Linked with our presentation of David Rieff – USA.
This article was written on Guardian Unlimited on Friday June 24, 2005 © David Rieff 2005.
Live Aid forced the world to confront the Ethiopian famine and raised more than £50m. But as Bob Geldof prepares his Live 8 reprise, aid expert David Rieff argues that guilt-stricken donations helped fund a brutal resettlement programme that may have killed up to 100,000.
Isn’t it better to do something rather than give in to cynicism and do nothing? This is the question familiar to anyone who has criticised organisations that view themselves as dedicated to doing good in the world. To those UN agencies, relief organisations and development groups working in crisis zones from Afghanistan to Aceh, any “non-constructive” criticism, especially the kind that implies that it might have been better to refrain from acting at all, is so much nihilist piffle. Edmund Burke’s dictum that for evil to triumph, all that is required is “for good men to do nothing” (a favourite quotation of Kofi Annan’s) encapsulates this view. Yet an alternative case can be made: in the global altruism business, it is, indeed, sometimes better not to do anything at all.
Of course, those who believe it is always better to do something tend to believe that any negative consequences of their action arise from not doing enough. The most frequently heard complaint of activists is that western countries remain too indifferent to these crises of hunger and debt. For over 30 years – as long as humanitarian action has been a principal response in the west to the crises of the poor world – a favourite metaphor has been to “wake people up” to what was really going on.
Activists who bemoan what they see as the selfishness and self-absorption of the rich world often point to Band Aid – which through the release of a single and the Live Aid concerts in July 1985 raised between £50m and £70m – as a sign of how compassion fatigue can be beaten. In the words of one aid worker: “Humanitarian concern is now at the centre of foreign policy … Bob Geldof deserves a lot of credit for that.”This is certainly Geldof’s view. He believes that the Live Aid “experience” was a profound social innovation that helped to shape the views of those western politicians who have shown real interest in addressing the crisis of development, above all in sub-Saharan Africa.
As he put it late last year: “We have a Live Aid prime minister who sat in and watched it on TV all day.” For many relief professionals, media coverage and celebrities have always been crucial. “Ethiopia would not have got the attention it did without Live Aid,” says Joanna Macrae, former coordinator of the humanitarian policy group at the Overseas Development Institute.
Macrae, however, has reservations about what she has dubbed “quick, loud responses”. Such notes of scepticism are in short supply. Bob Geldof might say on television, “Give us the money now … fuck the address, give the phone [number]” and justify the demand with the line that “Live Aid was about people losing their lives”. But every seasoned aid worker knew then, and knows now, that there is no necessary connection between raising money for a good cause and that money being well spent, just as there is no necessary connection between caring about the suffering of others and understanding the nature or cause of that suffering.
And yet, as the excitement surrounding Live 8 has shown, Live Aid became the prototype for a new style of celebrity activism – from Richard Gere campaigning for Tibet to the benefit concerts for the Asian tsunami. But did the mobilisation of public opinion through celebrity endorsement really play the positive role with which it is credited? To ask this question is emphatically not to demonise either Geldof or Live Aid. There is no smoking-gun evidence demonstrating that Live Aid achieved nothing, or only did harm.
But there is ample reason to conclude that it did harm as well as good.
The fact is that Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries, and the whole of sub-Saharan Africa is, if anything, worse off today than it was after Live Aid. Geldof himself has been of two minds. He says that Live Aid “created something permanent and self-sustaining”, but has also asked why Africa is getting poorer.No one really knows how many people died in the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s. Estimates run from 300,000 to as many as one million. The roots of this great hunger dated back to the 1970s. But over the course of a decade, despite warnings from aid groups about the magnitude of the disaster, Ethiopia remained a “forgotten” crisis. Calls for assistance fell on deaf ears until Michael Buerk’s famous report and the Band Aid/Live Aid effort that followed. At that point, at least as NGOs such as Oxfam understand the history, the logjam preventing relief from getting through was broken.
For Oxfam, and Geldof, there was no political dimension to the famine. Buerk’s original report had spoken of the famine as “biblical”. The hunger was thus an affliction, the result of age-old poverty and of a drought that was the product of nature, not human beings. In this, the rhetoric of Live Aid in 1985 was uncannily like the rhetoric of the Asian tsunami in 2004.
