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25 years on Bob Geldof is back in Ethiopia and asking: “Who says aid doesn’t work?”

2009 December 2
by Paul Vallely

Bob Geldof sat uncomfortably in a vast field of igneous rocks scattered apparently at random among the sere grass. But the rocks had been placed deliberately on the volcanic soil of the great plateau which had been lifted by magma from the earth’s mantle millions of years ago to form the mountains which are the roof of Africa. Each stone marked a communal grave in which between eight and 20 people were buried.

 Tens of thousands of children, women and mainly elderly men were interred here in the fields of Korem when famine swept the desiccated Ethiopian highlands in 1984/5. Around a million are said to have died. A sizeable number of them perished here on the great plain where stood the camp of 300,000 people who had fled their homes, days and weeks walk away in the remote mountain fastness. They had come to Korem in the hope of finding food. But many found nothing except a place to sit in slow silent eye-glazed apathy as they waited to die. Twenty five years ago I had been in that terrible camp and watched the tardy response of the international community arrive too late to save so many individuals.

It was around the same time that Bob Geldof had first come to Korem a few weeks after he galvanised the pop world to make the Band Aid record which was to go on to become the biggest fundraising effort in human history. £100 million was given by the public for the stricken people of Africa.

Last week he returned. And in the very place where so many people had died, he came face-to-face for the first time with some of the survivors. “What I remember of the people was their immense dignity in the face of everything,” he told them.

They smiled wanly, and thanked him, but it was not how the victims remembered it. A quarter of a century on they told him how it really was.

“It is a challenge to the imagination,” said Gebremedhin Alemu, now aged 60, who had walked 100 kilometres with his wife and six children in search of food aid which took two years to materialise in adequate quantities. “We were reduced to a sub-human situation. When someone died, we went to bury him, and by the time we came back someone else had died.”

“People were buried like animals,” said Haile Melicot, now 50. “There was no system. No honour. People were just put into mass graves without anyone knowing who had been buried where. We were so weak that the aid agencies had to pay people to carry the bodies from the camp up here to the burial place.”

“Our respect for you, our brother in hard times, is boundless,” Gebremedhin told Geldof. “At a time when our dignity was questioned, you came and paid for people with energy to bury our dead.”

This was not what Geldof had expected. But the wave of gratitude, for whatever the perceived priorities of the one-time famine victims was overwhelming and humbling. “We have just come back to pay our respects,” the singer told the men.

“We want you to pass on our thanks to the brothers and sisters outside Ethiopia who helped us,” said Alana Abraham, 52, who had arrived at Korem with three brothers and was the only one of his family to survive.

“Is there anything else we could do for you?” asked Geldof. In reply the men told him of their lives since, of years of good harvests, of the economic booming of the little town, of plenty and prosperity. “One farmer even has a minibus,” said Alana Abraham in total awe.

But there was one thing they lacked, because it was not a priority for the government or within the development mandate of the aid agencies. They would like a fence around the mass grave areas – both the Christian and the Muslim one – to stop animals from trampling on the dignity of the dead.

Band Aid would build one, Geldof said, from the royalties which still, 25 years on, come trickling in. The joy of the survivors took him utterly by surprise. They shrieked their pleasure, hugged the Irishman and turned around to share the good news with the rest of the crowd.

“If we lose our sense of shared humanity,” said Geldof quietly, as he walked away to the church at the other side of the graveyard, “something withers inside us”


There are those who have said that Band Aid, and everything that sprang from it, was a waste of time. More than two decades on and millions of people in Ethiopia and across East Africa are again facing severe food and water shortages after three years of poor rains. The Ethiopian government last month appealed to the international community for 159,000 tons of food aid to feed 6.2 million people this year. The World Food Programme says 14 million will need feeding – and warns that the rich world is once again dragging its feet. Its stocks are so low it has cut rations from 15 kilos of cereal per person per month to just 10.  For those on the edge that means just two bowls of porridge a day instead of three.

The higher estimates made by the aid community area causing tensions with the Ethiopian government, as Geldof discovered when he began his week long return to the country by calling on the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, with whom the singer served on the Commission for Africa in 2005.

