Famine relief aid to Ethiopia diverted? A misleading BBC allegation

A BBC programme broadcast today, and the advance publicity for it, give 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 the northern parts of the country.  This impression is 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.

The UK print and electronic media have understandably picked up and played back some dramatic allegations in a BBC World Service programme first broadcast today (4 March 2010).   The World Service’s Africa editor has produced what appears to be persuasive evidence that during the 1980s civil war in Ethiopia much (or even most) of the famine relief aid channelled from Sudan across the border into the relatively tiny part of the country then controlled by the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was 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 alas!, the programme itself, give the erroneous impression that the allegations refer to the enormous international relief operation mounted in the incomparably 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 Bob Geldof’s Live Aid.   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 will be 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, though, 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 programme in Ethiopia proper, and (2) the much smaller, semi-clandestine programme of aid smuggled across the Ethiopian border from Sudan into the limited area controlled by the TPLF rebels.  The two programmes were completely separate.  Very few western 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 TPLF rebels in the limited area they controlled.  A few ngo’s, mostly Catholic, did contrive to maintain programmes in both the TPLF area and Ethiopia proper;  some chose to concentrate on helping the TPLF-controlled areas only;  the vast majority opted to concentrate their programmes on Ethiopia proper where many more people faced the prospect of death by starvation.  At the time, and occasionally in the 25 years since, allegations have been made that some aid in the international 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 sent to be distributed free to starving people.  All such allegations were rigorously investigated at the time by the intensely scrupulous UN Assistant Secretary-General who co-ordinated and supervised the international relief effort, and virtually all of the specific allegations of diversion or misuse of aid were found to be without foundation.  I was the British ambassador to Ethiopia at the time (1982-86) and personally conducted some of the investigations on the UN Co-ordinator’s behalf, in collaboration with the then Canadian ambassador.  We were able on each occasion to identify the misunderstandings that had led to the unfounded allegations that had been made.  On the rare occasions when genuine abuse was detected, it was immediately stopped.

So the allegations unearthed by the World Service programme of diversion of relief aid to buy arms for the TPLF in fact refer only to the separate programme of relief aid sent to the TPLF rebels by a handful of government and non-government agencies for the relief of starvation in the area controlled by the TPLF.  What a pity, then, that the BBC World Service programme and its advance publicity give 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 the allegations reads:

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

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


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

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.

But it was not “that money” that is now alleged to have been diverted.

Similarly, an article by the maker of the programme started off:

Millions of dollars earmarked for victims of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 was 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.  And, 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, Geldof and LiveAid, etc.), although all this is totally irrelevant to the allegations which formed the centre-piece of the programme that followed.  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  association at all between them.

I can’t believe that the BBC World Service, renowned world-wide for its independence and reliability, has 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. 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.)   A few 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;  but I know of no suggestion that any of these had any influence on this particular BBC programme.   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:  so it 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.

Full disclosure:  I was interviewed at some length for this 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 area 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 nothing to contribute that would have added to or subtracted from the allegations which the programme was about.  I pointed this out when I agreed to do the interview.


21 Responses

  1. brian,
    i’ve listened to the programme via the iplayer-it will soon be available as a podcast- but i was certainly  not confused. it was clear that the aid used by the marxist tplf, was that, as you suggest,
    ‘the much smaller, semi-clandestine programme of aid smuggled across the Ethiopian border from Sudan into the limited area controlled by the TPLF rebels.’
    nowhere in his piece does martin plaut refer to ‘millions’ of dollars of aid being used to buy guns. though one of the contributors -i can’t remember his name-certainly does.
    there can be no doubt that large sums of aid were used by the tplf to buy arms, and that alone is sufficient to justify the programme, though perhaps not the advance publicity.
    it’s a pity geldoff  was unable to respond to plaut’s allegations with his intemperate  comments in today’s times-a classic straw man!

    Brian writes: Tony, I’m surprised that you don’t seem able to see that the whole impression given by the programme (not just the advance publicity, but that too, as my quotations demonstrate) is that it was huge amounts of the relief aid provided throughout Ethiopia proper, and not just the separate aid given to the TPLF-controlled area in the north, that were diverted to buy arms. Why did the programme begin with the long section recalling the Ethiopia-wide famine, Michael Buerk’s reports, and so on, when this was actually nothing to do with the allegations set out later in the programme? The Times article which you helpfully quote shows that not only Bob Geldof but also Catherine Philp, its author and diplomatic correspondent, and virtually all the authors of the numerous comments on the article in the online version, assumed that the allegations referred to the all-Ethiopia famine relief programme and not just to a different relief programme in just one small area of Tigray. How do you explain the evident fact that all these people were misled, if the BBC’s product was not itself misleading?

