Ethiopia famine relief aid: misinterpreted allegations out of control


A BBC World Service documentary programme broadcast in early March 2010, and the advance publicity for it, gave the impression that a huge proportion of the famine relief aid given by the international community to Ethiopia in the 1980s was diverted from starving people to buy arms and ammunition for use in the civil war then raging in northern parts of the country.  The specific allegations made by the BBC about the diversion of aid related only to the tiny proportion that was supplied by some NGOs to rebel-held areas, a distinct and very small part of the total relief effort in Ethiopia at the time. The incorrect inference has been drawn that a substantial part of the total aid to Ethiopia, including the much larger sums provided to the government-ruled parts of Ethiopia, were diverted for military use, including the aid raised and managed by Band Aid. While the programme did not make this claim explicitly (just as well, since it would certainly have been exposed as false), either deliberately or negligently the BBC has allowed, and to some extent encouraged, this misunderstanding of its findings, and has failed to point out (other than sotto voce) that its allegations related to a quite separate, and very small, part of the aid.  As a result, there is now a widely held and completely false perception that a substantial proportion of the aid given to Ethiopia in the 1980s was diverted for military use. This has potentially disastrous implications for public attitudes to future emergency relief appeals, and to development aid generally.


A BBC World Service documentary programme broadcast on 4 March 2010 reported allegations by former members of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that as much as 95 per cent of the aid for famine relief aid in TPLF-controlled areas had been diverted for the purchase of arms by the TPLF.  The programme itself, and in particular the BBC’s advance publicity for it, gave the impression that these allegations concerned not only the aid operation in TPLF-controlled areas but also the much larger international relief aid operation in the rest of Ethiopia, including in particular money for famine relief raised by Bob Geldof’s Band Aid and Live Aid.   This impression is entirely false.  Nothing of the sort occurred.  But the erroneous impression given by the BBC risks doing great damage to future international disaster relief programmes by appearing to discredit the historic Ethiopian relief effort, to which thousands of people all over the world gave so generously.  I was the British ambassador to Ethiopia from 1982 to 1986, which included the worst years of the famine, and I was actively involved in the vast international relief operation during much of that time, as were nearly all the ambassadors of western donor countries in Addis Ababa.  I am concerned that the record of that relief effort, which undoubtedly saved the lives of millions of Ethiopians, should not be traduced, a quarter of a century later, by sweeping allegations whose nature and scope have been misleadingly represented by an organisation, the BBC World Service, whose reliability and impartiality is a byword around the globe, thus giving the apparent implications of the reports world-wide but undeserved credence.

The UK print and electronic media, soon followed by the rest of the world’s media, understandably picked up, amplified and played back some dramatic allegations in the BBC World Service programme first broadcast on 4 March.  In it the World Service’s Africa editor, who had researched the programme for nearly a year and who himself presented the programme, reported allegations that during the 1980s civil war in Ethiopia much (or even most — 95 per cent was mentioned) of the famine relief aid channelled from Sudan across the border into the relatively small part of the country then controlled by the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had been diverted to buy arms and ammunition for the rebel fighters then at war with the Ethiopian central government in Addis Ababa.

Unfortunately the advance publicity for the programme, and even the programme itself, gave the erroneous impression that the allegations referred to the enormous international relief operation in the much larger area of Ethiopia under government control — the operation to which massive contributions were made by numerous western and other governments (including Britain’s), UN relief agencies, other non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children, and, most famously of all, Bob Geldof’s Band Aid and Live Aid. The programme and the publicity for it strongly implied that the allegations specifically concerned aid given to and administered by Band Aid and Live Aid, although no such allegation was made in the programme itself other than by implied association.  Thousands of private citizens in Britain and around the world donated generously both by voluntary contributions to one or other of the relief agencies working in Ethiopia and also through their taxes.  Many of them, like those relief workers themselves, will have been distressed and angry to get the strong impression, as a result of the BBC programme and the publicity for it, that a large part of the money they gave was secretly diverted to buy guns and bullets for the rebel fighters of the TPLF.  In fact, the record shows that nothing of the sort occurred.

