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.)
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.