The Geldof Redemption

Remember that kerfuffle about Live Aid funds making their way into rebel hands? Turns out the BBC had no credible evidence behind its allegations, and has only taken about 6 months to admit it. Owen Barder has a detailed discussion here.

Working on the assumption that the BBC was a bit more trustworthy of that, my response to Geldof’s rage might have been a tad bit mocking. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: I deeply regret that mocking took place.

Update: In the comments section, Nicholas points out that in my previous post on this, several comments indicated that the diversion was accepted wisdom before the BBC story. Can anyone reconcile this? I believe the difference is, as the Barder says, that money sent to rebel areas was likely to have been diverted, but that this was a relatively small percentage. Still, how do these two match up?

“..everybody who’s paid the slightest bit of attention in the last 25 years knows that the Ethiopian government misused the aid funds it received in the mid-1980′s, and that very little of that aid actually helped prevent starvation.” — TIA

“To this day there is no suggestion, let alone evidence, that any of the aid provided in government-controlled Ethiopia, by governments, Band Aid and others, was diverted.” – Owen Barder

10 thoughts on “The Geldof Redemption

  1. Nicolas

    November 4, 2010 at 10:24am

    So I’m a bit confused now. Reading Owen Barder’s post of today (, you come away with the impression that the BBC messed up big time. Yes, there was diversion of a small bit of the food aid that was targeted at rebel areas (think Owen estimates this bit of aid at 3-4% of the total), but the BBC created an impression that the diversion also applies to the other 96% of food aid. Owen argues there’s no evidence at all for that, and it does indeed look like that’s what the BBC is conceding.

    But when I read the comments on your original post on the issue, they say there IS evidence of systematic diversion ( E.g. Texas in Africa: “Andy’s right; everybody who’s paid the slightest bit of attention in the last 25 years knows that the Ethiopian government misused the aid funds it received in the mid-1980′s, and that very little of that aid actually helped prevent starvation.” This seems to me to be referring to the 96%, not just the 4%, so doesn’t this contradict Owen Barder? Where does that leave us? Anyone that can point us to some hard evidence of diversion?

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    November 4, 2010 at 10:37am

    Geldof is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.

  3. swahilistreet

    November 4, 2010 at 1:17pm

    I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘divert’. Mike Jennings describes how the Mengistu government used aid as tool to weaken the TPLF and EPLF.

    The more recent Human Rights Watch report on the contemporary use of aid by the EPRDF also describes, in much detail, how aid (including food aid) can be used for politically repressive ends – while still, and to donors’ satisfaction, reaching the target group.

  4. Texas in Africa

    November 4, 2010 at 3:13pm

    Oy. Well, obviously I defer to Owen’s judgment on this, mostly because I was 7 when the famine happened. But the idea that the aid wasn’t used as intended has definitely been part of the conventional wisdom for awhile. The CW can be wrong, of course. I have no idea how that idea developed or how I “knew” it, but I’ve “known” that for at least 10-12 years. Perhaps I was thinking of the use of aid to weaken one side and strengthen the other.

  5. Nicolas

    November 4, 2010 at 3:51pm

    Thanks for the responses and the link to Mike Jennings’ post! So, actual diversion of food aid may have been small, but it did end up being used as a political tool, with seemingly large negative consequences.

  6. MJ

    November 5, 2010 at 8:05am

    I also know nothing about what went on in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and thus was intrigued by both the original story and the Beeb’s subsequent retraction. Owen Barder’s post is a welcome reminder that the donors were at least alive to the issues of food aid diversion. But I have also heard stories about how aid to Ethiopia has helped prop up successive governments, and through the fungibility principle, fund pointless wars like the border dispute with Eritrea. Maybe the two statements can therefore be reconciled like this:
    – Owen is right that emergency food aid delivered by the likes of Live Aid and other donors in the mid 1980s did mostly reach the intended recipients.
    – More generally aid to Ethiopia has helped entrench single party rule in the country (though, from what I hear, you have to give the government credit for efficient management of it).
    I am reminded of Sen’s point about droughts and famines, and that the latter never happen in a democracy.

  7. Owen Barder

    November 5, 2010 at 8:11am

    I disagree with Mike Jennings.

    I don’t think there is any evidence at all that food aid was diverted by the Mengistu government.

    Most of it was delivered by NGOs not the Government. The food aid that was moved around the country was outside the control of the government. Indeed, when the RAF planes first arrived in Ethiopia from the UK, the Mengistu regime had not given permission for them to come. My father, the British Ambassador, stood at Bole Airport watching them lend with his fingers crossed that they would not be shot down. Their presence in Ethiopia was not recognised by the government.

    You might argue, as Mike Jennings does, that the fact that food aid was delivered in government-held areas but not rebel-held areas created a political dynamic; and/or that delivery of food aid somehow helped the government’s position. I suppose that kind of indirect political effect is hard to avoid.

    But I’ve never seen any convincing evidence for the general idea that aid to Ethiopia in the 1980s was diverted or used for political purposes.


  8. MJ

    November 5, 2010 at 12:40pm

    Interesting new comment on Owen’s blog
    from someone who ought to know what he’s talking about. (Tho might not be politically neutral.)
    Basically saying that yes the rebels back then used aid to further their own aims, and now the rebels are the government they’ve carried on in a similar vein.

  9. Owen Barder

    November 8, 2010 at 4:53am

    I’m sorry Swahistreet thinks the Geldof/BBC debate is a distraction.

    The relief effort in 1984-85 saved perhaps 6 or 7 million lives.

    If a famine happens again, anywhere in the world, I’d like the public to be confident that their money will be well used and will not be diverted to military use. That is what happened in Ethiopia in the 1980s.

    The BBC suggested this wasn’t true. What they said was misleading. I don’t think it is a distraction to put that right.


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