Ethiopian famine relief: old myths demolished (2)

Back in June the Guardian published an article by the American writer and polemicist David Rieff asserting that Bob Geldof’s Live Aid, and the other NGOs active in the mid-1980s famine relief programme in Ethiopia, had contributed to more deaths than they had saved lives.  The Guardian later published a letter from me that rebutted the more far-fetched and baseless of Rieff’s allegations, and I posted an account of the exchange here in my blog, including the full text of the letter I had sent to the Guardian before parts of it were edited out.

The Guardian‘s article was a shortened version of a considerably longer piece by Rieff that had appeared in Prospect magazine’s July 2005 issue.  Prospect has now published in its August issue a further letter from me rebutting Rieff’s original accusations at greater length than was possible in my Guardian letter and from a somewhat different angle.  Two other letters attacking Rieff’s article, one of them from the head of the Oxfam operation in Ethiopia in the later stages of the famine relief effort, are also published on the Prospect website (but these are unfortunately not included in the printed magazine). 

To save you the bother of jumping to the text of my letter on the Prospect website, here it is:

“It’s sad to see discredited allegations about 1980s Ethiopian famine relief popping up again in David Rieff’s article (July). His implicit syllogism is this: NGOs, including Live Aid and by implication donor governments, colluded with the Mengistu regime’s "murderous" resettlement programme; the resettlement programme caused between 50,000 and, according to the maverick agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 100,000 deaths; therefore Live Aid and the others contributed to more deaths than the number of lives saved. Since both premises are completely false, the conclusion, which anyway doesn’t follow from them, is not surprisingly rubbish too.

Here are some corrective facts, from my personal experience as British ambassador to Ethiopia at the time, and rigorously documented by, among others, Kurt Jansson, the experienced Finnish UN relief co-ordinator, better informed than anyone else on earth about the famine and relief programme:

1. Resettlement of people from the arid northern highlands to the fertile southwest where the land could support them has been accepted as necessary since a World Bank report in 1971, and remains Ethiopian government policy.
2. What was objectionable about resettlement was not the fact of it but the way it was done—hastily, harshly, sometimes by compulsion.
3. No western NGO, including Live Aid, nor the donor governments, supported or colluded in the assembling and transporting of settlers: indeed, we all protested to the regime about how it was being done.
4. Rieff’s principal (only?) source of information, MSF, was in no position to assess resettlement casualty figures; it never worked anywhere near the affected areas. Other NGOs, and Jansson, with excellent sources of information, all dismissed MSF’s estimate of 100,000 deaths as hugely exaggerated and irresponsible; deaths on such a scale couldn’t possibly have been concealed from all other western observers.
5. Live Aid and other NGOs bore no responsibility for the brutalities and casualties of resettlement: but even if they had, the allegation that the relief effort did "more harm than good" would still be absurd.
6. It’s generally agreed, including by Jansson, that the relief programme saved around 7m Ethiopians from starvation. Even MSF’s discredited figure of 100,000 deaths from resettlement doesn’t approach that. Rieff’s article shamefully traduces those who made the relief effort an extraordinary success, from the young Ethiopian and western relief workers in the field to Geldof, Buerk, the RAF and the taxpayers and charitable donors who paid the bills.
Brian Barder

It will be interesting to see whether Mr Rieff, son of the late and much missed Susan Sontag, will return to the charge after seeing these various replies. It’s even more interesting, I think, to speculate about the reason for the constant attempts by a small group of people, including Rieff, Alex de Waal and Médecins Sans Frontières (both cited by Rieff), to discredit what was by general consent, backed by a wealth of established facts and figures, an extraordinarily successful relief effort, sustained by the brilliant publicity of Geldof, Michael Buerk and the BBC, and many others, and by the generosity of millions of taxpayers and private donors all over the western world, in saving many millions of lives.  There seems to be something at work here beyond a merely juvenile itch to plant banderillas in a sacred cow.  However many times the misrepresentations and bogus arguments are demolished, up they pop again as bold and bright as if they were new.  And of course no amount of factual rebuttal can ever completely erase the malign suspicions aroused in people’s minds by the original defamatory attacks.  Let’s just hope that future historians will read the replies and the source documents and not just the wild allegations of an exceptionally malodorous campaign.

(Ethiopia 1982-86)