    Ms Philps writes in her Times article:

    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. Perhaps you were not misled because you had read my blog post first. Unfortunately most people won’t be in that happy situation.

  2. sorry brian, i don’t believe it was anything to do with reading your post.
    i’ve listened to it again from a downloaded podcast and still can’t see what all the fuss is about.
    perhaps you can direct me to the time-line(s) on  the report that seem to have caused the problem.
    surely you of all people would not have missed to small print?
    where does martin plaut allege-
    [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]

    Brian writes: Tony, I think you continue to misunderstand what I have said, no doubt because I haven’t made myself sufficiently clear. I have not said, and don’t say now, that the BBC programme explicitly asserted that the allegations of aid diversion referred to the main Ethiopian international aid operation as distinct from the much smaller and more limited aid going into the TPLF-controlled area from Sudan. What I do say, however, is that the great majority of people hearing the programme — and in particular those who know about the programme only from the advance publicity put out by the BBC and other media reports based on that publicity — will understandably have got the impression that the allegations did refer to the main international effort in Ethiopia proper: that the allegations probably had substance: and that consequently almost all the huge resources pumped into Ethiopia for humanitarian relief between 1984 and 1986 are now revealed as having been misused for military purposes. Of course the BBC programme didn’t say any of that in terms: and if you listen to it with careful attention, you’ll realise that the allegations referred to a different aid programme altogether. But it was entirely predictable that the overall thrust of the programme would be widely, almost universally, misunderstood, because the programme fatally conflates the two quite separate aid operations. The impression it gives is that the aid to the TPLF area was simply a part of the wider aid operation in Ethiopia proper. Since very few people listening to the programme or reading reports about it knew anything about the TPLF aid operation or its political ramifications, it would be natural to assume that it was part of the international famine relief operation which everyone does know about.

    In my view it was the duty of the programme, and of the advance publicity for it, to make a clear distinction between the TPLF aid operation and the Ethiopian one, precisely because of the risk of confusion between the two in a situation where very few people know anything about the former and almost everyone knows in general terms about the latter. Instead of making this distinction clear, the programme and the publicity for it actually aggravated the risk of confusion by referring at length in the scene-setting introduction, and in the publicity, to the Ethiopian relief operation (the Michael Buerk reports, LiveAid, etc.), and then moving on seamlessly to the allegations concerning the TPLF aid, as if there was no material difference between the two.

    But it’s unnecessary to speculate about the likely interpretation of the BBC’s allegations by the rest of the media and by ordinary readers and listeners, or about whether the programme was or was not sufficiently clear. Every one of the reports and virtually every one of the comments on them, for example in the numerous comments on the Times report of Geldof’s reactions, is written on the assumption that the allegations of aid diversion on a huge scale referred to the main Ethiopian famine relief operation and that in consequence the effect of the allegations was completely to discredit the main Ethiopian relief effort. Since that Ethiopian relief effort was probably the most transparent, accountable, uncorrupt, comprehensively supervised and effective international aid operation ever mounted on such a scale, that almost universal misinterpretation seems to me extremely unfortunate and irreversibly damaging.

    Not only do virtually all the second-hand reports of the programme and the published comments on them amply confirm my prediction that the programme would be almost universally misunderstood: you have only to re-read the quotations from the BBC’s own advance publicity in my blog post to see that this misinterpretation was absolutely inevitable.

