12/20/2004

Call Me The Grinch

20-odd years since Band-Aid took up the fight against world hunger, it may be somewhat Grinch-like to point out the utter failure of Band Aid and Live Aid. Yet, in a piece entitled, "What Happened To The F***ing Money?", British publication The Spectator does exactly that.

In the time of Band Aid, ‘negative angles’ were out. It would have been negative, although true, to have emphasised that [Ethipoian dictator] Mengistu was one of the most vicious African dictators of the previous quarter century, that he was fighting three wars at the time (two in the north, in Tigray and Eritrea, and one in the Oromo lands of the south), and that his troops were committing atrocities in the region where the famine was unfolding. It would have been distinctly negative to have reported that the dictator was using food as a weapon of war — bombing crops and markets while setting up roadblocks to prevent the movement of food. The methods used by Mengistu’s armies were bound to create famine, and they did.

Journalists and aid workers were not the only ones wary of confusing viewers at home with ‘negative angles’. While it was Band Aid and, later, Live Aid that caught the imagination of the world, they funded only a small proportion of the aid effort: 90 per cent or more of the aid came from Western donor governments. As the governments would only deal with a recipient government, not with rebel movements, most of the aid — again, roughly 90 per cent — was channelled through Mengistu’s hands. In a grotesque irony, we found ourselves supporting the very government that was causing the famine we were supposed to be alleviating. This was certainly a ‘negative angle’, and therefore, unsurprisingly, it received hardly any attention at all.
The famines that spurred the artists of Live-Aid and Band-Aid to action we exacerbated by the use of food (or, more accurately, the denial of food) as a weapon. Yet, 90 % of all of the international aid to Ethiopia was delivered to agencies of the very government that was using the famine to advance its own ends.

There is, of course, a paralell to draw - the U.N. Oil For Food program. It is folly to expect tyrants to take the products of international generosity and use it for anything other than solidifying their own power. We've had the lesson taught to us in two very visible episodes. Will we be any wiser the next time?