How Band Aid came unstuck on reality of relief

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.

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".

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. 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 a***". 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, 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.

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 government that was causing the famine we were supposed to be alleviating.

Geldof was the front man, and he has played his part to perfection, then and 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.

He 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 build up its war machine, it commandeered aid vehicles for its own purposes and, by diverting aid supplies, helped to feed its armies.

The United Nations 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 that he was speaking to them from a government enclave. They did not realise 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 he could reach virtually every famine victim and therefore all the aid should be distributed on his side of the lines. It was nonsense.

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.

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 produced the Channel 4 programmes on emergency aid in Africa, The Hunger Business. This article first appeared in The Spectator.

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