When Humanitarian Aid Winds Up in the Wrong Hands – By Nick Wadhams (TIME)

March 13th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

British rock impresario and Africa aid promoter Bob Geldof, a.k.a. “Saint Bob,” (more…)

British rock impresario and Africa aid promoter Bob Geldof, a.k.a. “Saint Bob,” was back in the headlines this past week after blowing his stack at the BBC for a story it aired alleging that Ethiopian rebels had diverted 95% of the $100 million in Ethiopian famine relief raised in the mid-1980s — much of it by Geldof’s iconic Band Aid concert.

Geldof’s spirited denials (he called the BBC a “rotten old cherry” and said there was not a “shred” of evidence to support the claim) drew support from NGOs that worked in Ethiopia at the time, along with those who remember the miseries of the famine which killed hundreds of thousands of people, as well as the gumption Geldof showed by pulling together rock stars from the U.S and Britain to help feed the victims. In the days since, however, Geldof has raised eyebrows for his apparent refusal to acknowledge the possibility that money may have been skimmed off the top, which many aid agencies and humanitarian workers say routinely happens in developing nations. In fact, doubts in the last few years about whether relief supplies reach their intended sources in conflict zones have given rise to a whole new way of thinking about humanitarian aid — and caused some to question whether giving aid in times of war does any good at all. (See pictures of Geldof in Africa with President Bush.)

“Whereas outsiders might have been well-intentioned in wanting to solve the problems of famine in Ethiopia, the regime and rebels were very much aware of how they could make use of that aid to advance their own interests,” James Shikwati, director of the Inter Region Economic Network, a Nairobi-based think tank, and a longtime critic of foreign aid, tells TIME. “Instead of trying to defend themselves, I think Bob Geldof and his friends should be looking at this as part of the problem of the aid industry.” Shikwati is a leading advocate in an emerging movement that wants to see foreign development assistance — and some emergency help — stopped entirely in Africa. He says foreign aid fosters corruption and a sense of dependence on Western donors. In some countries, leaders have also been accused of steering development projects to areas where people have voted for them while opposition areas get nothing, Shikwati says. (See pictures of Africa’s AIDS crisis.)

The real story behind Ethiopia’s famine exemplifies many of the problems with aid. In the West, the famine of the 1980s was seen as a great natural disaster. Band Aid was so successful — it raised tens of millions of dollars — because it played on Westerners’ sense of obligation to “save Africa” and their sense of guilt for somehow “allowing” the famine to happen. But the reality was far more complex. While Ethiopia was indeed in the grip of a drought, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s government, which was fighting an insurgency at the time, restricted NGOs from helping famine victims in certain areas and forcibly moved hundreds of thousands of people from one place to another in a repeat of Soviet-era collectivization campaigns, exacerbating their plight. The rebels, who came to power years later, are partly responsible for people’s suffering, too. A CIA report cited by the BBC found that money raised by the insurgents, ostensibly to help the starving, was “almost certainly” diverted for military purposes.

It seems ironic that in one of his ripostes, Geldof argued that current Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — who was a rebel leader during the time of the famine — denied that any aid had been diverted in the 1980s. But Meles has been accused of doing the very same thing in recent years in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, which is also home to a rebel insurgency. Aid workers operating in the region in 2007 told TIME the government allowed them to distribute food in some places and not others. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the government. In a report soon after that, Human Rights Watch accused the Meles government of rounding up and killing livestock in the region and blocking aid. The government has repeatedly denied such accusations. (Read about the rise of extremism in Somalia.)

It’s not just happening in Ethiopia either. A new U.N. report on Somalia, first revealed in a report by the The New York Times on March 9, found that Somali contractors skim off as much as half the food aid delivered by the World Food Program and give it to Islamic militants battling the government. That revelation followed on the heels of a sharp debate on aid in Somalia between the U.N. and the U.S., which has announced it will restrict some supplies to the country out of fear it’s helping the rebels. “Operating in conflict zones is always a complex challenge for humanitarian organizations,” WFP’s Nairobi spokesman, Marcus Prior, tells TIME. “Even in the worst circumstances, we seek to follow all rules and regulations surrounding our operations and to remain true to our humanitarian mandate of impartiality and neutrality.” But the WFP has had a hard time doing that given the fact that it is part of the U.N., a body made up of member states.

Other groups have laid down specific rules that keep them from working too closely with certain governments or rebel groups. Among the most prominent is Doctors Without Borders. The French arm of that group was, in fact, expelled from Ethiopia during the famine in the 1980s when it criticized the government for forcibly moving some of the population and manipulating aid. The group now makes a point of delivering as much direct aid to those in need as possible, rather than working through governments or what it calls “armed actors.” This week, it went after NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen after he made a seemingly innocuous remark about wanting to “improve the frequency and quality of the dialogue between NATO and the NGOs” in Afghanistan. He went on to say that “hard power” must be combined with “soft power,” an idea that infuriates Doctors Without Borders, which said in response that it “never works alongside, or partners with, any military strategy.”

“We have left places where the level of interference was too much,” Monica Camacho, the group’s coordinator in Somalia, tells TIME. “We are very clear that the moment you are interfered with, you no longer have legitimacy. News of whatever happens to us in one conflict will spread, and we are very aware that it has an impact everywhere.”

