Live Aid, the NGOs, and the Ethiopian famine

Last week the Guardian published a long article by David Rieff about the international effort to relieve starvation and disease in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. The article singled out Bob Geldof and Live Aid for special condemnation, but also denounced the other western NGOs and western donor governments for allegedly supporting forced resettlement in Ethiopia (described as a campaign of ‘mass murder’ by the then Ethiopian government) and thereby possibly contributing to more deaths than the whole relief effort had saved.

Enraged by these preposterous allegations, I submitted the following letter to the Guardian on the same day:

"I read David Rieff’s polemical attack (Cruel to be kind, G2, 24 June 2005) on Live Aid’s relief activities during the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s with mounting anger. As the British ambassador to Ethiopia during most of the relevant time, I saw a good deal of what happened at first hand, travelling all over the country throughout the period. Although firm facts and figures were even then hard to come by, and much harder now, I have little doubt that Rieff’s allegations about the numbers of people who died as a result of resettlement are seriously exaggerated: but even if they were accurate, it would be quite wrong to blame them on Live Aid or the other NGOs working throughout Ethiopia at the time to relieve starvation. The western aid donors and their NGOs had grave reservations about the way in which resettlement was carried out, and in some cases about the justification for it: and we pressed those objections and fears forcefully on the Mengistu government at the time.

"Part of the reason for the harsh conditions in which the settlers were transported to their new homes was the refusal of western aid donors to condone the mechanics of resettlement by helping to fund it or provide transport facilities for it. Resettlement would have happened regardless of the presence or activities of the NGOs, Live Aid or western donor governments. Moreover the case for it was very strong: there were far more people living in the famine-ridden, soil-eroded, deforested northern highlands than the land could support, especially after successive droughts. It’s true that many people – no-one knows how many – were resettled against their will. But I visited several resettlement areas and talked (through my own embassy interpreter and without any Ethiopian officials listening in) to numerous settlers, randomly chosen: not one said he or she had been forced to move; all of them welcomed the move and expressed their hopes for a better life in their new and incomparably more fertile homes. Anecdotal, certainly; but there’s no other reliable evidence.

"The régime may have been encouraged in its decision to resettle large numbers of starving people by the potential benefits for the government in the context of the Eritrean and Tigrean armed rebellions in the north, although these supposed benefits were always hard to quantify. Anyway it’s unlikely that this was the main motive, since the case for large-scale resettlement on food grounds alone was so strong. (Rieff seems to blame the Ethiopian government for ‘waging war’ against the Eritrean and Tigrean rebels: how else would he expect any sovereign government, however repressive, to respond to armed rebellions on its soil?) Even if you accept Rieff’s case against resettlement, it’s simply malicious to blame its casualties on Live Aid or the NGOs. Rieff speculates that it’s sometimes better to do nothing than to act. Many Ethiopians alive today, who owe their survival to the emergency help given by western taxpayers and charitably funded NGOs, may be forgiven for taking a different view. Rieff’s endorsement of de Waal’s astonishing assertion that ‘the relief effort … may have contributed to as many deaths’ as the number of lives it saved deserves to be treated with incredulous contempt.

"Brian Barder (British ambassador to Ethiopia, 1982-86)"

The Guardian published an ‘edited’ (but on this occasion not seriously mangled) version of this letter on 27 June: see The only omission from the original letter in the published version that I seriously regret is my question: what did Mr Rieff expect a sovereign government, however repressive, to do in response to armed rebellions on its territory? (He had written that the Ethiopian government was ‘waging war’ on the Eritreans and Tigreans, a pretty rum way of putting it.)

I’m glad to have got the main points of my attempted rebuttal onto the record, or at any rate into print. But I’m afraid it’s a lost cause. The strange campaign to discredit the Ethiopian relief effort and all who took part in it (especially perhaps Bob Geldof and Live Aid) continues relentlessly in recurring television programmes and articles in the press, even though Mengistu was forced into exile and disgrace as long ago as 1991. It seems to be some sort of hangover from the vitriolic dispute over the resettlement programme in 1985-86 between a highly ideological wing of Médecins Sans Frontières and the rest of the NGOs working in Ethiopia, with MSF ending its relief work and leaving the country rather than compromise its political principles, bitterly denouncing its sister organisations who put feeding the starving above their ideological purity. Elements of the anti-communist fervour of the US government of the day in its attitude to Ethiopia also seem to linger on, long after the faintest whiff of communism vanished into the thin Ethiopian air. There’s also a faint smell of an out-dated and discredited view that all international aid to poor countries, whether emergency humanitarian aid or longer-term development aid, is wasted and counter-productive. So we must expect many more manifestations of this disagreeable crusade against all the good things done by so many good people in Ethiopia (including very many brave Ethiopians) in 1984-86 and later. Ultimately they may indeed succeed in re-writing the history books. That would, I believe, be an enormous pity and a great injustice.


2 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    I have been hoping that you would be posting a commentary on African Aid especially as you obviously have wealth of expertise, probably at all levels. I have some questions that are more general than this commentary but I hope you will not object to my posting of them here?

    I acknowledge that Africa is a continent & not a country & therefore there have to be differing solutions to the problems of the countries within Africa. I also understand that humanitarian aid is more short-term than development aid & that the starving child has to be fed, even if this means that the groups involved in the causation of famine benefit as well. As someone who donated to Live Aid whilst at medical school it was clear then that the main aim of Live Aid was to feed the starving & to draw attention to the plight of the famine victims. However Live Aid is now being criticised for what it was not — it was not principally about development aid.

    However the criticisms of development aid seem to me to be more serious:

    Aid being siphoned off by corrupt governments & officials thus aiding those that may be ‘part of the problem’.

    Distortion of the local economy.

    Tied aid being used by donor governments to further foreign-policy objectives & support various industries.

    Are these criticisms valid, & if so are there any solutions to them? I would be extremely interested to read your opinions.

    Best wishes.

  2. Brian says:


    Good questions! After getting some advice from my aid consultant (since I’m hopelessly out of date on these matters), I have reproduced your comments in a new post (above) and attempted, if not answers to them, at least some comments on them which I hope you will find helpful.