  3. Michael Hornsby says:

    Brian, I hesitate to enter into the lists in an area where your knowledge is so much greater than mine, but, having listened to the BBC broadcast on iPlayer, I have to say that I agree broadly with Tony Hatfield that you do protest too much. The advance publicity for the programme – always a dodgy area – may have been carelessly worded and sensational in places,  but your assertion that the broadcast itself gave the impression that much of the entire Ethiopian relief effort was used to buy arms doesn’t seem to me to stand up. Certainly, that wasn’t the impression that I was left with. The presenter, Martin Plaut, seemed to me to be scrupulous in making clear that the claims about the misuse of famine relief money referred only to the funds being channelled into the TPLF-held areas opf Ethiopia via REST (the Relief Society of Tigray) by charity organisations that had set up shop for that purpose in Sudan. Nowhere does  Plaut himself say that “millions of dollars”  or  “95 per cent” of all aid was diverted to buy guns. Two of the people he interviews do make claims of that sort, though the “millions of dollars” and 95 per cent figure, as I clearly understood it, referred to aid sent from Sudan to the limited rebel-controlled areas and not to the rlief effort in “Ethiopia proper”, as you call it. The claims further suggested that the diverted money was used not just to buy guns but also to support rebel soldiers and their families.  At the end of the programme, Plaut expresses his own balancing view that “despite the levels of deception [by the receivers and distributors of aid], much aid did reach the starving[even in the rebel areas]”. He  also gives prominence to the view of Stephen King, who was involved with the Catholic relief agencies working out of Sudan, that “if we were conned [by those to whom they gave aid], then it was on a very small scale”, and to King’s retrospective judgement that “we made a huge difference” despite the extremely difficult circumstances. That hardly seems to me to amount to leaving an impression that the entire Ethiopian relief operation was “corrupted”, to use your term. It is true that – and this seems to be what has incensed Geldoff – the programme did leave the impression that at least some of the Live/Band Aid-generated funds found their way to the TPLF rebels and were misused for non-famine relief purposes. Perhaps that is not the case, and all the Live Aid money went exclusively into the government-controlled areas of Ethiopia where its distribution could be monitored to some degree by the international community represented by people such as yourself, among others. I don’t have the knowledge to judge. It seems unlikely on the face of it, however,  that none of those funds would have been channelled to the relief agencies operating from Sudan. My somewhat different criticisms of the programme are, first, that it relied for its claims on a very limited number of sources, at least one of whom (as you say) might well have had a personal axe to grind, and, second, that its findings do not seem to me particularly revelatory or surprising, certainly not sufficiently so to justify the year that Plaut says he spent researching it. Given the extreme difficulty of running a famine relief  operation in a rebel-held area of the country wracked at the time by a particularly brutal civil war, it would still be a remarkable achievement if only a small amount of the aid reached the intended recipients.

    Brian writes: Michael, please now see my response to Tony’s comment above, all of which is relevant also to your own comment here. If you re-read the first sentence, and indeed the first paragraph, of my original blog post above, you’ll agree that I was writing throughout of the impression that the programme and the publicity for it was bound to give to all those unfamiliar with the intricate background to the events described, not to any explicit statements made in the programme. But I do assert that this false impression was absolutely predictable because of the programme’s culpable failure to distinguish between the two kinds of aid programme, aggravated by the inclusion in it of extensive material about the Ethiopian relief aid effort, all of which was irrelevant to the allegations about the TPLF aid. I agree that the BBC’s advance publicity for the programme was much more “carelessly worded and sensational” (your words) than the programme itself, but it’s worth remembering that (a) that publicity material included a longish article by the presenter and creator of the programme himself, and (b) almost all the reporting and comments in the UK on the issues raised was based on the advance publicity and second-hand reports of it, rather than on the programme itself: I doubt whether more than 1 per cent of the writers of the comments on the Times story ever listen to the BBC World Service or had heard the World Service programme. In any case, the crucially misleading reports on successive BBC radio and television news bulletins were broadcast before the World Service programme had even gone out.

  4. Phil says:

    I’d like to endorse Michael’s last point. I collected for War On Want, which I believe did have contacts in Tigray (and Eritrea). If the allegations in this programme are true – and there seems to be cause for a certain amount of scepticism – then it’s disappointing to hear that so little of the money we collected went on famine relief. But it’s scarcely surprising; you could say that it’s only because the figure cited is as high as 95% that Plaut’s got a story at all.