  1. Anonymous
    | #1

    መለስ ዳንግ አላ

  2. Lucas
    | #2

    Is there any thing in the world that meles Nazi did not denied?? this person is an animal who could kill his mother….

  3. Ferenj lebaw
    | #3

    GELDHOF, ADMIT YOUR WORK. DAMN IT. THE VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT WAS TELLING THE WORLD THAT THE US AND BRITS ARE DOING HIDEOUS CRIMES BEHIND AID GROUPS. HE ADDED THAT THEY DOING IT DURING THE HATIAN EARTH QUAKE. THEY ARE CONTROL FREAKS AND CAN’T LIVE W/O IT (DICTATORS OF THE WORLDZ!)GOING TO THE US HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT, THE US GOV IS ACTING LIKE THEY ARE WORKING AGAINST THE ETHIOPIAN GOV. ACTUALLY, THEY WOULD LOVE TO COLLECT MORE SO CALLED HIDEOUS GOV. CRIMES AGAINST EPRDF SO THEY DISMANTLE ETHIOPIA INTO PEICES WITH THE INFO THEY GATHER.THAT IS WHY THEY ARE QUITE. THEY NEED AS MUCH COLLABORATING INFO TO USE IT FOR A BREAK UP OF ETHIOPIA. THEY ALSO HAVE TO PREACH WITH MELES ETHNIC HATE STORIES IN THE WORLD MEDIA. THEY CREATE AND MASTERMIND THEM. THEY CREATE CRISIS HERE AND THERE, OGADEN, GAMBELLA,ETC. THE PEOPLE ALWAYS CLAIMING GENOCIDE MIGHT ALSO BE THE COLLABORATORS THEMSELVES. KILL FEW PEOPLE AND CLAIM THERE IS GENOCIED. “SAD GHOSTS”. AT THE END, IF THEY ARE SUCCESSFUL WHICH I DOUBT WILL, THEY WILL FRY MELES IN HAIG FOR DINNER.JUST LIKE THE YOGOSLAV PRESIDENT. AT LEAST THAT HAS BEEN THEIR PLAN UNLESS THEY CHANGE IT. WHITE GHOSTS SHOULD KNOW THEIR TACTICS ARE GETTING OLD AND DOES NOT WORK IN ETHIOPIA. MAYBE BY FORCE. THE ETHIOPIAN PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS QUARREL EVEN IF YOU MAKE FAKE BOARDERS.

  4. Anonymous
    | #4

    It is unfortunate that Bob Geldof is badly brainwashed by the criminal Woyanes. A while back, I heard that Woyanes have been telling the rest of the world that the only ethnic group that rejected them are Amharas for taking power from them. And it seems a lot of foreign leaders and people like Bob Geldof have adapted woyanes’ made up stories and have chosen to look away the sufferings of all Ethiopians by Woyane hands. The question is, where are the opposition leaders? How come the opposition leaders fell to inform the truth to people like Bob Geldof and the rest of the world? Why aren’t the opposition leaders ahead of the game and explain what Woyanes are all about…the intimidations of Ethiopian people, the all around abuses of Ethiopian people, the arrest of thousands of innocent Ethiopians, the tortures, the countless number of Ethiopians death, the secret accounts of Woyanes around the world, the land giving, the arrests of journalists and so on and so forth. The world need and must know the truth about Woyanes. The Money issue itself is enough to shake up the whole world–how these criminal woyanes became milliners in just short years running one of the poorest country in the world while the rest of the world having economic melt downs. We know Woyanes are working 24/7 to fool and mislead the world to hide the truth—How about our opposition leaders, are they working 24/7 to tell and spread the real truth about Woyanes? The truth is on Ethiopians side—WHY WE FELL TO INFORM THE WHOLE WORLD WHAT AND WHO WOYANES ARE ALL ABOUT?

  5. TRUTH
    | #5

    It looks as if Bob Geldof himself had played a role in diverting Aid money to buy arms. Recent meeting between him and Meles in Kenya is to design a common strategy to shoot the messenger in attempt to bury the truth. However; emphatic denial and counter- accusation never hinder truth from coming out in due time. ” I didn’t have a sexual relation with that women…” is our recent reminder that no one can hide the truth forever.

  6. Asimba
    | #6

    It seems obvious as the days pass by, the only leader that have the ability to hear the heart beat of the African people is the Eritrean president ISsias. He is on record in refusing to accept aid donations. Self reliance is what he is implementing.

  7. Wow!!
    | #7

    It seems this story coming out now, because Mengistu H.Mariam’s book is coming out in the coming month. His book may detail the above story and someone may be an insider spoke out or leak to BBC. Every one tried to beat dictator Mengistu’s book. The timing about this news seems very interesting. If the former dictator validate this story in his upcoming book, may be Mr. Bob Geldof regret his denial.

  8. atuba dolla
    | #8

    Zinawi and his members of the crimefamily have committed wicked and wierd crimes against Ethiopians and with the charity money donated by the global communities became rich and wealthy.Is it just?

    Now,Sir Bob Geldof who stood behind the crime and defended Zinawi,the criminal,must come out in the sun and dry up himself from the shame he drenched.

    Ethiopians,we have to continue doing what we have doing until Zinawi and his crimefamily are brought to international court.Anything less than sanding for thousands of victims shall be injustice.Thank you and Amen.

Comments are closed.