that agencies had to trust the representatives of the Mengistu government, thus seeming to deny, by implication, that the aid operation was being used by that same government. Yet the places where the aid was distributed, and the conditions under which it was distributed, were determined by Mengistu. There is something remarkably patronising in the assumption that an African dictator ? as ruthless and cunning as they come, a survivor among survivors ? might fail to see an opportunity when it was staring him in the face.
As it turned out, Mengistu knew a hawk from a handsaw. In 1984?85, up to a billion dollars? worth of aid flowed into Ethiopia. Thousands of Western aid workers and journalists flew in with it. The regime ensured that the visitors converted their Western dollars to the local currency at a rate favourable to the government: in 1985 the Dergue tripled its foreign currency reserves. It used this influx of cash to help build up its war-machine, it commandeered aid vehicles for its own purposes and, by diverting aid supplies, helped feed its armies. The UN in Addis Ababa, which was co-ordinating the aid operation, denied that the level of diversion was significant. Later on, it became clear that a significant proportion of the relief food in Tigray ? the epicentre of the famine ? was consigned to the militia. The militias were known locally as ?wheat militias?.
Above all, the government used the aid operation to support its military strategy: it saw food aid as both a tool for consolidating control over disputed territory and as bait for luring people from rebel-held areas into government territory. Michael Buerk?s viewers did not realise ? how could they? ? that he was speaking to them from a government enclave. They did not realise ? again, how could they? ? that the Ethiopian government did not control much of the territory where the famine was occurring, and that a huge proportion of the famine victims, possibly more than half, were outside the reach of the international aid effort. Mengistu maintained that he could reach virtually every famine victim, and that therefore all the aid should be distributed on his side of the lines. It was nonsense, and you did not have to be unduly sceptical to trace the thread of self-interest in the claim. Yet the UN went along with it, and the great majority of aid agencies fell into line.
What happened in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s was not the glorious episode of Geldof?s promotion. Despite the efforts of many noble individuals and the expenditure of huge amounts of money, it was a badly flawed exercise. To sustain the mythology of Band Aid?s success, its supporters tell us that some neat, round number of lives were saved. Last Sunday in the Observer Michael Buerk was quoted as saying, ?The money raised would have saved about one to two million lives.? Numbers are easy to bandy around (even ones with a 100 per cent margin of error) but it is surprisingly hard to determine how many lives the aid saved.
While the agencies certainly fed large numbers of starving people, equally large numbers of the starving were out of their reach, and had to save themselves. There was little counting of those they did feed. And no one knows what happened to people after they left the camps, other than that they returned to the conditions from which they had emerged. These conditions included not just the war but Mengistu?s programme of ethnic cleansing through ?resettlement?, itself funded, directly and indirectly, by the aid operation. ?Resettlement? led to some half a million people being forcibly moved from the north of the country to the south, costing, it has been estimated, some 100,000 lives.
One point is certain: the war which we helped fuel continued for another six years, claiming many thousands more lives. That is, in itself, no reason to have passed by on the other side, but the balance sheet remains far less conclusive than Geldof believes. According to him, critics of emergency aid are by definition guilty of indifference. Yet how can we learn if we are not prepared to think? No one has all the answers, but a more informed public debate about the limits of aid would be a step in the right direction. Those who benefit most from the simplifications and evasions which characterised aid to Ethiopia in the mid-1980s are local governments, aid agencies and the media. The victims are, so often, those whose suffering attracted the attention of the world in the first place.
Daniel Wolf was series producer of the Channel 4 programmes on emergency aid in Africa, The Hunger Business.