“Band Aid was needed in it’s time. There’s no question, you made a difference, which helped Africa,” Meles told Geldof at the end of a two hour meeting, “But when partnership becomes patronising that’s bad for the father and the son will never grow up… Since the end of the last famine our overriding aim has been to make sure that there isn’t another one. We’ve put in systems to alert us to that and mechanisms to reverse the problems that led to it. We’ve had several droughts but no famine over the past 18 years.”

One of those schemes is a Safety Net programme which gives food to 7.6  million people in exchange for labour on public works for part of each year. It saves them from having to sell their animals if their crops fail. But it allows the UN to add that seven million to the poorest six million and insist that 13 million of the country’s 83 million people rely on foreign handouts to survive.

Meles is clearly irritated by this. “It conveys a message that Ethiopia is helpless which is only wrong; it is debilitating,” he told Geldof. “They may be acting from good motives but you can’t shock people with high figures every year; there’s no need for it; it won’t get any extra aid; and it creates the image of permanent crisis”.

Nor was the Ethiopian leader pleased at the Western media’s focus on the 25th anniversary of the famine and the suggestion from some that nothing has changed. “It is not just a lie. It is also disempowering,” Meles said. “It implies that all the efforts in the meantime have been useless – and that leads to paralysis rather than action. Many people are working their hearts out, and they have made real progress – not enough perhaps – but real progress.

So how much have things changed? Geldof embarked a week on a whistle-stop tour of projects which Band Aid has supported to find out.


The group of mothers sitting in the shade of a thorn tree in the village of Abinet, in Wollo, some 500 km to the north of Addis Ababa, scarcely looked up as Geldof arrived. They were studying a childcare picturebook whose messages were obvious enough even to those who could not read. A set of scales dangled from one of the branches from which each child in turn was suspended and weighed.

In the centre of the book was a graph on which the women had been shown how to plot the weight of their baby. Two pre-printed lines, denoting average progress for girls and boys, enabled them to see how well their child was thriving. Those whose graphs were below the norm were asked to walk up the road to the village clinic.

Inside a 25-year-old villager Nazret Hilot was placing a measuring bracelet around the biceps of each child. Those who were below 11cm were placed on a supplementary feeding programme. Each was given a silver foil sachet with the words Plumpynut on it.  It was an enriched peanut butter paste. There were just nine mothers inside the clinic.

They told Geldof their stories. One said her breasts were just not producing enough because food was getting scarce since there had been no rains and therefore no harvest. Another had had twins and could not manage to feed two little mouths. Several had had a second child and found that its one-year-old elder sibling was becoming malnourished.

“This is a real revolution in caring for children,” Geldof was told by Ted Chaiban, the head of UNICEF which is running the feeding programme with Band Aid funds. “Instead of the families having to come to the health care it comes to them. The government has trained 30,000 health workers like this, two for each kebele (village).” Then the Plumpynut does not need diluting like the old therapeutic foods did so there’s no risk of contamination with dirty water, which happened in 1985. Nor is there the need for people to gather in squalid insanitary camps. “And 200 tons of the food are made are being made here in Ethiopia every month. It’s a huge advance to in dealing with severe and acute malnutrition.”

The health worker, Nazret,  had 6,854 people in her care, she explained. “I give instruction in sanitation, latrine construction, hand washing, correct use of anti-mosquito bednets, childbirth, family planning and HIV awareness,” she said. “I have delivered 16 babies so far and not had to call for any assistance.”

One of the requirements is that the kebele health workers are local, so they are known and trusted. “I had to be a graduate from the 10th grade and known to be of good habits,” she told Geldof when she was asked how she got the job. The singer laughed.

“How many children do you all have – or want,” he asked. The reply was that they wanted families of between six and 10 children. That may change. “Use of family planning has risen from 7 per cent in 2000 to 27 per cent today,” said Nazret, consulting her charts.

“All this is a big advance,” the Unicef man told Geldof. “There are still some issues to sort out about whether or not health workers are quick enough in recognising complications to refer them to the local hospital. But for 95 per cent of cases it’s a major step forward. And that’s important in a country where, even in the best years the 1 or 2 per cent of the population who are the poorest of the poor are going to be in some difficulties. A lot fewer children are dying.”