    I haven’t listened to the programme & can’t comment on its content, but I will say that even if the programme itself is squeaky-clean the advance publicity has been lamentable – and sadly it’s the publicity which has made the news, not the programme itself. I blame lazy (and young!) editors & producers rather than the journalists who made the programme.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Phil. I agree about the BBC’s advance publicity for the World Service programme — see my responses to earlier comments above. As to the aid given through Sudan for the limited area under TPLF control (and I think you’re right that War on Want was involved in it, together with a relatively small number of other relief agencies and possibly the US government, but I can’t swear to either without a lot of further research), I think it was probably inevitable that a good deal of that would go astray in various ways, if only because there was no international or even governmental supervision or control of what happened to the aid in the area under rebel control. By contrast, the aid programme in Ethiopia proper was extremely stringently controlled and monitored both by the UN relief co-ordinator and his staff of experienced monitors and by the Ethiopian government’s own Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, whose leadership knew very well that if misuse of aid on any significant scale were to occur and be confirmed, or even suspected, the flow of international aid and international support for the whole relief programme would very quickly dry up, and millions of Ethiopians would die as a direct result. I should add that there was also consistent monitoring of the programme by the embassies of all the many countries whose governments and ngo’s were contributing aid, and whenever there was any allegation or suspicion specific enough to be capable of investigation, either the UN monitors, or the RRC, or the relevant ambassador and his staff, or even all three, would immediately investigate it. None of that was possible in the TPLF-controlled area: neither the Addis Ababa-based diplomats, nor the RRC, nor the UN monitors and co-ordinators could have access to areas under rebel control, for obvious reasons.

  5. Michael Hornsby says:

    Phil’s point about the advance publicity is a fair one. There is always a tendency, in my experience, to oversell the product, if only because the makers of such programmes, which require a considerable investment of cash and time/manpower (even more so in the case of TV documentaries, of course), have themselves probably had to oversell the original concept to those who hold the purse-strings and in doing so  promised more by way of “revelation” than in the event they are able to deliver.

    Brian writes: Michael, I’m sure that’s right. But I think there was another reason for the hopelessly misleading and inaccurate advance publicity, especially in its lead-ins and headlines: I strongly suspect that most of those who wrote and approved it themselves believed, or simply assumed, that the allegations in the World Service programme referred to the whole international famine relief programme in Ethiopia proper, and not just to the quite separate limited aid going in to the TPLF-controlled part of Tigray. The consequences have been both predictable and terribly damaging. I’m afraid that next time there’s an international appeal for contributions to a large-scale disaster relief programme, a lot of people are going to say: we gave generously in response to Bob Geldof’s appeal for money for that famine in Ethiopia a few years ago, and look at what we now know happened to that!

  6. Michael Hornsby says:

    As you say, we may not be so far apart on this. Suffice that, for me, the Plaut commentary did make adequately clear that the claims he was reporting related to the TPLF-controlled area only. What he didn’t do was to attempt any analysis of what proportion of the total aid effort was targeted at that area, which would have given some idea of the relative impact of any misuse of aid of the kind claimed. That, of course, might well have diminished the impact of his findings, and, if one were of a suspicious turn of mind, one might wonder if that was why he did not attempt such an exercise. I don’t see anything particularly misleading about his references to the Buerk reports and the Geldoff fund-raising efforts at the start of the programme. It’s true that there were, necessarily, two separate relief operations, but there was only one famine – that is, there were people starving in all parts of Ethiopia. It was the famine that Buerk’s reports were about and which Live Aid was aimed at alleviating. My main criticism remains that the programme suggested it had exposed some huge previously unsuspected scandal, when, or so I would guess,  few people in the know, such as yourself, would dispute, or have ever  disputed, the likelihood that some of the aid sent to the TPFL-held area might well have gone astray, given the chaotic conditions there.

    Brian writes: I’m afraid it’s no longer possible to be dismissive about the serious harm done by this hopelessly misleading BBC material. Here is how it’s now being 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.

    No wonder Bob Geldof is hopping mad. He is now formally complaining to Ofcom and the leading relief charities are writing to complain to the Chairman of the BBC Trust. This will run and run; but the utterly false implication that it was the RRC’s Ethiopian relief operation throughout northern Ethiopia, including the aid given and administered by LiveAid, Save The Children, Oxfam, etc., which was allowed to be diverted into the hands of TPLF rebels is spreading like AIDS across the globe. It’s beginning to look as if the almost universal misinterpretation of the BBC material is approaching tragic proportions. Google reveals literally thousands of press reports all over the world on the lines of the ABC report quoted above. This horrific canard can never now be corrected.

    For the last time: the allegations, which may or not be well founded, and if true are almost certainly wildly exaggerated, refer to a different, much smaller, unsupervised, unofficial, limited aid operation in a small rebel-held area involving a very small number of western ngo’s and probably a smallish CIA input. They have nothing whatever to do with the international relief operation in government-controlled Ethiopia proper, in which Geldof’s LiveAid contribution played a significant part along with massive contributions by governments and reputable relief organisations from all over the world.

