‘If we only saved one life…’: The Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s, and the humanitarian response

The BBC has apologised for ‘misleading and unfair’ claims made during a documentary in March about aid money to Ethiopia during the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s, and in particular for giving the impression that substantial amounts of money from Band Aid and Live Aid for famine relief were diverted to buy weapons for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

The programme included an interview with a former TPLF commander who claimed that almost all of the aid designed to secure food aid in Ethiopia’s northern province of Tigray actually reached those who were starving.

The claims made in the programme, and the implicit assertion that money from Live Aid and Band Aid directly funded the purchase of arms was clearly misleading, and wrong. But the reaction to the BBC’s apology is a testament to the continued power of the myth of the ‘West’s’ saving of those starving in Ethiopia (backed up, not least by the determined and regular outbursts against critical comments by Bob Geldof, in particular), what at the time was the world’s largest humanitarian response to an emergency.

The response to the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s was not as unproblematic as the defenders of it continually assert. There is, in fact, considerable evidence that food aid was used by the Ethiopian regime, known as the Derg, as a weapon in its war against rebels in Tigray and Eritrea. By 1984, it was known that the Derg were using their control over the bulk of food aid coming into the country to undermine the ability of TPLF and EPLF (the rebel force in Eritrea, then a part of Ethiopia) to sustain their struggle. Food aid was restricted from going to areas under rebel control (despite this being precisely the area in which most starving people were situated). Reports from refugees who fled to southern Sudan accused the government of using reception-centres – set up ostensibly as relief centres – as recruitment centres. Most controversially, there is evidence that food aid used (with donor awareness) as part of the government’s Resettlement Programme had catastrophic effects on those involved. The Resettlement Programme, officially designed as a way of moving people from the food-poor north to more productive areas in the south, was in reality a key strategy for undermining the rebel forces’ support and it abilities to recruit. Food aid allowed this programme to be implemented, a programme which some have estimated led to the deaths of up to 100,000 people.

Similarly, and focusing on aid support directly to the rebel-held areas by aid agencies, the notion that aid was used to support (directly or indirectly) TPLF and EPLF activities is not as outlandish as it might appear. The Emergency Relief Desk, established in 1981 to assist in cross-border aid to Tigray and Eritrea from southern Sudan, was an ecumenical consortium consisting initially of 9 Christian-based organisations. Aid was provided to the relief arms of the rebel ‘administrations’, the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) and the Relief Society of Tigray (REST). By the mid-1980s, official donors were beginning to support cross-border operations. Whilst ERA and REST were in theory completely separate from the EPLF and TPLF, in practice such distinctions were hard to sustain on the ground. NGOs engaged in the cross-border operation were well aware that the ability of ERA and REST to reach those in need rested firmly upon the political authority of the rebel forces in their respective areas. This is not the same as suggesting food aid itself was diverted, or relief was used to purchase arms, but there are many ways for relief to indirectly (and inadvertently) support rebel activities.

One of the problems with the mythologising of the world’s response to the crisis in Ethiopia is that it all too rarely explains why there was a famine. It was not due to food shortages resulting from a catastrophic fall in food production. It was due to war, and to the Derg’s strategies for pursuing its campaign against rebel forces in the north in particular. Food aid in such a context cannot be anything other than deeply political. That many of those who were engaged in the programme (including Geldof, by his own admission) were not fully aware of the political realities, or allowed themselves to skate over the delicacies of the nature of the regime they were dealing with, made it easier for the massive relief effort to be used (directly and indirectly) for purposes not intended by those supplying the relief.

This is not to suggest than Band Aid / Live Aid was culpable, or more culpable, than other agencies. But neither can they escape from the very real criticisms that must be directed at this endeavour. The loud voice of the celebrity, particularly one who has regularly leapt up to blast any criticisms of this period, cannot be allowed to silence those who want to question the reality behind the myth. The Ethiopian famine was on the one hand a great moment of moral, humanitarian impulse across the world – millions of people seeking to help those in need. But it was also, on the other, a disaster in terms of helping back up a regime that bore a large part of the responsibility for creating the famine.

Robust defence of actions and policies is fine. But so too is criticism of humanitarian aid programmes. Above all, the standard defence of, ‘if we only saved one life…’ is an intellectual cop-out. The desire to do good, to help, is no defence if the form in which assistance is given actually does more harm. Until we can move beyond the binary everything was great / everything failed ways of understanding what went on, we can never learn the lessons that so badly need to be learnt.

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. I am also the Chair of the Centre of African Studies, University of London, the largest centre of expertise on Africa outside the continent. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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2 Responses to ‘If we only saved one life…’: The Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s, and the humanitarian response

  1. Nicely put. And a read of the recent Human Rights Watch report on the politically repressive use of aid in contemporary Ethiopia bookends things alarmingly.

  2. Thanks. And I agree about the HRW report – an interesting, if depressingly familiar, read.

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