It’s a position which is reflected nationally. Though 35 per cent of Ethiopian children are malnourished, and 40 per cent are stunted when they start school, the number who die below the age of 5 is down 40 per cent on what it was 15 years ago. A shocking 381,000 children died from preventable causes last year but there is clear progress. Cases of malaria have been reduced by two-third since 2006, with the number of deaths halved thanks to the government spraying a million houses and the Global Fund and the Gates Foundation distributing a massive 20 million bednets.

“Who says aid doesn’t work,” spluttered Geldof as he leaves the clinic.


There was general merriment in the Band Aid party en route to the next place. It had been billed as a “child friendly school”. Aren’t all schools supposed to be that, some wag inquired. “Mine wasn’t,” grumbled Geldof of the Holy Ghost Fathers who educated him at the prestigious Blackrock College, though interestingly later in the week he encountered Fr Jack Finucane, a retired member of the order, who ran operations for the Irish aid agency Concern in Ethiopia throughout both the 1974 and 1984 famines. “Ah you’re the embodiment of all the values we wanted to inculcate in our boys,” twinkled the old Irish priest. “Fuck off,” replied the secular saint.

So what does a child un-friendly school look like, Indrias Getachew of UNICEF was asked. “One where the children sit on the floor rather than at desks,” he replied tartly, “where the floor is mud rather than easy-to-clean concrete, where the children are lectured at rather than learning in an interactive style, where there are no toys and playground equipment, and where there are no separate latrines for girls and boys.”

It was a cautionary admonition. All the things that would be taken for granted in a  school in England are not the norm in Ethiopia. “Separate toilets for girls is particularly important,” explained Indrias, “because having to share latrines is one of the biggest reasons for girls dropping out of school as they get older.”

The children were out in force to cheer as Geldof arrived at Hentalo Wajirat an hour’s drive out of Mekele, the capital of Tigray and one of the other epicentres of the 1984 famine. But it was not enforced enthusiasm. Private conversations with the pupils revealed their fierce pride in an institution so poplar that it has to run a shift system to get all 1,300 children kids a place behind a desk  Its 26 teachers work both mornings and afternoons ensuring that class sizes can be kept to between 30-50 rather than the 80-100 as is the local norm.

The pupils sang, danced, walked on their hands, played football and volleyball and watered the guava trees they had planted for the Millennium. They had been asked to plant two each but had done three.  The invention was boundless. “Look at that,” said Geldof, pointing to a tv set made from an old box with a scroll of paper ingeniously rolled through it. They had no microscope but had made a cardboard one so pupils would recognise a real one when they saw it.

“So it was all a waste of time,” expostulated Geldof with heavy irony. “The naysayers make me puke” The angry young man of 1985 has matured into an angry old one.

It is not just one school. The numbers in school have trebled since the famine and the overthrow of the military dictatorship of the Mengistu regime in 1991. School enrolment has doubled since 2001 so that now 71 per cent of Ethiopian children are in education. That still leaves out 3.7m children but new schools are being built in many poor areas. School fees have been abolished. “All this is the fruit of the campaigning to drop the debt,” said Geldof. “Ethiopia’s annual interest on debt was slashed from $195m in 2001 to $86m in 2007. The extra money has gone into schools and hospitals.”


Yet there still remains the vexed question of how Ethiopia can produce enough to feed itself. Another of the organisations Band Aid has widely funded, Oxfam, has just produced a report called “Band Aids and Beyond” which argues that the rich world needs to adopt a new approach to humanitarian emergencies. Instead of shipping in huge quantities of food when disasters occur we should be structuring our aid so that it prevents such crises in the first place.

Some 70 per cent of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia comes from the United States. Since 1991 some 94 per cent of  that  has been in the form of food shipped over from the USA. (By contrast Britain’s aid is in cash which allows the food to be purchased – far more quickly – in the parts of Ethiopia which have grain surpluses, and which creates an incentive for local farmers to produce more). And every $1 of US food aid costs American taxpayers another $2 in transport costs.

