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Despite these dodgy BBC suggestions, aid is not going arms way

2010 March 8
by Paul Vallely

So, basically, said the bloke on the internet, most Live Aid money went to buy arms, that’s correct isn’t it? Well, no, it isn’t actually. And it wasn’t even what the story claimed which the blogger purported to be commenting on. But it tells you rather a lot about the power of suggestion – and the crude subliminal messages that people pick up even when reading a carefully-nuanced piece of writing. And it also tells us something, I suspect, about what people want to believe, and why.

But let’s, for the sake of the record, get some facts straight. The story, by the BBC World Service’s Africa analyst, Martin Plaut, said he had evidence that millions of dollars, earmarked for victims of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, went to buy weapons. The rebels of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, the TPLF, had diverted $95m of aid cash into its fight to overthrow the government of the time. He quoted two senior rebel soldiers as saying that rebels had dressed up as merchants to trick NGOs like Christian Aid into handing over large amounts of cash, purportedly to buy food. To back up the claims he cited recently released CIA documents, and quoted a senior US diplomat as saying that at the time they had believed that aid was “almost certainly being diverted for military purposes”.

This sounds convincing. But it all starts to slip through your fingers when you examine it. First consider the two rebel leaders making these allegations. One is Aregawi Berhe, whom the BBC described as “the former commander of the TPLF’s army”. This brings the first twitch on the antennae, for Berhe was a commander, rather than the commander; he lead the rebel’s sixth offensive against the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu. More significantly Berhe is someone who subsequently fell out with other TPLF leaders and fled to Holland, from where he has over the past few years conducted a persistent attack on Meles Zenawi, the TPLF leader who went on to become the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

The other rebel official in the BBC story is Gebremedhin Araya, a senior figure in the TPLF’s finance department who was photographed in a book by Christian Aid’s Max Peberdy dressed up as a Muslim merchant counting the charity’s money after selling it sacks of grain which were really, he said, filled with sand. Araya too was purged by the TPLF and fled to exile in Australia.

So the core of the BBC story rests on the claims of two individuals with a grievance against the current Ethiopian government and a track-record of attempts to discredit it. That does not mean they are wrong, but it sets up reasonable doubts.

Then there were other niggling discrepancies. Aregawi Berhe claimed that Peberdy had handed over $2m where the records show that he had had only $50,000 with him. Then the 4-page CIA document which suggested that “some funds that insurgent organisations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes” is dated April 1985 – three months before the Live Aid concert. A separate, much more comprehensive 18-page CIA document dated July 1985 makes no mention of aid cash going on arms in rebel areas.

Finally Martin Plaut quoted Robert Houdek, the most senior US diplomat in Ethiopia in 1988, the year after the TPLF overthrew Mengistu, as saying that the former rebels told him that “some of the food coming in through the Sudan was being sold for

cash”. He added: “And of course with money you can buy weapons, you can buy fuel. That was going on. There was no question about that.” But, again, Houdek is offering hearsay, not evidence.

Those closely involved in the aid effort have been fierce in their rebuttals of the BBC story. Bob Geldof dismissed it as “total bollocks” revealing that less than half a per cent of all Live Aid money spent in 1985 went to Tigray. In the six years to 1991 Band Aid’s total spend there was only £11m and most of that went not on food aid but on agriculture, forestry, livestock, water and health and the use of the money was stringently monitored by Band Aid staff in the field and external evaluators.

Christian Aid, more politely, said that its investigations “do not correspond to the BBC’s version of events”. It had robust on-the-ground assessment criteria in place to monitor the spending of emergency food relief. There is far more evidence that the money was channelled to where it should have been than there is for much going astray. The BBC story was “outrageous and very damaging”.

Indeed. “Live Aid concert’s Ethiopian famine aid spent on weapons,” said the headline on one leading Washington website. In London the inventive cartoonist Peter Brook twisted the Live Aid guitar logo into a Death Aid one. Distortions of the truth, wilful and otherwise, abounded.

Why, I often wonder, are people so gleefully prepared to believe such stories? Because it gives them an intellectually-respectable excuse for not putting their hand in their pocket to help those so evidently in need. It is why neo-liberal down-with-aid Africans are routinely feted on the north London dinner party circuit. When our tv screens show so many people in the world in abject need we need something to assuage our guilt at the contrast between their lives and ours. The idea that “all aid is wasted through corruption” is a convenient conscience salve.

No-one who has been involved in the delivery of aid would deny that corruption is a serious problem. But the central ethical imperative is to find ways to counter corruption while still helping those in need. Most donors now have rigorous systems in place to monitor aid delivery and minimise the risks of diversion. Some money may well have gone astray in Ethiopia in 1985. But not on the scale which the BBC has alleged. To dress up claims as evidence on such an important issue is journalism of the most irresponsible kind.


From the Third Way Magazine

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