The confusion arises from the failure of the World Service programme, and of its advance publicity, to make a clear distinction between (1) the vast international aid operation in Ethiopia proper, and (2) the much smaller, semi-clandestine operation in which relief aid was smuggled across the Ethiopian border from Sudan into the limited area controlled by the TPLF rebels.  The two relief programmes were completely separate.  Very few western relief organisations, and even fewer governments, risked the future of their aid programmes in Ethiopia proper, which could not have continued without Ethiopian government approval and cooperation, by trying also to channel aid to the limited area controlled by the TPLF.  At the time, and occasionally in the 25 years since, allegations have been made that some aid in the main Ethiopian operation was misused — not of course to buy arms for the TPLF, which by definition had no presence in Ethiopia proper, but by diverting aid from hungry civilians to the government’s soldiers, or by putting money into private pockets by selling on the markets food aid intended to be distributed free to starving people.  All such allegations were rigorously investigated at the time by the famously scrupulous and distinguished UN Assistant Secretary-General, Kurt Jansson of Finland, who co-ordinated and supervised the international relief effort.  Virtually all the specific allegations of diversion or misuse of aid were found to be without foundation.  As British ambassador to Ethiopia at the time I personally conducted some of the investigations on the UN Co-ordinator’s behalf, sometimes in collaboration with the then Canadian ambassador.  We were able on each occasion to identify the misunderstandings that had led to the unfounded allegations which had been made.  On the rare occasions when genuine abuse was detected, it was immediately stopped.  As far as I know, not one of these ever concerned Band Aid or Live Aid, nor was abuse of their aid resources ever alleged against them.

Thus the allegations reported by the World Service programme of diversion of relief aid to buy arms for the TPLF in fact referred only to the separate programme of relief aid sent to the areas held by TPLF rebels by a handful of government and non-government agencies for the relief of starvation.  What a pity, then, that the BBC World Service programme and its advance publicity gave the strong impression that the allegations referred to the (almost wholly blameless) international relief programme in Ethiopia proper, when in fact they did not.   For example, the summary of the allegations at the very start of a BBC article about them read:

The BBC has uncovered evidence that the millions of dollars donated to the 1984-85 Ethiopian famine relief effort, went to buy weapons.  [Emphasis added]

(Note that killer “the millions” – the word ‘the’ later deleted after I had complained of its false implication.  Note too the conflation of ‘allegations’ with ‘evidence’.)


BBC investigation reveals aid for Ethiopia’s famine was used to buy arms.
(World Service Africa home page)

Here unproven and partial allegations are being up-graded to facts, supposedly revealed by the BBC’s investigation.  Of course, admitting that the allegation referred to only “a substantial part of a tiny proportion of the aid going to Ethiopia” wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.

The introduction to the recording of the whole programme on the BBC World Service website is even worse:

It was a charity appeal on a global scale. In 1985, an unprecedented array of performers took part in two marathon, televised concerts in Britain and the United States – all to raise money for a terrible famine in Ethiopia. And it worked. It’s thought the concerts eventually generated about two hundred and fifty million dollars in donations from the public. But now, evidence has emerged that the aid agencies charged with distributing that money, were hoodwinked: that millions of dollars were diverted to buy weapons for rebels in Ethiopia – and that the United States knew this was going on.   [Emphasis added]

But it was notthat money” that is now alleged to have been diverted.  Two completely separate relief operations are here conflated as if both were parts of a single whole.

Similarly, an article by the maker of the programme began:

Millions of dollars earmarked for victims of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 was [sic] siphoned off by rebels to buy weapons, a BBC investigation finds

— which did at least make it clear that it was the rebels doing the siphoning-off, but seemed to imply that it was aid given to Ethiopia proper under the international famine relief programme that was being diverted, whereas in fact it was purely aid channelled to the TPLF through Sudan that was the subject of the allegations.

Finally, the programme itself begins with a long introduction recalling the genesis of the big international famine relief effort (Michael Buerk’s famously evocative reports, Bob Geldof and Band Aid, etc.), although all this is totally irrelevant to the allegations which formed the centre-piece of the rest of the programme.  But the false association between the two separate relief programmes has been set up from the beginning, and you would have to listen very carefully indeed to realise by the end of the programme that there is actually no connection at all between them.  In practice it’s anyway safe to assume that very few indeed of the reporters of the world’s news media who spread the story all round the globe will have taken the trouble to listen to the World Service programme itself.  The great majority, judging by their copy, took their story at second hand from the BBC’s advance publicity material (some of it quoted above) or even more indirectly from the early stories in the UK print media, on radio and television, and in the blogosphere.  What should have been represented as sweeping allegations made by sources whose motivations appeared to be questionable and whose scope was extremely limited, became transformed by a process of media Chinese whispers into factual accounts of abuse of famine relief aid throughout Ethiopia on a huge scale, uncovered and apparently confirmed by the BBC.

To take two examples:  an article in The [London] Times of 4 March by Catherine Philp reported that –

The allegations that 95 per cent of aid money donated to help victims of the 1985 Ethiopian famine were siphoned off were made in a BBC radio programme broadcast yesterday.