Worse than that food aid may keep people alive but it does not tackle the underlying causes that continue to make people vulnerable to disaster year-after-year. “Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution,” said Nick Martlew, Oxfam’s humanitarian policy adviser in Addis, and author of the report. “If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores, and systems to conserve rains then they can survive despite what the elements throw at them. It is essential that donors do more to back programmes that manage the risk of the disaster before it strikes, such as early warning systems, creating strategically positioned stockpiles of food, medicine and other items, and irrigation programmes”.

Over the years Band Aid has backed a number projects designed to show the way on this. In Tigray, which was one of the most environmentally blasted areas in 1984, Band Aid has backed Rest, which was formerly the welfare arm of the Tigray rebel movement and which is now the region’s major indigenous NGO, in a project to restore a devastated water catchment area. Its official title is the “Managing Environmental Resources to Enable Transitions to more sustainable livelihoods” project which everyone calls Meret. Geldof & Co visited one part of the scheme which has improved life for 1.4m people with unreliable supplies of food. It offered them food aid in return for work on the project to revive the land  with sustainable land use.

Ibrahim Ali is one such beneficiary. But like most of his fellow farmers in the Raya Valley he was intensely suspicious when the government men from Rest arrived eight years ago. “They wouldn’t even let us on their land to study it,” said Teklewoine Assefa of Rest, “they assumed that we were going to take it from them.” They were so hostile that they pretended to be afraid that the black irrigation pipes were snakes. “They cut them up in the night and did a quarter of a million birr (about £21,000) worth of damage.”

Eight years later Ibrahim has just harvested his first crop – onions. “The people who came to buy them offered 3.25 birr a kilo,” he told Geldof. “So I got on my mobile phone to someone in the market in Mekele and found they were 4 birr there. I rented an Isuzu (truck) for 1600 birr and sold there. Now I have options, I can sell here or there. or wait a few days if I think the price will rise.”

He made a handsome profit. From it he repaid the loan he had taken from the micro-finance arm of the National Bank of Ethiopia – which has 190 sub-offices throughout Tigray – and paid a couple of dozen labourers who had helped with the weeding and harvest. “Now I am going to rebuild my house and send my two sons to school. Abdurahaman, who is 8, wants to be a pilot.” His fellow farmers laughed at the thought but Geldof shrugged his shoulders. “With education their lives will be more different than their father’s generation can imagine,” he said, as he left Ibrahim to prepare the land for his next crop.

“I will plant wheat,” the farmer said. “With this irrigation,” he added, pointing to the plastic sheets between the rows of pipes which ensures that the water goes onto the plant roots, “I will get three harvests a year”.

The sadness is that the Meret project, which has been widely backed by the World Food Programme, is having its funding halved in the year to come. The WFP’s watershed management expert, Dr Mohamed Diab, pulled a face when asked why. It was a question above his pay grade. “It took 10 years to get the $60,000+ funds for this,” he said. “To scale it up to the whole watershed would need $300,000 over 10 years.”

Geldof was outraged. “The G8 promised an extra $20bn a year for agriculture at its summit in L’Aquila this year the G8,” he said. “We must make such they keep their promise.”


In the end, however good are such exemplary projects, it all comes down to politics. With Geldof throughout the trip was Jamie Drummond, the master strategist for the One campaign, the group set up by Bono and Geldof, with funding from Bill Gates, to lobby the US Congress. It is an American version of Make Poverty History, but it has kept going where the UK equivalent wound up. It has two million members.

“Band Aid created much more than a collection of projects,” said Drummond. “It changed the way people thought about the developing world. It shifted people from thinking about charity to looking at the underlying structures of what keeps people poor. Out of Band Aid and Live Aid came Comic Relief, Jubilee 2000, Drop the Debt, the Trade Justice campaign, and Make Poverty History. They changed the agenda to lobbying for a change in political and economic policies.” Politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were all children of Live Aid.

Debt was cancelled because of the movements which were spawned by Band Aid. They came to their climax with the lobbying of the Gleneagles G8 summit, where Tony Blair, who chaired the meetings, opened the door to give the lobbyists direct access to the world leaders. “It was a genealogy which can be traced directly back to Band Aid.”

