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Bureaucrats, take note / Defence of Live Aid’s unorthodox field approach to famine relief

1985 October 19
by Paul Vallely

‘But what happens when this money is turned into food and gets out into the world? I have seen sacks of powdered milk grabbed from an American plane in West Africa by local crooks. So what will happen to the money? Anyone who watched for 10 hours at Wembley ought to want to know that.’ So wrote one censorious commentator after carping about what he called the barbaric music of last week’s Live Aid concert.

It was sobering to return from the starving villages of western Sudan to discover such sour spleen being vented upon the pop industry’s fundraising. Anyone who has spent time in Africa in recent years can, of course, tell his own tales of food misappropriation – grain stolen by soldiers or milk powder smuggled by corrupt officials into the market places; relief workers routinely make allowance for such ‘seepage’ and it only becomes an issue when monitoring shows that it is reaching unacceptable levels.


But this was not the real point of the egregious innuendo quoted above. The comment really implied that these pop people were a naive, undisciplined and rather unsavoury bunch of innocents who would not last long in the big bad world.

Such is the nature of Band Aid’s rude appeal that it inspires these violent reactions. Bob Geldof probably would not have it any other way. Indeed he has made something of a virtue of it.

When Geldof arrived in Ethiopia at the beginning of this year his behaviour embarrassed senior diplomats and relief workers. In the best traditions of his punk provenance the pop star put his feet on the table in the office of a high-ranking Ethiopian dignitary, summoned senior government officials by their first name and when the head of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Dawit Wolde Girogis, suggested that Geldof’s own career might benefit from the venture the singer responded with two words of unsurpassable vigour.

It was, however, a studied boorishness. Geldof set out quite deliberately to creat an atmosphere of brutal naivete which enabled him directly to ask the questions no one else dared put to the Ethiopian socialists: how could they afford the largest standing army in black Africa when they could not afford to feed their people? Why was food being denied to the hapless peasants in Tigre and Eritrea, which were under the control of rebel armies? The Dergue officials smiled coldly and though of the pounds 8 million the singer had to give away.

Geldof’s sensitivity and intelligence were well displayed during the visit. He arrived without the usual pop star fuss, travelling on a cheap ticket with a cheap airline (unlike his US counterpart Harry Belafonte who came with an entourage of 30 in a fleet of light aircraft and made a regal progress through a camp whose population had been lined by the roadside to wave).

He sat through long technical meetings with aid workers and RRC officials and if his jokes were crude the same could not be said for the substance of his observations. When photographers demanded that he travel to the camps to be pictured holding a starving black baby he declined on the grounds that people did not want to have their indignity magnified in such a way.

At the end of his trip he and the handful of full-time Band Aid volunteers had worked out a strategy which enabled them to make full use of the expertise of existing aid organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and Unicef. They thus avoided the pitfalls of other inexperienced donors (like Robert Maxwell’s Mirror Mercy Flight which deluged Korem camp with tons of Chocolate Horlicks – something the Ethiopian peasants would not touch) without incurring the expense of establishing field offices or linking themselves too closely to existing organizations.

‘It was a very clever approach for a new agency,’ said one senior Oxfam official. ‘It provided them with shopping lists of what was needed but allowed them to retain control of their operation and to fill the gaps as they saw them.’ Aid workers at the sharp end of the relief operations have been pleased with the results.

Most large donors in Sudan and Ethiopia are national governments and major international organizations dominated by demanding bureaucrats. In the field, relief workers speak with incredulity of European-based officials who with straight faces ask for the name of their organization to be stencilled onto every food bag or who demand individual documents bearing the signature or thumbprint of every farmer who has received their seed.

Harassed field staff, searching for more lorries to move grain around the western wasteland, can be seen on visits to Khartoum in desperate negotiations with desk-bound officials who deflect requests for help with counterdemands for reports, proposals and feasability studies. These are the men with an answer for everything and a solution for nothing.

By contrast, the Band Aid people have acted quickly and decisively. Already, within days of the Live Aid concert, some of the money has been spent by pop officials who question the shibboleths of the existing donors.

In the centre of Sudan, in the midst of the mounting cry for more lorries, a fleet of 30 vehicles has for months been standing idle. They once belonged to the Chevron oil company, forced to reduce its operations dramatically because of the civil war in the south.

Live Aid officials asked why no one had bought them. It was against the policy of the major donors to buy second-hand vehicles, they were told. Live Aid has now acquired them and handed them over to the same Save the Children workers whom the EEC man was demanding should first produce a report. The pop charity has also invented a new shipping system which involves a regular shuttle from Britain to the Red Sea ports on which relief agencies can book free space at much shorter notice than that required to charter ships independently.

The unsophisticated approach, it seems, can produce results. But then hunger is a rather unsophisticated experience.

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