Sorry Bob – Band Aid has done more harm than good

Published by The Daily Mail (12th November, 2014)

Once again, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure have lined up the latest crop of chart-toppers to create another incarnation — the fourth — of the bestselling Band Aid charity single.

This time round, it is to raise funds to fight the ebola crisis that broke out nearly a year ago in West Africa. Geldof has made a passionate plea to ‘buy this thing’ to help those suffering from ‘this filthy little virus’.

The fight against ebola is, of course, a cause well worth supporting given the havoc the virus is wreaking in three countries. No one should doubt the severity of the crisis, as I know from reporting on the epidemic in Liberia.

Ten years ago, Band Aid’s last release was to raise money for famine victims in Darfur, the bloodstained region of Sudan still scarred by brutal conflict.

But of course, the famous song is always associated with the 1984 appeal to raise funds for dying people in Ethiopia after Geldof was spurred into action by Michael Buerk’s powerful BBC reports of ‘biblical’ famine.

Like many of my generation, I was swept along by the desire of those pop stars to heal the world’s wounds, despite the rather patronising lyrics asking ‘do they know it’s Christmas?’.

The record sold 3.7 million copies and raised £8 million — with more than ten times that sum raised by the subsequent Live Aid concerts.

But the harsh truth is that for all the generosity, for all the good intentions, those heartfelt efforts ended up unwittingly doing more harm than good in Ethiopia.

Band Aid kickstarted an age of celebrity activism — and with it the idea that simplistic campaigns and slick slogans can solve complex global problems.

It also sparked the corrosive boom in foreign aid, which flourished on the back of the theory that a tide of cash and well-meaning Western charities can impose democracy, peace and prosperity in developing countries, regardless of the situation on the ground.

Sadly, the truth is rather different. Interventions of foreign do-gooders often end up hurting, not helping, the world’s poorest, most vulnerable people.

Nowhere proves this more than Ethiopia, where at least one-and-a-half million people are being forced from traditional homelands to supposedly ‘model’ villages in a programme compared to Stalin’s lethal clearances of Ukrainian peasants in what was then the Soviet Union.

The most terrible atrocities are inflicted on those who resist, including mass killings, torture, rape and being burned from their villages by rampaging troops, as I have seen for myself when I interviewed scarred victims whose families had been slaughtered.

This is carried out by a one-party state renowned for repression, with the fertile land — sometimes flecked with seams of gold beneath it — being snatched and handed to regime officials or sold to foreign investors.

Astonishingly, this project is backed by big chunks of British aid. Ethiopia has become the biggest recipient of our assistance, handed an incredible £328 million this year despite mounting condemnation over horrific human rights abuses.

Indeed, Ethiopia is among the biggest beneficiaries of the global aid boom. It will rake in £1.3 billion from Britain over the course of the coalition, while another £2 billion pours in each year from other international donors.

Inevitably, Ethiopia exerts a special hold on the aid industry after Band Aid influenced an entire generation.

There was a 200-fold increase in the number of charities operating there after 1984, although it remains one of the world’s poorest places. As in other developing nations, this influx of outsiders distorts local priorities and entrenches a corrupt elite in power.

These competing charities, constantly appealing for funds, also perpetuate an image of Africa as a basket case in need of Western salvation, rather than a fast-changing and rapidly growing continent of 54 countries.

Britain’s last three prime ministers all admitted the pop stars influenced them into spraying taxpayers’ cash around the planet. David Cameron has used Band Aid in defence of his decision to ramp up foreign donations amid austerity at home.

Yet even with that 1984 famine, the causes were largely man-made, the legacy of two civil wars and cruel forced re-settlement policies pursued by a ruthless Marxist regime. We were not told there was surplus food elsewhere in Ethiopia.

Food and medical aid sent by well-meaning foreigners was used to force starving villagers into camps by denying it to those that refused to re-settle. Massive numbers were moved to state farms in the south, partly to undermine rebels.

One analyst concluded this killed people faster than the famine itself, with an estimated 100,000 deaths during these transfers. ‘The biggest deportation since the Khmer Rouge genocide [in Cambodia],’ said one shocked charity chief who pulled out of relief efforts.

The flood of donations even allowed the Ethiopian regime to reduce spending on the disaster at home and spend billions of dollars buying arms from abroad.

So what of the long-term legacy of the Band Aid phenomenon?

Today, Ethiopia is ruled by the party that led the revolt against that vile regime. Yet it remains a despotic state that does not just steal land from the poor. It also shoots pro-democracy protesters, locks up dissidents, tortures political prisoners, gang-rapes women, jails journalists and uses food aid to starve the opposition.

Yet, perhaps because of that iconic celebrity endorsement — which became such a cultural landmark when the Prime Minister was an impressionable teenager — Britain now pours in aid to the acclaim of the self-aggrandising aid sector.

Such are the contortions of our stance that one Ethiopian farmer forced to flee his fields and abandon his family has been given legal aid in the UK to challenge these policies.

‘I hope the court will act to stop the killing, stop the land-grabbing and stop Britain supporting the Ethiopian government,’ I was told by this man, known only as ‘Mr O’ for fear of reprisals on his family.

Britain ended direct aid to the government after the slaughter of protesters against rigged elections in 2005. Now the flow of funds supports a project called Promotion Of Basic Services, which lawyers and human rights group say assists the forced resettlements.

Department for International Development (Dfid) documents have exposed how British taxes support officials implementing the programme and infrastructure in the ‘model’ new villages. Significantly, the U.S. — another major donor — declines to give money to these schemes.

On top of this, Amnesty International has just released a devastating 166-page report accusing Ethiopia of shocking atrocities to silence opposition from the country’s biggest ethnic group.

Amnesty uses graphic first-person testimonies to detail how thousands of the Oromo people are being rounded up and killed, tortured, raped and detained in the most dreadful conditions without charge.

Several people asked the researchers compiling the disturbing report why countries such as Britain lavished aid on a regime behind such actions.

‘The government depends on these foreign handouts to stay in power,’ the exiled writer and university lecturer Endalk Chala told me. ‘It is being used to build an ecosystem of corruption.’

Dfid claims to take allegations of abuses seriously and says it raises them with ‘the relevant authorities’. But it is hard to understand why it pours cash into such places beyond the desperate desire to spend the billions in its ever-swelling budget.

Such are the grotesque ironies of aid policies that end up fostering repression and corroding democracy in developing countries.

Posturing politicians — influenced by well-meaning pop stars, swayed by emotive songs and desperate to seem compassionate — throw taxpayers’ money at crooks and despots while preaching about good deeds and proclaiming they are saviours of the poor.

Tragically, this is especially true in the beautiful country of Ethiopia — and that, for all its good intentions, and however much one may support new efforts to help victims of ebola, is the sad legacy of Band Aid.

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