But the politics is national as well as international. What turned drought into famine in 1984 was the untenable land policies of the Marxist government which had overseen a drop in GDP year after year. The present government has made mistakes too. It encouraged farmers to take loans to buy better seeds and fertilisers and produce a bumper crop in 2001. “But the roads were so bad they couldn’t get their crop to market and there weren’t adequate stores or grain silos so a lot of it rotted,” one UN food expert privately told Geldof. “When the lenders came back for their money the farmers couldn’t pay and fell into debt. It made them distrust the agricultural advisers who had told them to take the loans.”

The government learned from that. A massive road-building programme is underway. “Every day I’ve seen a different major highway under construction,” Geldof said. That is not all. There is building work everywhere. Factories, power stations, dams, hydroelectric plants and blocks of apartments. In Addis Ababa the city council is building 54,000 houses. Ethiopia has never seen such a construction boom.

Behind much of the new work are the Chinese. In a restaurant in Mekele Geldof came across three Chinese businessmen, with a female translator in a miniskirt and high heels,  who had brought their own instant pot noodles with them to eat. “Do have a pot,” said one businessman hospitably. “We have got loads back at base.”

Pot noodles are not all they have brought. China is ploughing billions into Ethiopia and in much else of Africa. This year China is set to overtake the US as Africa’s biggest trading partner. “We are now in a race with China for influence in Africa,” said Geldof afterwards. One of the several diplomats who briefed Geldof agreed. “The days of a progressive consensus between the UK and Nordic countries on aid may be numbered as those countries pay for the global financial stimulus,” he said. “Countries like China and Turkey and others in the East are providing money that Africa needs without the West’s conditions about human rights and good governance.”

Geldof, like many in the West, has reservations about the Ethiopian government’s human rights record. It arrested a hundred opposition politicians after the last election and charged them with treason (they have since been released) and recently it passed a law requiring “registration” of all NGOs which get more than 10 per cent of their funds from overseas. But overall Meles Zenawi presides over a benign Ethiopia characterised by relative peace, stability and economic growth.

Everywhere privately-owned businesses, factories, banks and hotels are springing up. Ethiopia last year rose 29 places in the World Bank’s Starting A Business index. Addis has regular traffic jams, a sure indicator of economic success. Out in the country the peasant farmers have better shoes and fewer eye infections than before.  The Economist has forecast Ethiopia to be the 5th fastest growing economy in the world in 2010. Already the fastest growing non-oil economy in Africa some even talk about it overtaking Kenya as the biggest economy in East Africa.

Back in Addis Geldof visited one such optimist. Eleni Gabre-Madhin was an economics student at Cornell in New York when the 1984 famine struck. “I couldn’t understand how a million people died in the north when there was a food surplus in the west and south. She studied how markets work and ended up as a senior economist at the World Bank where she developed the dream of building a market mechanism to protect the African farmer.  Last year she persuaded the government to set up Africa’s first Commodities Exchange.

“Everyone was always talking about cutting out the middlemen. But I knew that, if they worked effectively, traders could benefit everyone,” she told Geldof before inviting him to ring the bell to begin that day’s trading in Sidamo coffee. “Under the traditional system farmers in one area all go to market at the same time. So the price drops, and they sell when prices are lowest. Most farmers sell  to a trader who sells to an exporter and who often does not pay them for six months. But under our system, with 30 networked warehouses in different parts of the country, they don’t all deposit in our clearing house at the same time. And when they sell they get the money the next day.”

The Addis Commodities Exchange now handles $400m plus of export coffee and the exporters, traders and the co-operatives which have 848,000 small farmers are all pleased with the system. And the transparent competition is creating an incentive which is forcing the quality of the lower grades of coffee up.


Were the world standing still things might be looking up for the new generation who have been changing Africa’s storyline. But it is not. Worldwide recession has had an adverse impact on Africa too. The global rise in the price of oil has increased the cost of transport across this vast continent and the price of food imports has soared. Ethiopia’s earnings from coffee are down 35 per cent in one year because of a collapse in commodity prices on world markets – though the price is now rising again.

“The old deal was that aid buys a poor country time to get the economy right,” Geldof mused before the last leg of his journey. “That’s what Ethiopia’s been doing. But suddenly something else is happening that changes the rules entirely.”

After a long and bumpy two hour drive into the hills, outside Bahir Dar in the north of the Amhara region, Geldof climbed a lung-bursting high-altitude hill to sit with a group of around 80 farmers. They had travelled from across Debre Tabour province to meet him. It was billed as a climate change conversation.

