The BBC and Ethiopian famine relief: a few last words

At least, I hope they will be my last words on the subject.

The Guardian today (9.xi.10) publishes in its ‘Response’ column my article about the BBC’s tardy apology to Bob Geldof and Band Aid for a World Service programme that seemed to imply, quite wrongly, that most Band Aid supplies for famine relief in Ethiopia in the 1980s were diverted for buying weapons.  I wrote regretting that the BBC’s apology had not gone much wider:

The BBC’s apology to the Band Aid Trust was far from adequate

Listeners were misled that 95% of famine relief aid for Ethiopia was diverted to the military

Your report of the BBC‘s apology to Bob Geldof‘s Band Aid for the misleading impression given by a World Service programme alleging wholesale diversion of famine relief aid to Ethiopia, said: “Sir Brian Barder, the British ambassador to Ethiopia between 1982 and 1986, was positive about the BBC’s response.” (Sorry, Sir Bob: BBC’s apology to Geldof over Band Aid programme, 4 November).

I did indeed welcome the BBC’s “far-reaching apology to the Band Aid Trust for the seriously unfair and misleading impression given by the … programme.”

But the second part of my comment, unaccountably omitted from your report, was far from positive:

“But I am sorry that the BBC has not taken the opportunity to put it beyond doubt that contrary to the false impression gained by thousands of people hearing the programme or reporting it elsewhere in the media, the allegations of diversion reported in the programme applied only to a small amount of aid given to a limited area of Tigray then under rebel control, not to the international relief effort in the whole of the rest of Ethiopia. Although it was not the main question in the Band Aid complaint, this would have been a welcome opportunity for the BBC to put the record straight on that important issue too.”

Even before the programme went out, I personally asked its producer to correct this damaging impression, but my appeal was ignored.

The BBC’s official line acknowledges that the implied slurs on Band Aid were unjustified, but claims that “the ruling [by the BBC itself!] validates the main thrust of the programme’s journalism” (initially described by the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, as “robust and excellent journalism”). The BBC complaints website says: “The programme made clear that the allegations of diversion replied [sic] to aid reaching Tigray, not to the Ethiopian relief effort as a whole, and that much aid had served its intended purpose.” So why did hardly anyone who heard it take away that impression? The allegations actually concerned around 3%-4% of total relief aid to Ethiopia and not any in government-controlled areas. But virtually every report in the media of the apparently sensational revelations in the programme, based on the BBC’s own publicity and on the programme itself, interpreted it as alleging that up to 95% of all famine relief aid for Ethiopia in the 1980s had been diverted for military use.

That universal misinterpretation not only defamed the dedicated aid workers concerned but was also bound to discourage people from contributing to disaster relief funds in future. It isn’t just Band Aid to which the BBC owes an apology, but to the British government, other donors, charities and, above all, ordinary people who gave so generously.

We still await the BBC’s apology for even now repeating by implication this slur on all those who worked to save millions of Ethiopians from starvation in one of the most effective and incorrupt international relief operations ever mounted. Meanwhile, my reaction to the BBC’s limited and inadequate apology so far is anything but “positive”.

Sadly but predictably, this quite uncontroversial piece has attracted the usual complement of online comments, some sound and sensible, some dubious, some deeply pernicious, ignorant and misguided.  The latter have driven me to adding to the online version of my column a comment of my own:

I am dismayed — but not much surprised — by many of these comments on my ‘Response’ column article above. Some are obviously not worth answering, but here are just a few points on some of the others:

1. It is simply not true that the emergency famine relief aid to Ethiopia was “channeled … through Mengistu’s government in Addis” and absolutely false that any of it was diverted by the then Ethiopian government for uses other than those intended. Hardly any of it was in the form of money; it was almost entirely aid in kind: grain and other food, medicines and medical supplies, tents and hospital equipment, trucks and aircraft to transport it, and hundreds of young relief workers from all over the world — nutritionists, feeding centre distribution workers, doctors and nurses, drivers and pilots and baggage handlers, and many more. All this was under the control of NGOs such as Band Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children (and dozens more), government aid personnel, and above all representatives of all the major UN specialised agencies, including aid monitors working under the close supervision of the UN Assistant Secretary-General, Kurt Jansson, a highly experienced and efficient Finnish international public servant and his staff. It was closely monitored from its arrival at the ports or airports to the time it was distributed to starving or sick famine victims. The RAF physically collected huge quantities of it from the ports and flew it to the famine areas to be dropped to starving people or delivered to small dangerous landing-strips and unloaded for them. Any diversion would have been spotted instantly, reported and stopped.

2. Those who condemn all humanitarian emergency aid to save innocent, desperately poor people from death by starvation, on the crazy grounds that it doesn’t instantly eradicate poverty in the country to which it’s given, should be ashamed of themselves. Every contribution given to Ethiopian famine relief in the 1980s saved someone’s life, or helped to do so. Without it, perhaps 6 or 7 million people, including women and children, would have died but were saved. To confuse humanitarian emergency aid, to relieve the effects of a terrible famine, with development aid designed to raise living standards and gradually eradicate poverty in the medium and long terms is simply illiterate. And to try to discourage others from contributing to such good causes in the future by making wild and unsupported allegations about corruption and diversion is nothing short of wicked.

3. Both the BBC and Bob Geldof (and his Band Aid colleagues) are first-class institutions and people who do a magnificent job. The BBC occasionally stumbles, as in this case. But to dismiss it in the extravagant terms of some of the comments here is pernicious. Our country would be infinitely poorer without the BBC. Bob Geldof and Band Aid did superb work in Ethiopia, not only in active famine relief, but also in awakening the conscience of the world to the tragedy unfolding in Ethiopia and the desperate need for help.

4. The semi-literate subheading above my column (“Listeners were misled that 95% of famine relief aid for Ethiopia was diverted to the military”), to which one comment has objected, was the work of a Guardian sub, not me. But I am genuinely grateful to the Guardian for publishing this column and thus letting me help in a small way to set the record straight.

Lastly, I would urge anyone interested in reading a fuller account of the issues raised here, and the reasons for bitterly regretting the false impression given by the BBC World Service programme, to visit and Like my column in today’s Guardian, above, both are based on first-hand experience, on the spot, of the Ethiopian famine relief programme, not on a bunch of confused preconceived ideas and prejudice.

Brian Barder

Enough said, I devoutly hope.


1 Response

  1. Hilde says:

    Many thanks Mr Barder, for caring so deeply. Hilde

    Brian writes: Thank you very much for this generous comment, Hilde.