  7. Simonsays says:

    Well we might have given all this aid to Ethiopia, but what good has it done? I cycled back through Ethiopia in 2008 from north to south and people are still as they were in 1985. I saw not a single–and I exagerate not–not a single metal agricultural implement in the whole country. So where has all the money gone? The population is exploding, the forests no longer exist, and all that aid has done is to make a problematic situation worse. What has changed is that the people’s natural hospitality has been destroyed and they are now a nation of beggars. ‘Mzungu’, they shout, ‘give me money, give me money’. Never a hello or good-day, just give, give, give. And when I could not give they stoned me. I mean threw rocks or tried to steal anything I had. The Sudanese, the Kenyans, the Tanzanians and on to Cape Town were friendly and good to know. Why? I have spent years living in Africa, South America, India.The Ethiopians were one of the most hostile peoples I have ever met. It is thanks to the misguided, so-called, aid. If geldoff and his rich mates got out of their first class flights, their 5 star hotels and their white, shiny new land cruisers and really met the people they would see the damage that they have done. The only thing they have achieved is to improve the shares of Toyota and BA, oh, and of course their own pockets.

  8. Owen Barder says:

    @Simonsays – I am sorry that your trip did not go well in 2008, but it bears no resemblance to the reality of Ethiopia today. I live in Ethiopia today, and I’ve visited many times both during the 1980s famine and in the intervening years.

    Ethiopia is still very poor, but conditions for ordinary people have improved beyond recognition since the 1980s. The population has doubled, but even in years of poor harvest, people do not starve and there is no need for the kinds of feeding centres we saw in Korem or Jigjigga in the 1980s. Helped by foreign donors, the Ethiopian government does a very good job of making sure that help reaches people who need it. With rising agricultural productivity and rapid economic growth, incomes are rising. Malnutrition has halved, deaths from malaria, measles and diarrhea have been dramatically reduced, and many more children are going to school.

    Your characterisation of the Ethiopian people is most unfamiliar. Ethiopians do not shout “Mzungu” (that is a Swahili word, common in Kenya and Tanzania but never used here in Ethiopia, where the equivalent is “ferenj”). They are elaborate to a fault in saying hello (long ritual greetings are common involving enquiring after your health, your family etc). And having lived and worked in more than half the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, I can’t think of a country where you are less likely to be robbed.

    I have no reason to doubt the veracity of your account of your own experience, but I can assure you that you must have been extraordinarily unlucky. Both my own experiences, and those of the the many visitors whom we have got to know here, have been diametrically different. Ethiopia is a beautiful, peaceful country, with warm, friendly, dignified people, and the progress it has made, and is continuing to make, in providing food, water and basic services for its people are truly inspiring.


  9. Fra von massow says:

    Just a quickie – I have not had a chance to hear the programme but agree with you Brian (impressive detail) on the basis that people have asked me – ‘could it be true that 95% of aid money for Ethiopia during the famine went to rebels buying arms?’
    Maybe Simonsays was in the Ethiopia/Kenya border area around Moyale – famous for shiftas – and where, on the Kenyan side they, as Owen says, call out  ‘mzungu’ and not ‘farenj’.
    Still I thought Rageh Omaar’s comment was valid and highly probable. It does not sound as if the BBC reported it in this way. I have to listen to the programme.

  10. Belachew says:

    It is clear 100% money was used directly or indirectly to help TPLF and against Ethiopians

    You don’t hand out money to weak secesionist rebels and claim it is not used for war

  11. Zoe says:

    Brian, in all candor you overstated your position. The other bloggers have commented to you and there is no need to revisit them here. While your preciseness is to be commended, to apply such a tight standard, to even well respected medium like BBC, can be hard.

    Simonsays, I think there is a grain of truth to what you wrote about Ethiopia – minus the “hostility” part. Ethiopia is trapped in a cycle of poverty and can’t think of a people more beset by perpetual poverty.