“The main rains should start in June and go on till October,” a farmer named Ayano Damostolds him. “Now they start in July and finish in August; the rains come late and end early. Each year it gets worse. We are now a drought place like only the lowlands were in our grandfather’s day. The rivers and stream should run until May but they are drying up in December.”

“All this has impacted women, children and old people most,” said a female farmer, Amoghu Zemadu. “The women have to travel long distances to fetch water. Pregnant women have aborted. The children are left alone at home crying.”

“Our older children are leaving,” said Haile Woldeya. “My son left three years ago and my daughter two years ago, to find work in the town in Humera. They will not come back unless things here get better.”

“We are restricting family size using contraceptives and birth spacing,” said Natua Saya, a woman at the back of the crowd. “What is the point of having more children if they are all going to leave and go to Humera?”

Other behaviour is changing. “We don’t have big parties at feasts, saints days  and weddings as we used to have,” Natua Saya added. “And we used to leave things outside and no-one would touch them but now we have to bring them into the house because someone might steal them.”

To combat this, said another farmer, Haile Wandaya, “we are planting trees, making compost, constructing terraces to prevent soil erosion and irrigating where possible. We have some places in every village where trees are planted where animals and humans are not allowed to go. We have stopped all year round grazing; we now grow grass and cut it to take to the animals rather than allowing them to roam in these protected areas.

“Our grandfathers didn’t understand that cutting down trees was bad for the land,” he concluded. “Just like your grandfathers didn’t know that emissions from your  factories could change our weather. We are all responsible.”

Geldof listened, and finally spoke. “We will be taking all this back to our politicians and talking to them about the changes we have to make,” he told the farmers. He would also tell them about the southern nomads who had changed the names of the months because they had been named after the weather and the two no longer matched.

He would tell them about the 1,068 farmers in the Hafersa Farmers’ Cooperative  whose coffee beans have become smaller or whose coffee bushes had ceased to produce.

He would tell them about how runners from the Assella  community, which produced the internationally renowned athletes Haile Gebreselassie and Deratu Tulu, who once had run all day now had to stop training at 10am each morning because it was already too hot to run.

“Climate change is not a future threat,” Geldof said. “Here it is a present reality. And it is hitting the poorest first, and will impact on them worst.”

There are things which can be done to help poor people adapt. In Debre Tabour a four year programme of tree-planting and conservation is underway. “There has been a lot of progress in that time,” said Dr Knut Huse of the Norwegian Forestry Group who was at the climate change conversation on the hill. Nationally forest cover is up from 3 to 15 per cent because the government has in recent years planted 800 million trees. “If the local people undertake good land practices here, planting trees and conserving soil and water, they could reclaim this area,” said  Dr Yeshanew Ashagrie of a local Amhara NGO Orda.

Up the road Oxfam has introduced British beehives to traditional African beekeepers, quadrupling their income, to offset their drop in revenue fro cereals knocked back by climate change. Such measures will help hard-hit Third World farmers cope with global warming, but much more is needed.

At the climate change conference in Copenhagen the African delegation, which will be led by Meles Zenawi, is thought likely to push for the issue to be treated as an international emergency. It will press for greenhouse gas emissions to be cut by 40 per cent by 2020 – double what the West wants.  If warming goes up by more than 2 degrees, Meles Zenawi fears, rainfall will fall in Africa by 50 per cent and GDP will fall between 5 and 7 per cent. It wants big payments from the rich polluters to help it adapt.

“We will take what you have said back to Europe and the United States,” Geldof pledged.


Back in Korem there was a new building to open. With the money raised from the Live Aid DVD the Band Aid Trust have paid for a new hospital there which will serve 250,000 outpatients.

“No more deaths from hunger,” read the banners as the crowds cheered in Geldof the hero. He was applauded everywhere he went last week – in markets, hotels, office and restaurants. Even the control tower at Mekele airport passed on their gratitude along with air traffic clearance for the Band Aid plane.

There was one other banner, in Amharic. Translated it read: “Our future is in our own hands.” Until climate change reared its ghastly gaseous head it might have been.  But no more. No more.

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