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The Humanitarian Aid Industry's Most Absurd Apologist

Writing in his diary of his erstwhile friend and wartime comrade-in-arms Randolph Churchill’s surgery for lung cancer, Evelyn Waugh noted acidly, that it was a “typical triumph of medical science to find the one part of Randoph that was not malignant and remove it.”

The BBC’s recent abject apology to Bob Geldof for the claim made last March 4 on the 'Assignment' program, that the vast majority of the money raised, perhaps as much as 95 percent, during the 1984/85 Ethiopian famine by Geldof’s Band Aid concerts that went to fund relief projects in areas held by the Tigrayan rebels had in fact been diverted by the guerrillas to purchase arms, has something of the same quality. 

Given the credible bill of indictment that could have been leveled against Geldof, using as evidence only his own words and those of the officials from the aid agencies that received Band Aid funding, that the BBC would choose to charge Geldof with something they could not possibly prove, and was in any case most certainly wildly exaggerated, suggests a degree of self-destructiveness that would seem to call for the services of a corporate psychologist (as Geldof rightly pointed out, shades of another recent scandal at the BBC, that of abusive phone calls made on air by the comedian Russell Brand). That said, some of the more heated statements by mainstream British relief groups supporting Geldof’s complaint when it was filed and now welcoming the BBC’s apology have been absurdly sanctimonious and self-regarding. 

Whether or not they are prepared to acknowledge the fact, and it speaks volumes about how inflated is their sense of themselves and of their role that so many mainline NGOs largely remain unwilling to do so publicly, diversions of aid monies and supplies by combatants in war zones (globally, not just in Ethiopia in the mid-'80s), are and probably always will be an occupational hazard of relief work—the price frequently exacted of aid agencies for being allowed to work by men with the power of life and death over both relief workers and those they are trying to serve. 

As John James, Band Aid’s Field Director in Ethiopia between 1985 and 1991 told the Daily Mail, “You couldn’t help the hungry in the rebel-held areas without helping the rebels. You have to be realistic about that. It is probable that some money was diverted to buy arms,” he said, adding that he thought it was “ridiculous for anybody to claim that not one penny of aid money was diverted.” James was scarcely endorsing the figure put forward by 'Assignment' or claiming that the aid money had not done far more good than harm. But he insisted that, “I would be surprised if it were any less than 10-20 percent of funds that were diverted to the rebels.” 

In fact, what would have been extraordinary was had a diversion of the magnitude James described not taken place. This is why when Phil Bloomer, Oxfam’s campaigns and policy director, asserted confidently that with its 60 years of field experience his organization had “systems in place to safeguard against diversion,” his comment, though doubtless true, begged more questions as it resolved. No matter how good such safeguards may look on paper, in the field it is rarely possible to implement them fully. Only in the current environment, where aid agencies choose or are forced (it is probably a combination of both) to sell themselves by making exaggerated claims for what they have or can hope to accomplish, and by simplifying the complexities they confront every day on the ground, could this sad fact of life, about which, again, the NGO’s themselves can do very little, be something that needed to be denied or glossed over. 

Bloomer was at pains to say that, “The British public who in good faith donated money to help distressed, starving people need to know that these allegations are preposterous.” But what is truly preposterous is not the allegations themselves, but instead Bloomer’s own sanctimonious and, in reality far more preposterous fairy tales about the possibility of ever guaranteeing full effectiveness for these safeguards. Somehow, one doubts the founders of Oxfam would have taken refuge in language far better suited to politicians’ press releases and ad agency spin. 

The irony is that the real problem with Live Aid’s role in Ethiopia in the mid-'80s has nothing to do with the diversion of aid toward purposes Geldof and his colleagues clearly never intended (even the Assignment program doesn’t go that far), but instead with programs and purposes that Geldof was entirely transparent about at the time and continues to fiercely defend to this day. Again, whatever aid officials may say publicly, privately they all know that some diversions are inevitable. In contrast, the relief world still remains badly divided over Live Aid’s decision to help fund the activities of international relief agencies, notably the Irish NGO Concern, in providing assistance to the victims not just of the famine—itself as much a man-made, or, more precisely, Ethiopian government-made, disaster as a natural one, despite the way reporters like Michael Buerk presented it at the time—but of the massive resettlement program undertaken by Ethiopia’s Stalinist tyrants, both as refugees were transported south from the conflict and famine zones and in the camps into which they were forced after their deportation.

Geldof prides himself on being “Everyman,” or, rather an everyman who could go and do what people “would have liked to do themselves,” as he puts it in his memoir, Is That It? As for Band Aid, he has written that its ideal state is the way it will lodge in people’s memories, “where it will live as something that was wholly good and incorruptible and that worked.” Believing that, it should not be surprising that he has been so utterly, so ferociously committed to defending Band Aid against all criticisms great and small, rejecting even those criticisms that readily concede how much good Band Aid did but also insist that, wittingly or unwittingly, its actions did harm as well.

