The BBC is reporting that 90% of money raised in 1985 to alleviate famine in Ethiopia went to Tigrayan rebels to buy arms in the struggle for independence. Musician Bob Geldof, founder of Band Aid, which raised $100 million is demanding the BBC provide evidence of abuse of funds.
The claims are made by two individuals who were part of the rebel movement and who are opponents of the current president of Ethiopia with whom they were once affiliated. He stands for re-election in the spring. The report also says the CIA alleged some money was misused.
In an effort the magnitude of the famine response in Ethiopia there is a risk that food or funds will be misdirected. But not at the scale alleged in this report.
The claims sound preposterous. The two say rebels posing as businessmen sold bags of sand to aid agencies rather than grain. And they claim that most of the funds went to purchase arms.
Aid agencies operating in Ethiopia at that time were not newcomers. Many had long experience in the country. They were there long before the famine and were among those who attempted for several months to make the world aware of the suffering that was underway. They struggled to gain attention.
The ecumenical agency in Ethiopia responsible for distributing some of the food was headed by an Irish priest who had lived in Ethiopia for many years and was well-known across the country. It’s unlikely he was misled by imposters selling sand. That experienced aid agencies were fooled in this way is difficult to believe.
It’s also difficult to believe misappropriation could have occurred at the level alleged under the control of a heavy-handed military dictatorship that was hardly likely to allow diversion of resources to the same rebels it was fighting. The Ethiopian government was led by a Marxist military junta heavy on control.
I traveled extensively in Ethiopia during the famine and afterward and witnessed distribution of food and medical care under extreme hardship. While I wouldn’t argue that the effort was flawless, nor that some leakage of funds is possible, the response abated the worst effects of the famine and saved millions of lives. The war continued long after and, in fact, aid agencies resisted the use of aid for military advantage by either side in the struggle.
The BBC must produce the evidence Geldof is calling for. Otherwise, reasonable people should reserve judgment about the accuracy of the report.