At least the tsunami was an authentic natural disaster, even though the relief effort may have been put to a wide range of political uses. But Ethiopia in 1985 was a very different case. There, the famine was the product of three elements, only one of which could be described as natural – a two-year drought across the Sahel sub-region. The other two factors were entirely man-made. The first was the dislocation imposed by the wars waged by the government in Addis Ababa against both Eritrean guerrillas and the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front. The second and more serious was the forced agricultural collectivisation policy ruthlessly pursued by Mengistu Haile Mariam and his colleagues in the Dergue (committee), who had overthrown Haile Selassie in 1974 (and officially adopted communism as their creed in 1984). This collectivisation was every bit the equal in its radicalism of the policies Stalin pursued in Ukraine in the 1930s, where, as in Ethiopia, the result was inevitable: famine.
It was this policy that western aid would unwittingly assist, even as it saved lives. Having tried, without great success, to run aid efforts directly, the organisers of Band Aid and Live Aid channelled millions to the NGOs in Ethiopia. The NGOs welcomed the money, not least because it came without the strings imposed by western donor governments. Indeed, Oxfam used some of these funds to run covert supplies to rebel-controlled areas, though officially no major NGO sent food aid to rebel-held territory.
A strong case can be made for Live Aid’s achievements. According to one Ethiopia expert, Alex de Waal, the relief effort may have cut the death toll by between a quarter and a half. The problem is that it may have contributed to as many deaths. The negative effects of the NGO presence on the government side became more pronounced as the crisis went on. Moreover, the government in Addis Ababa became increasingly adept at manipulating these Live Aid-funded NGOs. Indeed, a good case can be made that the picture provided of the Ethiopian famine was to some degree manipulated by the Dergue from the beginning.
Until shortly before Buerk and his team were given permission to report from the north of the country, where, along with Tigray and Eritrea, the famine was at its worst, the Dergue had denied access to foreign reporters. Mengistu’s explanation was that he did not want reports of the disaster to upstage the 10th anniversary of his revolution. Both the Tigreans and the Eritreans had called for a ceasefire to allow for food distribution, but Mengistu rejected any truce. It was at this point that Buerk was allowed in. Hard on the heels of the Buerk report, the Dergue determined that 600,000 people would have to be moved to southwestern Ethiopia, where the government was in full control. The justification? The terrible famine whose images were now ubiquitous in the western media.
This is not to say that the Ethiopian famine was not real. It was all too real. The question, rather, is one of balancing the positive accomplishments of aid programmes against the effects of that work being exploited by government or rebel authorities. Relief agencies routinely operate in places where governments or insurgents kill their own people. Yet it is one thing to accept that NGOs can never control the environment in which they operate and quite another to participate in a great crime like the resettlement, even if the purpose of that participation is to try to mitigate its effects. The truth is that the Dergue’s resettlement policy – of moving 600,000 people from the north while enforcing the “villagisation” of three million others – was at least in part a military campaign, masquerading as a humanitarian effort. And it was assisted by western aid money.
The lengths to which the Dergue was prepared to go soon became apparent. Though even Mengistu’s Soviet patrons advised against it, the Dergue, as François Jean of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) put it at the time, chose to employ “shock treatment in order radically to transform Ethiopian rural society”. But one finds no mention of that in any official account of Live Aid, in the speeches of Bob Geldof or the Oxfam website. The Ethiopian terror famine was on a smaller scale than its Soviet and Chinese predecessors, and many in Ethiopia who died in the mid-1980s were not victims of the Dergue’s campaign in a direct sense. But, as François Jean wrote, all three terror famines “proceeded from the same approach to reality … the same vision of the future, the same extreme commitment to radical social transformation”.
Initially, the authorities called for volunteers to make up the 100,000 heads of household the resettlement plan called for. Few came forward. The response was swift. A campaign of systematic round-ups across the three targeted provinces began. Those caught up in these sweeps were either airlifted south or transferred by land, sometimes in vehicles the authorities had requisitioned from international relief agencies. The trip usually took five or six days. To this day, no one knows how many people died en route. The conservative estimate is 50,000. MSF’s estimate is double that.
As the deportations intensified, Ethiopian officials began to raid refugee camps and feeding centres that had been set up by relief agencies. There was nothing secret about what was going on. But donor governments and mainstream relief NGOs turned a blind eye. In this, too, Live Aid almost certainly played a role, in the sense that the popular pressure generated by Geldof and his colleagues could not simply be “turned off” by governments. And yet, reports of the Dergue’s resettlement plan appeared widely in the press in western Europe and North America during the high-water mark of Live Aid euphoria. Initially at least, they had little or no effect on public opinion or on funding decisions by western governments. The narrative that Geldof had championed, and which the NGOs had endorsed, was that while the moral dilemma was hard to deal with, the only choice was to stay, resettlement policy or no resettlement policy.
