There is, in fact, little joy to be found in uttering any version of “I told you so”. Smug satisfaction sits like a hard, sour candy in your mouth. So when The Telegraph ran the headline “Millions of Ethiopian Famine Aid Used to Buy Weapons”, I didn’t squeal with delight. Even though I have said it before, probably too many times, to anyone who would listen: you can’t flood a broken situation with money and expect to fix it. (See my postings on Iraq and Haiti)
Still, since Live Aid was way back in 1984 this headline felt somewhat irrelevant, like DNA evidence discovered for a case already closed. Then again, Quincy Jones and company did just come together for a type of Live Aid redux in support of Haiti, so maybe this type of case isn’t entirely closed. Maybe it is worth learning the lessons the Live Aid experience has to teach us.
Worth reading how rebel soldiers in Ethiopia disguised themselves as grain traders and handed over sacks of sand hidden beneath genuine food aid, in return for cash from Western donations. “I was given clothes to make me look like a Muslim merchant. This was a trick for the NGOs,” a rebel leader said, referring to non-governmental organisations or aid agencies. Another man claiming to be a senior commander, Aregawi Berhe, said that “95 per cent” of the $100 million given to buy food was diverted to purchase weapons or to boost the rebels’ cause.
“The aid workers were fooled,” he said.
Fooled. That word stings. (And just to salt that wound, the head of the rebel army that profiteered from Live Aid, Meles Zenawi, is currently Ethiopia’s prime minister, a member of the so-called “new generation” of African leaders)
That aid money is regularly mishandled will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever worked in a relief situation. I’ll never forget buying bananas in a shop in northern Mozambique and spotting bags of rice for sale clearly marked with “USAID”, the international aid arm of the US government. The shopkeeper didn’t even try to cover up or rub out the name. Everyone in town knew these American “donations” actually came at a price.
Still, what’s most disturbing about the Live Aid article is the fact that the funds generated from the concert and the global outpouring it elicited fuelled the country’s civil war. So rather than “saving” Ethiopian people, Live Aid might have actually contributed to their ongoing suffering. And don’t think this is a secret. Recently declassified CIA documents suggest the US knew that charity donations were “almost certainly being diverted for military purposes.”
So I don’t need to say I told you so. But maybe we have to admit that investigations like this are telling us so. Not that we need to stop giving to people in need, but that we need to get realistic about what happens with that charitable giving.
Can we, the giving public, accept the fact that charity is almost always political? That despite the potential purity of our intentions, charity money will “almost certainly” be embroiled in the class, ethnic, political and social divisions that exist in a country. Is the public prepared to engage with the messy realities of the countries we are seeking to help? Or do we ignore Live Aid’s lessons and just open up our checkbooks again when another Haiti happens?
And where are you Bob Geldof in responding to these lessons? You keep telling us we need to do more, but are you prepared to acknowledge the pitfalls of so much “doing more”? Would you like to use your public platform to pursue more effective approaches to large scale relief work? Or would you prefer to continue to ignore that the money intended to buy food to save people, sometimes buys the weapons that will kill them?