30 years on: Ethiopia and the business of hunger

by Zelalem

It’s 30 years since Michael Buerke’s
harrowing report of a ‘biblical famine’ reached BBC TV screens.
Following a year of cynical government inaction and silence, Bob
Geldof launched a frenzied celebrity campaign to get aid to the
famine-hit regions.

Money from the public, if not the
government, poured into the country. But in the process, the politics
of what was happening in Ethiopia was completely erased, and our
ideas of ‘charity’, ‘hunger’ and indeed ‘Africa’, were
changed in fundamental ways which to this day are difficult to

remains proud of its reporting
of Ethiopia’s famine, and
certainly it directed public attention to a horrific situation. But
it did this at the price of understanding what was really
happening in Ethiopia, a problem compounded by Bob Geldof who
insisted on seeing the famine as a terrible ‘natural disaster’.

In fact Ethiopia’s authoritarian
government under Mengistu Haile Mariam, heavily armed by the Soviet
Union as a key proxy player in the Cold War, was waging a war against
Eritrean and Tigrayan freedom fighters. Drought was being used by
Mengistu as one tool to starve and defeat the rebel areas.

Yet when aid started flowing in, it
largely went to the Ethiopian government itself, which further used
that aid to forcibly displace thousands of opponents. In an excellent
article for the Guardian yesterday, former BBC
journalist Suzanne Franks
makes clear just how problematic the
aid effort was:

Victims of famine were lured into
feeding camps only to be forced on to planes and transported far away
from their homes. Some estimate the number of deaths from this policy
to be higher than those from famine.”

As Franks says, Médecins sans
Frontières refused to play along – a principled position they have
maintained in humanitarian emergencies ever since. War on Want sent
aid directly to rebel areas, where it was administered by the rebel
infrastructures and senior Labour Party figures like Glenys Kinnock
continued to support the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and
expose the horrific circumstances they were facing.

But by and large, aid agencies played
along with the politics as the best chance they had of getting aid
in. Indeed, the Ethiopian famine played a huge role in the enormous
growth of the aid industry over the next few years.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that
such a situation would be tackled more honestly today. Partly that’s
because the way Ethiopia was treated fundamentally shaped the way we
view Africa. Our idea of starving Ethiopians – helpless, passive
and in desperate need of Western salvation – became our image of
Africa as a whole. Media and governments played a role, but the
biggest culprit was the aid organisations themselves, who understood
it was untruthful, but found it an incredibly successful way of
raising money.

Thomas Sankara/Wikimedia

In a report commissioned several years
ago called ‘Finding
, researchers found that this framing of Africa –
what they describe as the ‘Live Aid’ legacy – remains
incredibly strong today. Swept away is the political context of
Africa – the decades of Empire and slavery through to structural
adjustment and debt crisis. Also ignored are the many examples of
African resistance and success – from the national liberation
governments of the 1950 through to Thomas Sankara’s transformation
of Burkina Faso up to 1987. Africa’s agency is marginalised.

The idea that we are a ‘Powerful
Giver’ to ‘Grateful Receiver’ continues to dominate the aid
discourse today, constantly
reinforced by some aid agencies
who still insist of perpetuating
offensive imagery in order to raise funds.

It’s important
we use the anniversary of the Ethiopian famine not simply to show
‘how far Ethiopia has come’, after all Ethiopian civilisation
long precedes our own. Rather we should use it to review our image
of, and relationship towards Africa, and refuse to support those
organisations which still grow rich on the ‘Live Aid’ legacy.

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