From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sun Mar 14 2010 - 13:56:27 EST
When Humanitarian Aid Winds Up in the Wrong Hands
By <http://www.time.com/time/letters/email_letter.html> Nick Wadhams /
Nairobi Saturday, Mar. 13, 2010
British rock impresario and Africa aid promoter Bob Geldof, a.k.a. "Saint
Bob," was back in the headlines this past week after blowing his stack at
the BBC for a story it aired alleging that Ethiopian rebels had diverted 95%
of the $100 million in Ethiopian famine relief raised in the mid-1980s -
much of it by Geldof's iconic Band Aid concert.
Geldof's spirited denials (he called the BBC a "rotten old cherry" and said
there was not a "shred" of evidence to support the claim) drew support from
NGOs that worked in Ethiopia at the time, along with those who remember the
miseries of the famine which killed hundreds of thousands of people, as well
as the gumption Geldof showed by pulling together rock stars from the U.S
and Britain to help feed the victims. In the days since, however, Geldof has
raised eyebrows for his apparent refusal to acknowledge the possibility that
money may have been skimmed off the top, which many aid agencies and
humanitarian workers say routinely happens in developing nations. In fact,
doubts in the last few years about whether relief supplies reach their
intended sources in conflict zones have given rise to a whole new way of
thinking about humanitarian aid - and caused some to question whether giving
aid in times of war does any good at all.
pictures of Geldof in Africa with President Bush.)
"Whereas outsiders might have been well-intentioned in wanting to solve the
problems of famine in Ethiopia, the regime and rebels were very much aware
of how they could make use of that aid to advance their own interests,"
James Shikwati, director of the Inter Region Economic Network, a
Nairobi-based think tank, and a longtime critic of foreign aid, tells TIME.
"Instead of trying to defend themselves, I think Bob Geldof and his friends
should be looking at this as part of the problem of the aid industry."
Shikwati is a leading advocate in an emerging movement that wants to see
foreign development assistance - and some emergency help - stopped entirely
in Africa. He says foreign aid fosters corruption and a sense of dependence
on Western donors. In some countries, leaders have also been accused of
steering development projects to areas where people have voted for them
while opposition areas get nothing, Shikwati says.
pictures of Africa's AIDS crisis.)
The real story behind Ethiopia's famine exemplifies many of the problems
with aid. In the West, the famine of the 1980s was seen as a great natural
disaster. Band Aid was so successful - it raised tens of millions of dollars
- because it played on Westerners' sense of obligation to "save Africa" and
their sense of guilt for somehow "allowing" the famine to happen. But the
reality was far more complex. While Ethiopia was indeed in the grip of a
drought, Mengistu Haile Mariam's government, which was fighting an
insurgency at the time, restricted NGOs from helping famine victims in
certain areas and forcibly moved hundreds of thousands of people from one
place to another in a repeat of Soviet-era collectivization campaigns,
exacerbating their plight. The rebels, who came to power years later, are
partly responsible for people's suffering, too. A CIA report cited by the
BBC found that money raised by the insurgents, ostensibly to help the
starving, was "almost certainly" diverted for military purposes.
It seems ironic that in one of his ripostes, Geldof argued that current
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi - who was a rebel leader during the
time of the famine - denied that any aid had been diverted in the 1980s. But
Meles has been accused of doing the very same thing in recent years in
Ethiopia's Ogaden region, which is also home to a rebel insurgency. Aid
workers operating in the region in 2007 told TIME the government allowed
them to distribute food in some places and not others. They spoke on
condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the government. In a report
soon after that, Human Rights Watch accused the Meles government of rounding
up and killing livestock in the region and blocking aid. The government has
repeatedly denied such accusations.
about the rise of extremism in Somalia.)
It's not just happening in Ethiopia either. A new U.N. report on Somalia,
first revealed in a report by the The New York Times on March 9, found that
Somali contractors skim off as much as half the food aid delivered by the
World Food Program and give it to Islamic militants battling the government.
That revelation followed on the heels of a sharp debate on aid in Somalia
between the U.N. and the U.S., which has announced it will restrict some
supplies to the country out of fear it's helping the rebels. "Operating in
conflict zones is always a complex challenge for humanitarian
organizations," WFP's Nairobi spokesman, Marcus Prior, tells TIME. "Even in
the worst circumstances, we seek to follow all rules and regulations
surrounding our operations and to remain true to our humanitarian mandate of
impartiality and neutrality." But the WFP has had a hard time doing that
given the fact that it is part of the U.N., a body made up of member states.
Other groups have laid down specific rules that keep them from working too
closely with certain governments or rebel groups. Among the most prominent
is Doctors Without Borders. The French arm of that group was, in fact,
expelled from Ethiopia during the famine in the 1980s when it criticized the
government for forcibly moving some of the population and manipulating aid.
The group now makes a point of delivering as much direct aid to those in
need as possible, rather than working through governments or what it calls
"armed actors." This week, it went after NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh
Rasmussen after he made a seemingly innocuous remark about wanting to
"improve the frequency and quality of the dialogue between NATO and the
NGOs" in Afghanistan. He went on to say that "hard power" must be combined
with "soft power," an idea that infuriates Doctors Without Borders, which
said in response that it "never works alongside, or partners with, any
"We have left places where the level of interference was too much," Monica
Camacho, the group's coordinator in Somalia, tells TIME. "We are very clear
that the moment you are interfered with, you no longer have legitimacy. News
of whatever happens to us in one conflict will spread, and we are very aware
that it has an impact everywhere."
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