    Some of the comments made by Owen are utter nonsense! The fact is, we still have starving people, in the millions (try 6 million starving, if you include those needing emergency aid, 13 million). Here is a picture of the country closer to reality:
    We have a dictatorship that is more worried about staying in power than solving the root causes of our people. The 94% of the people are being led by 6% ethnic group, the electoral playing field permanently tilted in their favor, divide-and-rule, Bantustan style (as in the past South Africa), no real freedom of speech to speak of, no judiciary (except for kangaroo courts), population is controlled by secret police and living in a giant prison. The last elections were the most terrible. According to the official figure, about 200 peaceful demonstrators were gunned down in broad daylight, the true figure of the dead was in the thousands (most were buried in mass graves immediately); the whole thing is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode (and I am an optimistic person). There is another election coming up in about two months. Whereas the election outcome is a foregone conclusion, no one knows how many will be hurt.
    The rebel leader in the BBC story, now the prime minister of Ethiopia (Meles Zenawi), is soon (hopefully) to be indicted by the ICC for genocide and other crimes. If you want to enlighten yourselves more on the true color of this man please refer to the comments by a freelance journalist, Doug McGill:

    So, going back to the story, between BBC and the prime minister, I believe BBC any day. And the fact that BBC is standing by their story is a good sign. In addition, I had a chance to listen to the protracted interview (close to 2 hours) of the ex-TPLF leader recounting the circumstances relating to, among other things, the TPLF movement, aid diversions, his part in the whole scheme and how he did it. He is believable too!

    Brian writes: I’m afraid you have misunderstood the charge against the BBC, as well as Owen’s comment. What’s more, your antipathy to the Ethiopian prime minister, whether or not justified, will tend to reinforce the suspicion that the whole campaign of allegations against the TPLF’s handling of the limited aid it received in the areas it controlled in 1984-86 is motivated by the desire to damage Meles Zenawi, a TPLF leader then and Ethiopian prime minister now. As for your comments on Owen’s remarks, again I think you have misread what he wrote. The fact that a country is still poor after receiving even substantial development aid (different in every way from famine relief aid) doesn’t prove or even suggest that the aid was misused or that it did no good.

  12. Zoe says:

    No I didn’t misunderstand anything! Maybe you did. I hope the following helps:

    Yeah, it is true I wanted to take the discussion to a more substantive issue of what is really happening in the country, and show a bigger picture why TPLF can be culpable, rather than limit it to the aid row at hand.

    My statements of Meles Zenawi are based on facts not antipathy. You can disprove me if you can.

    I think I reasonably understood, to the extent discussed here, that your main contention was: BBC made it appear, from the introduction and title,  the entire aid to Ethiopia was diverted to the rebel group as opposed to just the alleged portion of the aid passing through the TPLF-controlled area, during that time. The attendant repercussions on future relief programs.  Not much else to understand. There are other side issues but I think that is your main disagreement. Assuming that is your major contention, I still think you exaggerated your position. You wrote what amounts to be a dissertation (including this blog) on your point. You lacked brevity. You are argued too much. A few of the bloggers here told you that too. (You keep responding, “you misunderstood, you misunderstood”). Headlines and lead-ins usually exaggerate to elicit attention. That was what I tried to tell you too.

    This is my theory: you are trying to find a reason to defend the tyrant in Ethiopia. I maybe wrong, but that is my theory.

    And also I didn’t reject everything Owen said: only some of his comments related to his painting of a rosy picture at the expense of the major problem, my reason to wanting to redirect the topic. In my mind, starvation and hunger are the most serious problems facing our country and they must be solved first. They are not solved yet. And of course I went on to discuss other important issues of governance, freedom and crack down on dissent that contributed and compounded to the country’s problems.

    Let me add that I am originally from Ethiopia, and know exactly what is going on there. My account of Meles and the political climate is accurate.

    I dare you to disprove me!

    Brian writes: Thanks, Zoe. You are quite right: you have perfectly well understood my complaint against the BBC and my apprehensions about the consequences of what it has done. But that makes it hard to understand why you think I have overstated the case, and even harder to understand how you can interpret what I have written as in any sense a defence of Meles Zenawi, his government or the TPLF, on all of which I am entirely neutral. Moreover, since it’s now clear that you well understand the (limited) scope of this post and the comments on it, I take a less lenient view of your attempt, in your comments, to “change the subject” by writing at some length about entirely different matters which simply don’t belong here. I wouldn’t dream of disputing what you say about Ethiopia and its government, since I’m in no position to know whether you’re right or wrong in what you say about them. But, if I may respectfully say so, I would prefer comments on this post, as on others, to stick to the point and not seek to exploit the thread for riding different hobby-horses. One hobby-horse at a time, please!

  13. Zoe says:

    Let me try again:
    I think you are worried a little too much about a sensational title, although the detail of that allegation can be quite accurate. In so doing you might be unfairly deflecting the real issue from coming to light.