The NGOs and the UN specialised agencies – and particularly the Oxfam/Save the Children alliance – defended this position even when the US tried to pressure other donors not to support the resettlement programme. The head of UN development activities in Ethiopia protested against America’s “politicisation” of resettlement. According to Rony Brauman of MSF, a UN official insisted that he had no reason to believe that people were being forcibly taken out of refugee camps and resettled.
Most relief workers did not go that far. But for them, the nature of the Mengistu regime was beside the point. As one wrote later: “Sure, Mengistu was a sick bastard … but what has that got to do with feeding poor, hungry, defenceless people?” As the NGOs that stayed in Ethiopia began to face criticism in the press, Geldof leapt to their defence. “The organisations participating in the resettlement programme should not be criticised,” he told the Irish Times on November 4 1985. “In my opinion, we’ve got to give aid without worrying about population transfers.” Asked about the estimates that 100,000 had died in the transfers, he replied that “in the context [of such a famine], these numbers don’t shock me.”
To this day, Oxfam has not officially retracted its policy of working with the Dergue. The most it has ever been willing to do has been to speak out against the “haste, scale and timing” of the resettlement.
Of all the NGOs, only the founding (French) section of MSF refused to go along with the pro-Dergue consensus. Once expelled from Ethiopia, however, MSF France was free to talk about what it knew of forced deportations. “We are witnessing the biggest deportation since the Khmer Rouge genocide,” said MSF’s president, Claude Malhuret, in late 1985. For MSF, the decision of aid agencies, UN institutions and donor governments to help a totalitarian project like the Ethiopian resettlement programme was an exercise in deadly compassion. As Claude Malhuret put it, Ethiopia demonstrated that it had become imperative to “clarify the complex relations that humanitarian action forms with a totalitarian regime; to mark out the indistinct but very real limit beyond which aid to victims was unwittingly transformed into support to their executioners.”
Geldof remains unimpressed by the idea that the aid he helped to raise was used in ways that may have cost as many lives – in MSF’s view, more – as were saved. He has never been drawn on whether MSF’s accusations were right or wrong. As far as he is concerned, Live Aid raised a lot of money and used that money to feed people who would have starved. Live Aid, Geldof would say later, had been “almost perfect in what it achieved”. In the context of such near perfection, raising the issue of resettlement looks ungrateful. As Geldof put it to one interviewer: “If Live Aid had existed during the second world war, and if we’d heard that there were people dying in concentration camps, would we have refused to bring food and assistance to those camps? Of course not!”
Geldof was presumably unaware when he responded that the question of the collusion between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Nazi regime remains one of the great controversies in the humanitarian world. The ICRC was indeed aware of the Nazi death camps. But it decided that its ability to fulfil its mandate of assisting prisoners of war would have been endangered by public acknowledgment of Auschwitz. Today, the official line of the ICRC is that its actions during the second world war were a tragic mistake – that faced by the radical evil of the concentration camps, the organisation should have defied its own norms of neutrality and confidentiality and spoken out.
With the exception of MSF, what neither the relief world, nor the UN, nor Geldof have ever come to terms with is that the Mengistu regime – ousted in 1991 – also committed mass murder in the resettlement programme in which Live Aid monies were used and in which NGOs using Live Aid funds were active. The Dergue was in control, and it did with the UN and the NGOs what the Nazis did with the ICRC: it made them unwilling collaborators.
Geldof has proclaimed that Live 8 is about “social justice, not charity”. That is certainly an improvement from the simplicities of the original Live Aid. But simplicities still abound. Showing a film from Ethiopia in 1985 at a press conference, Geldof said the famine was “still going on”. He also insisted that “the G8 leaders have it within their power to alter history”. It would be great if it were that simple, just as it would have been great if the effect of Live Aid on the ground in Ethiopia had been simple, or entirely benign. But it wasn’t true then and, though the Dergue is mercifully gone, it isn’t true now.
David Rieff has written widely on aid and humanitarian intervention. He is author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in an Age of Genocide (Vintage). This is an edited extract of an article published in the July 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine. (Read the rest on The Guardian).