That’s exactly what the vast majority of listeners to the programme and those who heard or read second-hand accounts of it will have believed the programme said. It seems to me beyond doubt that this is exactly what the programme seemed to be saying. Close examination of its small print shows that it was actually saying something else.  The programme itself was introduced by material about the main Ethiopian famine relief programme, including references to Band Aid, material which was wholly unrelated to the relief aid programme in the TPLF-controlled areas.  The advance publicity for the programme confused the two operations even more misleadingly.

Here is how it was reported by the ABC in Australia:

Live Aid funded Ethiopian rebels
By Europe correspondent Emma Alberici
Updated Thu Mar 4, 2010 8:36am AEDT

An investigation by the BBC has found just 5 per cent of the money raised by Live Aid and Band Aid actually made it to the victims of famine in Ethiopia.
Instead, the millions of dollars of international aid intended to buy food for starving Ethiopians was used by rebel groups to buy weapons.
The 1985 Live Aid and Band Aid concerts, organised by Bob Geldof in the UK and the US, raised $250 million.
As images of emaciated children were beamed around the world, Geldof took to the stage at Wembley Stadium in London to plead with an audience of countless millions to dig deep for the poor people of Ethiopia.
But the BBC’s investigation has found most of the money raised was diverted to buy weapons and support the rebel movement.
Northern Ethiopia was the scene of the famine which claimed one million lives. It was an area hit hard by drought and civil war.
Aid agencies had no choice but to work with the rebels to reach the starving in Tigray and Eritrea.

Note the flat assertion in the heading:  “Live Aid funded Ethiopian rebels“, and the opening sentences of the report (probably all that the majority of ABC readers and listeners will have read or heard):An investigation by the BBC has found just 5 per cent of the money raised by Live Aid and Band Aid actually made it to the victims of famine in Ethiopia.  Instead, the millions of dollars of international aid intended to buy food for starving Ethiopians was used by rebel groups to buy weapons.  The 1985 Live Aid and Band Aid concerts, organised by Bob Geldof in the UK and the US, raised $250 million.”  Allegations made by disaffected former rebel leaders about relief aid in a small area of Tigray, including no reference whatever to Live Aid, have become the “findings” of an investigation by the BBC with specific reference to Live Aid, and explicitly stated to relate to the whole of the international relief operation in Ethiopia itself.

When I became aware of what the BBC was saying about the programme (before it had actually been transmitted in the World Service), I contacted the World Service’s Africa editor who had made the programme to express my concern about the misleading impression given by the publicity for it, and appealed to him to add a preface or postscript to the programme, making it clear that the allegations that it reported applied only to the relief aid distributed in the small TPLF-controlled areas of Tigray and not to the relief aid operation in Ethiopia proper.  No such clarification was added or appended to the programme as broadcast, although I was assured that the World Service’s Africa editor, responsible for making the programme, included the clarification for which I had asked in the many interviews that he gave about it to the BBC’s regional radio stations around the UK.

I subsequently submitted to several of the leading UK broadsheets letters for publication in an effort to point out the misleading implications of their reports of the programme, writing as someone who, having been the British ambassador at the time, had been an eye-witness of and participant in these events, but none of my letters was selected for publication.  So I wrote about the controversy in my blog, pointing out that the programme and the publicity for it had been seriously and damagingly misleading, and calling for an urgent, unambiguous and authoritative statement by the BBC to clear up the misunderstandings for which it was responsible.   To the best of my knowledge no such statement has ever been made.  Some of the 20 or so comments appended to my blog post on the subject revealed a striking personal animus against Bob Geldof, as if dislike of his style or resentment of his fame constituted confirmation of the allegations supposedly made against Band Aid and Live Aid.

The BBC’s principal reply to furious criticism of the programme was issued by Andrew Whitehead, Editor, News and Current Affairs for the BBC, on 8 March.  This contains one limited, grudging and itself potentially misleading correction:

The documentary did not say that most famine relief money was used to buy weapons – it did not suggest that any relief agencies were complicit in the diversion of funds – it explicitly stated that “whatever the levels of deception, much aid did reach the starving”.  [Emphasis added.]

But Mr Whitehead’s response contained no clarification or retraction of the confusion between the two distinct relief aid programmes, to only one of which the aid diversion allegation referred;  nor did it exonerate Band Aid or Live Aid, repeatedly identified by the international media as a (or even the) target of the allegation, whereas neither was ever mentioned by the allegation’s authors.  Why did Mr Whitehead not make that explicitly clear?

