Baseless attacks on Bob Geldof threaten foreign aid
One of the more unedifying spectacles on the world stage in the last fortnight has been the verbal dogfight between Bob Geldof and the BBC over aid to Ethiopia.
For me the allegations, that money from Band Aid and Live Aid was diverted for political and military purposes, and Geldof’s furious denunciations, had particular resonance.
Exactly twenty years ago, I was in Ethiopia to make a film for Four Corners, called the Forgotten Famine, which addressed some of these issues on the spot. The debate today seems to me confused, exaggerated and divorced from reality.
First, a reminder of what was happening in Ethiopia in the eighties and ninetiies. The country was governed by the Dergue – a communist military junta, backed and armed by Moscow and led by Colonel Haile Mengistu Mariam.Two northern provinces – Tigray and Eritrea – were fighting for independence. Bad harvests and other factors meant they were also in the grip of a famine.
The Dergue’s response – as my colleague Chris Masters reported for Four Corners in 1985 – was to use “hunger as a weapon of war”. What did that mean? Well, at the time I went in to Tigray in March 1990, the Ethiopian Air Force was bombing aid convoys. A couple of weeks before our trip, Ethiopian Migs using phosphorus bombs had destroyed four full grain trucks. Our convoy travelled only at night, because then the bombers were grounded.
Crucially, there was only one way in to the country. As I wrote at the time: “The only way in is the clandestine one – across the Sudanese border. To reach Central Tigray and deliver the food means several hundred kilometres travelling some of the world’s worst roads. The trucks may cover only sixty kilometres in an entire night”.
The trucks themselves were clapped-out vehicles that had already done hundreds of thousands of kilometres in Europe. The roads were treacherous – with patches where trucks would sink into deep sand in the dry or become heavily bogged in the wet. This single route into the country was the key to the problem then, and it’s also the key to the current debate; because the only organisation accredited by the Sudanese Government to use the route was REST – the Relief Society of Tigray.
All aid agencies including Live Aid, and Australia’s Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam), with whom we travelled had to deal with REST to get their aid in. And REST was the ‘humanitarian arm’ of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front – the TPLF, which was waging war against the Ethiopian Government. What no-one wanted to talk about at the time was that, like the Government they were fighting, the TPLF were Marxist-Leninists.
An example: in the middle of our trip, they brought us to a recruiting function – a sort of concert and rally, where they then prevented us from filming until they could cover up the massive party symbol on stage: it consisted of a hammer, a sickle and a Kalashnikov rifle.
I wrote at the time: “Even aid groups and charities sympathetic to the TPLF suggest that its ideological base is a type of Stalinist Marxism”.
On the other hand, it was clear that the TPLF had widespread support, if only because people were desperate. And above all, there was no-one else with whom the aid community could deal; no other way whatever to get the food in.
Now, the BBC, in a World Service documentary, has made the explosive claim that the aid agencies “were hoodwinked, and that millions of dollars were diverted to buy weapons for rebels in Ethiopia”.
You can download it from this page.
They based the claim on the word of two former senior officials of the TPLF. One, who lives in Perth, went so far as to say that 95% of the aid went to political and military funds – not to feeding the hungry. In the BBC’s words, “it had all been an elaborate charade”.
It’s that 95% claim that has created headlines around the world – and left the impression in many minds that members of the public who opened their hearts and wallets for the “Feed The World” campaign had instead created what another ex-TPLF official told the BBC was, by the late 1980s, an armed force bristling with brand-new military hardware.
Well, I travelled right through TPLF territory in 1990, and I find that description simply incredible. We saw some fighters with AK-47 automatic rifles, certainly, but also many with older rifles, farmers’ shotguns, or without firearms at all. New military hardware? We went very close to the fighting front, and saw nothing that didn’t look either old, or as if it had been captured in recent battles with Government forces.
And when it comes to the diversion of aid, the public now find themselves between two poles: the BBC’s source, who claims 95% was siphoned off, and Bob Geldof, who says there is “not a single shred of evidence” that a single cent was ever diverted.
In defending its program, the BBC has, I’m afraid, been using weasel words to try and defuse the effect of what it’s done. On the 95% claim, “We have never said that is the main news element in this program”, says the BBC World Service News and Current Affairs editor Andrew Whitehead.
That’s frankly disingenuous. Whitehead goes on: “what we didn’t say in that program, and what nobody said in that program, is that 95% of all famine relief aid was diverted. We had one voice, a credible voice, saying that 95% of aid through one particular organisation was diverted for military and political purposes”.
But that “one particular organisation” was REST – the only channel for getting aid into Tigray. So Whitehead’s defence is actually to make a distinction without a difference.
Is it even possible, as the BBC’s “credible” source maintains, that 95% of the aid money was not spent on buying food in Tigray but on arms? No, because the great majority of aid sent to Tigray at that period was not sent as money, but directly – as bags of grain or flour.
It must also be said that both the BBC’s TPLF sources are potentially tainted. One is a long term opponent of the TPLF’s leader (now Prime Minister of Ethiopia) Meles Zenawi, and heavily involved in opposition politics from exile. Ethiopia’s Honorary Consul in Australia Graham Romanes claims the other source was asked to leave the TPLF for embezzlement, before defecting to the Dergue.
Romanes ran Community Aid Abroad’s East Africa operations at the time I went in to Tigray.
Asked about the BBC’s figures now, he says “they just don’t add up. The aid groups – particularly Christian Aid – at the time monitored this question very closely and they found nothing like this”.
I think Bob Geldof is overconfident when he says that there’s not a shred of evidence of a single cent going astray.
But between him and the BBC, his is the lesser exaggeration: Geldof is on much stronger ground when he says: “Where were all the dead people then? If no one was getting food, why was nobody dying? ... They weren’t dying because they were getting help, and massive amounts of it”.
The aid diversion claim has the potential to do enormous damage to future fund-raising.
It relies on a simplistic view of the world, well-reflected in an article in the Australian that said “On whatever scale Live Aid money disappeared in Ethiopia in 1985, there is no question that the priority for the rebel movement at that time was not alleviating the incredible suffering of starving people but overthrowing the country’s brutal dictatorship”.
Well, no. The priority was both – and in the long term, as proved to be the case, the only way to alleviate people’s suffering was to win the war.
Sometimes, when you want to save lives, reality - complicated, difficult and even political – is what you have to deal with.
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