To say that this is the fate of all human endeavors would seem like commonsense, but Geldof will have none of it. And so far he has been fortunate that his best-publicized critics, like the ones featured on the 'Assignment' program, have wildly over-stated their case, and that the most devastating critiques of Band Aid, most notably that made by Doctors Without Borders France (MSF), have not received the same kind of media attention. 

MSF’s argument has been that if the past 20 years has taught aid workers anything, it is that aid can sometimes do more harm than good. For them, Ethiopia in 1984-85 was precisely where this lesson was rammed home. As MSF’s former president, Rony Brauman, who was constantly in Ethiopia during this period, crossing swords repeatedly with Oxfam and Concern has put it, the Ethiopian crisis, both the famine itself and the Derg’s resettlement campaign, forced MSF to face the fact that “aid could be turned against those toward whom it was directed and those delivering the aid integrated into a system of oppression.” 

In 1984 and ‘85, the idea that the work of relief agencies, no matter how well-intended, could turn NGOs, and, by extension, their funders, into “part of the problem, not just part of the solution,” as Brauman put it, was a controversial one. Today, within the relief world it has quite rightly become a commonplace of relief work, generally accepted throughout what Alex de Waal has called the Humanitarian International. 

But decade in and decade out, Geldof has remained impervious, not just rejecting but never giving any sign of having considered seriously the possibility that the Band Aid phenomenon could have done harm as well as good. As far as he is concerned, there was nothing morally problematic about any of this, and anyone who says differently has lost the plot. He has been adamant that, “The resettlement programme would [have continued] whether or not we chose to help, just as Hitler’s extermination of the Jews would have continued whether or not aid workers had contrived to help alleviate the sufferings in the camps. … Our work [in Ethiopia] employed the same argument.” And Geldof implies strongly that it was he who won Concern over to his point of view. “Father Jack Finucane of Concern,” he writes, “said while I was [in Ethiopia] in January that they would never help in resettlement areas. …Twelve months later, [Concern became] the main agency working there.” 

Modesty never having been an attribute with which Geldof has had even a nodding acquaintance, the claim should doubtless be viewed with extreme caution. Fr. Jack Finucane and his brother, Fr. Aengus, were vastly experienced aid workers. They are quite simply the last people who could be talked into such a serious course of action by anyone from the inside or, indeed, from other NGOs. 

The bitter conflict between Concern, which believed it was right to remain, and MSF, which insisted that the time had come for the relief NGO’s to stop collaborating with the regime and pull out, thus no longer providing the dictatorship with humanitarian cover, is a matter of historical fact. That certainly would have included Geldof. As I understand it, Concern’s view was then, and remains now, that the moral duty of relief groups must always (or virtually always) be to remain, no matter how terrible the regime is. They make this argument on the grounds that NGO’s can do much to alleviate suffering if they stay, but little to influence political outcomes if they go. Predictably, Geldof takes a morally serious dispute, with respectable arguments on both sides (though full disclosure, I am entirely with MSF on the matter) and turns it into a pissing match in an alley behind a pub. 

Hypersensitive to criticism himself and so boastful of his own willingness to “shake hands with the devil on my left and the devil on my right to get to the people who need help,” Geldof has been quick to accuse MSF of “seeming to allow itself to be used as pawns” by opponents of the Mengistu regime. It is impossible to say for certain whether this is pure speculation on his part, or whether he is repeating in more lurid detail what NGO and Ethiopian government officials told him privately about MSF. 

In reality, what Brauman understood, and Geldof shows no signs of ever having seriously considered, is that it is simply not good enough to say, as Geldof has repeatedly, that aid should be given without strings—“graciously [and] without conditions,” Geldof once put it. Indeed, what the experience of humanitarian action over the past thirty years from Ethiopia, through Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Rwanda, to Iraq and Afghanistan (again) today suggests is that nothing could be further from the truth. 

Geldof is of course entirely correct when he says that the relief agencies could not have prevented the Derg from committing the crimes that led to the famine and the crimes of the resettlement campaign that followed. MSF never said they could. Instead, what it argued was that had the relief agencies withdrawn en masse and denounced publicly and collectively what the dictatorship was doing, the major donors to Ethiopia, above all the United States and the European Union, which certainly had the power to act, might have been mobilized to do something to halt the deportations and the forced resettlement. That is why it is so grotesque of Geldof to continue to insist that, because his intentions, and those of relief agencies he helped fund like Concern, were good, he and they cannot in at least a sense be considered to have made things worse for the Ethiopian deportees, even while self-evidently this was the last thing they wanted to do.  

What Geldof should really have been brought to account for was this moral arrogance and what he doubtless thinks of as principled stubbornness but what in fact has become little more than invincible self-regard (in fairness, these were the qualities that allowed Geldof to mount Band Aid in the first place), and not the bogus controversy about whether some Band Aid money did or did not make its way into the hands of the Tigrayan rebels. About that, Geldof really does have the right to ask, ‘Is that it?’ But that isn’t it, not by a long shot.

David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.

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