The next day, 9 March, the Guardian published a number of letters about African development and aid generally, of which the second or third was by Mr Whitehead.  His letter begins promisingly:

It is important to be clear about what the BBC has reported (BBC stands firm over Ethiopia fund claim, 8 March). Last week’s Assignment documentary on the BBC World Service examined evidence that, in the mid-1980s, the main rebel group in Tigray in northern Ethiopia diverted relief aid from western donors to support its military campaign. It did not suggest that the larger part of overall famine relief funds was used improperly. [Emphasis added.]

But the letter goes on to summarise and endorse the general thrust of the original programme.  At last, tucked away at the end of the second and longest paragraph, we get the clarification that has become so necessary and so badly overdue:

The programme made clear that the assertion that 95% of the aid routed through the TPLF relief society was diverted was made by a once high-ranking TPLF figure, now in exile. It is entirely correct to report these comments. They relate only to aid for areas then held by TPLF rebels and not to the total famine relief effort for Ethiopia.  [Emphasis added.]

But then there are two more defensive and unapologetic paragraphs, concluding:

This was a well-researched programme and the BBC stands by the journalism. We are happy to repeat that there is no suggestion that any relief agency was complicit in any diversion of funds.

Not surprisingly, this letter, tucked away among several others on the letters page of the Guardian, its key sentences in turn tucked away amid much self-exculpatory language of little interest, passed almost unnoticed.  I don’t know of any other efforts by the BBC to set the record straight, as it could so easily and quickly have done.

I am extremely reluctant to believe that the BBC World Service, renowned world-wide for its independence and reliability, deliberately set out to convey the impression that almost the whole international relief effort in Ethiopia in the 1980s was shown by the programme’s allegations to have been corrupted by the wholesale diversion of aid to buy arms and ammunition, when in fact no such thing occurred — and when no such thing had even been alleged.  At least one of those making the allegations (and perhaps exaggerating them) was a former TPLF leader who had later fallen out with the TPLF and who may now have a personal motive for seeking to discredit it, especially as one of the principal TPLF rebel leaders of the 1980s is now the Ethiopian prime minister, still a controversial figure.  (That’s not to say that there can’t be any truth in the allegations:  only that there could be a political and personal motive for making them.)

Some doctrinaire journalists and others over the years have sought to show that the Ethiopian famine relief operation somehow did more harm than good and that all food aid is intrinsically harmful, even in situations where millions would starve without it.  More recently there has been a similar campaign to denigrate virtually all development aid — not just food aid or emergency humanitarian aid — as ineffective in promoting development and even as harmful to recipient countries by infringing their sovereign independence and encouraging aid-dependency.  I know of no suggestion that any of these misguided and ill-informed campaigners had any influence on this particular BBC programme.  But in the present over-sceptical and cynical climate of contempt for all collective state action and for politics generally, the apparent discrediting of the entire Ethiopian famine relief operation of the 1980s by no less an authority than the BBC will have found a huge, willing and credulous audience, especially as the BBC did almost nothing to correct the virtually universal misinterpretation and misrepresentation of its programme — a misinterpretation that was entirely predictable and indeed predicted, and one for which the BBC itself was mainly responsible.

Perhaps the programme’s makers simply thought that it would arouse greater publicity and interest if it could be linked with the historic relief programme in Ethiopia in the ’80s which dominated the world’s headlines for so long and which stirred such strong emotions of compassion and concern:  and that this linkage, however disastrously misleading, would make it a bigger story.  Anyway, whatever the reasons and motives, it seems deeply regrettable that such a damaging and misleading impression should have been created by a much respected arm of the BBC, especially at a time when the whole concept of a large-scale public broadcaster is under ruthless and mercenary attack.  The long-term effects of this programme, of the world-wide publicity generated for it and of the way it has been almost universally misinterpreted can only be guessed at.  But it will be surprising if next time there’s an appeal by governments and established relief organisations for contributions towards a relief programme for the victims of some natural or man-made disaster, there won’t be thousands of hitherto willing and generous donors who will in future say:  “Remember the way the BBC found out that almost all the money that Bob Geldof raised for famine relief in Ethiopia was diverted to buy guns and ammunition?  We’re not going to give our hard-earned money again now we know it’s going to be wasted, or worse.”

Full disclosure:  I was interviewed at some length for the World Service programme but no part of the interview was used in it.  I have no complaint about that:  I have no personal or first-hand knowledge of what went on in the TPLF-controlled areas when I was in Ethiopia, for the simple reason that it was obviously impossible for diplomats accredited to the Ethiopian government to go into rebel-controlled areas.  So I had, and have, nothing to contribute that would have added to or subtracted from the allegations which the programme was, or should have been, about.  I pointed this out when I agreed to do the interview.

Brian Barder
29 March 2010