    My problem with your approach is that you want to have a very narrow intellectual discussion at the expense of the bigger picture. I know you are worried about future aid programs; that is well and good and probably came from a good heart. The point is Ethiopia needs a last solution. Ethiopia is synonymous with hungry, emaciated and dying children. We are not supposed to be a perennially hungry people – we are endowed with natural resources, even well able to feed the rest of Africa. We don’t want to remain beset with hunger in perpetuity.

    Why shouldn’t the issue you raised be understood from a broader picture, rather than a narrow intellectual treatment? Why is it hard to understand the 800-lb gorilla in all this?

    I try to paint a broader picture of the aid row at hand. For instance: In a court of law, you take the character of the defendant to determine a possibility of culpability. For example you ask: Does the defendant have a drinking or drug problem? Is he abusive? Has he committed other or similar crimes before or now?

    The point is: the regime we now have in Ethiopia plays a key role in keeping us trapped in that cycle of poverty: with the stranglehold on the economy, corruption, lack of rule of law and freedom. They are more worried about staying in power than solving the country’s ailments.

    By the way, did you know, according to Wikipedia, Meles Zenawi is the 11th richest head of states in the world? Please find out for yourself and put two and two together:

    Thank you,

  14. Zoe says:

    This today’s Time magazine article might shade further light on the issue of aid:

    Brian writes: Zoe, I’m afraid that this Time magazine article simply recycles a load of third-hand rubbish. Almost nothing it says about the Ethiopian famine and relief effort in the 1980s bears any relation to the reality. Predictably, the article mixes up the limited relief aid in the TPLF-controlled area (to which the allegations of diversion for arms applied) with the main Ethiopian relief programme (to which they did not). The references to the resettlement programme are simple-minded: it was much more complex and many-sided than this article seems to realise. Nought out of ten for homework, I’m afraid. To be ignored.

  15. Zoe says:

    Hi Brian,
    Here is a Guardian article that painted Geldof as, “naive and self-righteous.”
    Closer to the truth.



    Brian writes: I suggest that you look at the comment on the Guardian article by ‘danielwaweru’, who makes some excellent points. I saw a great deal of Bob Geldof’s work at first hand during the Ethiopian famine relief operation and I can tell you that his own and his organisation’s contribution to that operation was first-class: pragmatic, effective, energetic, robust in answering criticism, well monitored, making good use of the expertise of other and older relief organisations in the field, responsive to needs as they were identified, and above all supremely efficient in maintaining a high level of public awareness of and support for Ethiopian famine relief around the world. The itch to denounce the few people who do outstanding work in a difficult area of endeavour as “naive and self-righteous” says more about their critics than about their targets. Contrary to this smug article, it’s simply not true that all humanitarian aid programmes involve widespread waste and abuse. Nor do the BBC programme’s allegations make any such accusation against the Ethiopian famine relief programme of the 1980s, to which numerous governments, UN agencies and officials, NGOs and other relief agencies, as well as the admirable Bob Geldof, made huge contributions and by which several million lives were saved. Sneering at Geldof is a cheap and ignorant pastime. Those who now seek to put him down would be much better employed trying to emulate his remarkable qualities and achievements.

  16. Zoe says:

    The American comic, Robin Williams once said, “Bob Geldof was talking to an audience while fund raising on behalf of starving children somewhere in a third world county. To help the audience understand the gravity of the problem, Bob started to clap his hands at a steady pace and said, ‘every time I clap a child dies somewhere in the third world country.’ A member of the audience at the back said, ‘well, stop clapping your hand then!’”

    With all jokes aside at the expense of starving people: I agree Bob Geldof has a good heart, no one can dispute that. He should be emulated.

    That said, Bob should also recognize both rebels and governments abused and manipulated aid to their own advantage. And that is undeniable too. In my opinion instead of denying the existence of such abuses and hopping mad about the allegations (borrowing your own phraseology) he can acknowledge the problem and at the same time maintain despite these political obstacles we should all try to reach the starving who are ultimately the victims. And then maybe devise a means to reach the victims more effectively. That is all!

    Now, I think his protestation unwittingly defends corrupt governments and rebels.

    Brian writes: I would be interested to know what evidence you have that the then Ethiopian government (repressive, blood-stained and undemocratic as it undoubtedly was) “abused and manipulated aid to [its] own advantage” in the case of the international famine relief operation in the mid-1980s. I don’t think that reckless generalisations like this help to promote constructive debate. On the contrary, they only tend to encourage knee-jerk cynicism and scepticism about the value of all kinds of aid, attitudes which may literally cost lives. It also seems to me unhelpful and misleading to equate governments with rebels.

