British rock impresario and Africa aid promoter Bob Geldof, a.k.a. "Saint Bob," was back in the headlines this past week after blowing his stack at the BBC for a story it aired alleging that Ethiopian rebels had diverted 95% of the $100 million in Ethiopian famine relief raised in the mid-1980s much of it by Geldof's iconic Band Aid concert.
Geldof's spirited denials (he called the BBC a "rotten old cherry" and said there was not a "shred" of evidence to support the claim) drew support from NGOs that worked in Ethiopia at the time, along with those who remember the miseries of the famine which killed hundreds of thousands of people, as well as the gumption Geldof showed by pulling together rock stars from the U.S and Britain to help feed the victims. In the days since, however, Geldof has raised eyebrows for his apparent refusal to acknowledge the possibility that money may have been skimmed off the top, which many aid agencies and humanitarian workers say routinely happens in developing nations. In fact, doubts in the last few years about whether relief supplies reach their intended sources in conflict zones have given rise to a whole new way of thinking about humanitarian aid and caused some to question whether giving aid in times of war does any good at all.
"Whereas outsiders might have been well-intentioned in wanting to solve the problems of famine in Ethiopia, the regime and rebels were very much aware of how they could make use of that aid to advance their own interests," James Shikwati, director of the Inter Region Economic Network, a Nairobi-based think tank, and a longtime critic of foreign aid, tells TIME. "Instead of trying to defend themselves, I think Bob Geldof and his friends should be looking at this as part of the problem of the aid industry." Shikwati is a leading advocate in an emerging movement that wants to see foreign development assistance and some emergency help stopped entirely in Africa. He says foreign aid fosters corruption and a sense of dependence on Western donors. In some countries, leaders have also been accused of steering development projects to areas where people have voted for them while opposition areas get nothing, Shikwati says.
The real story behind Ethiopia's famine exemplifies many of the problems with aid. In the West, the famine of the 1980s was seen as a great natural disaster. Band Aid was so successful it raised tens of millions of dollars because it played on Westerners' sense of obligation to "save Africa" and their sense of guilt for somehow "allowing" the famine to happen. But the reality was far more complex. While Ethiopia was indeed in the grip of a drought, Mengistu Haile Mariam's government, which was fighting an insurgency at the time, restricted NGOs from helping famine victims in certain areas and forcibly moved hundreds of thousands of people from one place to another in a repeat of Soviet-era collectivization campaigns, exacerbating their plight. The rebels, who came to power years later, are partly responsible for people's suffering, too. A CIA report cited by the BBC found that money raised by the insurgents, ostensibly to help the starving, was "almost certainly" diverted for military purposes.
It seems ironic that in one of his ripostes, Geldof argued that current Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who was a rebel leader during the time of the famine denied that any aid had been diverted in the 1980s. But Meles has been accused of doing the very same thing in recent years in Ethiopia's Ogaden region, which is also home to a rebel insurgency. Aid workers operating in the region in 2007 told TIME the government allowed them to distribute food in some places and not others. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting the government. In a report soon after that, Human Rights Watch accused the Meles government of rounding up and killing livestock in the region and blocking aid. The government has repeatedly denied such accusations.
It's not just happening in Ethiopia either. A new U.N. report on Somalia, first revealed in a report by the The New York Times on March 9, found that Somali contractors skim off as much as half the food aid delivered by the World Food Program and give it to Islamic militants battling the government. That revelation followed on the heels of a sharp debate on aid in Somalia between the U.N. and the U.S., which has announced it will restrict some supplies to the country out of fear it's helping the rebels. "Operating in conflict zones is always a complex challenge for humanitarian organizations," WFP's Nairobi spokesman, Marcus Prior, tells TIME. "Even in the worst circumstances, we seek to follow all rules and regulations surrounding our operations and to remain true to our humanitarian mandate of impartiality and neutrality." But the WFP has had a hard time doing that given the fact that it is part of the U.N., a body made up of member states.
Other groups have laid down specific rules that keep them from working too closely with certain governments or rebel groups. Among the most prominent is Doctors Without Borders. The French arm of that group was, in fact, expelled from Ethiopia during the famine in the 1980s when it criticized the government for forcibly moving some of the population and manipulating aid. The group now makes a point of delivering as much direct aid to those in need as possible, rather than working through governments or what it calls "armed actors." This week, it went after NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen after he made a seemingly innocuous remark about wanting to "improve the frequency and quality of the dialogue between NATO and the NGOs" in Afghanistan. He went on to say that "hard power" must be combined with "soft power," an idea that infuriates Doctors Without Borders, which said in response that it "never works alongside, or partners with, any military strategy."
"We have left places where the level of interference was too much," Monica Camacho, the group's coordinator in Somalia, tells TIME. "We are very clear that the moment you are interfered with, you no longer have legitimacy. News of whatever happens to us in one conflict will spread, and we are very aware that it has an impact everywhere."