Bob Geldof rages against the “thoroughly discredited BBC World Service programme that claimed that nigh on the entire humanitarian relief effort by all aid agencies during the Ethiopian famine was diverted to arms” (My rage at this calumny, 10 March).
But the BBC report was not specifically about Band Aid. Nor does it discredit the World Service to report on international aid deliveries during the Ethiopian crisis of the 1980s. The real issue is about the way humanitarian assistance to victims of war and famine was – and still is – manipulated by all sides, whether rebel or government.
As a foreign correspondent reporting on humanitarian crisis zones and conflicts in Africa and Asia during this period, I consider myself “one of the dozens of journalists of record” who covered the region. The BBC report referred to a situation that anyone familiar with the politics of aid knows only too well. Geldof, whose commitment I have always admired, comes off as naive and self-righteous.
It is not “weird” that journalists at the time failed to discover the story, as Geldof asserts. Aid always has been – and still is – ripped off by warring factions no matter how well-meaning or competent the international aid agencies. This is simply the nature of conflict and humanitarian crisis. Aid is a resource to be exploited, whether for weapons, personal gain or political power. The Pakistanis and Afghan mujahideen did it; Angola’s Unita rebels did it; and so did the government and guerrillas in Ethiopia. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross openly and transparently assume that some of their aid (30% in Somalia) will be stolen.
During the 1980s, I had regular contact with guerrilla groups in the Horn of Africa, such as the TPLF (including its humanitarian wing, Rest), the EPLF and ELF. I also reported from the government side out of Addis. All did their best to dupe both aid workers and journalists.
Rest, for example, was extremely well organised. It provided impressive humanitarian surveys, such as the number of lactating mothers in specific villages and refugee camps. However, there was no way of verifying whether all the aid was actually going through or not. Inside the guerrilla zones Rest always controlled what you saw and where you travelled. The Ethiopian Dergue did exactly the same thing.
Everything was elaborate while the show was on, but the moment one left it was a different matter. Once I visited a bustling “government displaced centre” near the Sudanese border. Twenty minutes after leaving I returned because I had forgotten my jacket. The camp was empty. It had been a complete charade in a bid to solicit international sympathy and funding.
No aid organisation working in the region during those days can truthfully assert that 100% of its assistance reached the victims. One only needed to visit the bazaars of Kasala, Omdurman and Addis, where bags of donated wheat and other relief were openly sold. While the abuse may not have been 95%, the BBC report raised the right questions and in a proper journalistic manner.