  17. Zoe says:

    There is plenty of evidence the regime in Ethiopia NOW, TODAY, is using food aid to buy votes and recruit and use food for its own party advantage. This is a charge by an opposition parliamentarian. I mean, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the parliamentarian’s account given the stolen 2005 elections and other egregious crimes committed by this regime. Who is doing this? The same rebel leader turned tyrant,  whom you appear to be defending. I have no doubt in my mind he did it back in the 80’s and he is doing it now. I will forward the link soon.

  18. Zoe says:

    Please see the link I promised to provide. Here a former TPLF leader, currenly an opposition party leader, charges the current Ethiopian regime of using food aid to buy votes. This is the same individual (Seye Abraha) whose picture is shown in the link, former TPLF rebel and then defense minister now turned opposition party leader. He had a falling out with the current regime and went to jail on trumped up charges. Now he’s become a leading opposition party leader after serving 12-year prison sentence. Incidentally this same person, as a former rebel leader, (in addition to other former rebel leaders who came forward) also has first hand knowledge of the 1980’s food aid diversions to buy guns and considers Meles responsible for those as well (2nd link).



  19. Zoe says:

    Further proof by Jason McLure, Meles abusing food aid for his own political gain.


  20. Zoe says:

    Further proof from The Economist your hero is abusing Ethiopians.
    If you are honest this will open your mind; if you are willful defender of a tyrant and deceiver it will put you to shame:


  21. terence says:

    Brian you’ve  raised an interesting issue and it is difficult not to agree with your main contention that many people were influenced -myself  included- by the sensationalised BBC preview of their  (in truth partial)  `mis-use of African aid’  programme into believing the principal aid funding found its way to the rebels.  Such people,  again like myself,  who did not then go on to see the programme were certainly left with this impression:  largely compounded by the written media deliberately picked up on this sensationalised version and running with it –  it’s equally true to say that un-countered this must adversely affect one’s thinking when next a similar appeal for aid to an African country arose.
    Therefore I’m grateful for this independent – albeit knowledgeable given your then position as Britain’s Ambassador to  Ethiopia –  rebuttal from yourself and Geldof of the BBC’s  misleading impression: given the ghoulish nature of our media  from where else could it  come?
    However you will also recognise – in that you haven’t attempted to delete it-  Zoe’s need to hang on this discussion the wider picture of  general and continuing deprivation in Ethiopia  and its causation since it is both relevant and on going and he clearly feels  a deep concern to bring this to the world’s  attention – your excellent blog is one such way to enable this and in doing so both  you and he are to be congratulated.
    Frankly I’ve  seen  little major disagreement between yourself and any of the above contributors regarding your principal premise;  you made the point explicitly well in your opening statement and any contributors comments thereafter  simply raised  pedantic niceties.  However I hope you agree it would serve a very useful purpose  if the blog now expanded to take up  Zoe’s excellent argument regarding  current conditions in Ethiopia  (I’m also particularly interested in hearing more,  not raised by Zoe,  on the issue too sensitively and cursorily touched upon earlier of American knowledge of,  and perhaps cooperation in,  the diversion of Aid funds to the rebels for the purpose of purchasing arms) and the more immediately relevant and worrying deprivation and despotism existing there today.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Terence. I’m not qualified to begin a discussion on this blog of poverty in Ethiopia (which goes well beyond the subject of this post, i.e. the grossly misleading nature of the BBC World Service programme and the publicity material promoting it). However, I’m passing on your comment to another blogger who’s exceptionally well qualified to write about the situation in Ethiopia, for his consideration. But I have a faint suspicion that all he may feel able to say is that there is indeed much poverty in various areas of Ethiopia; that great strides have been made in poverty reduction since the great famine of the mid-1980s; that international development aid has played a role in supporting this progress, which seems likely to continue; and that in this respect Ethiopia is not greatly different from many other countries in Africa and Asia, except that Ethiopia started from a much lower level of development until quite recently and has been receiving western development aid on any significant scale for a much shorter time than most other developing countries.

    By the same token, I’m in no position to comment on any American involvement in the alleged diversion of relief aid to rebel soldiers in the rebel-controlled area of Tigray in the mid-1980s, except that I have never heard this allegation made and it seems to me implausible in the extreme.

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