Bad Aid

In December 1984, I walked into the HMV store on London’s Oxford Street to spend a little discretionary money on an LP. Other albums drew me, but one had an advantage. It combined the talents of all the major “Top of the Pops” singers onto one song. Given the standards of British pop at the time (leaving aside Scritti Politti’s “Jacques Derrida” and perhaps the Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”), the diminishing marginal returns at the cash register were held in check with only one purchase. It had to be Bob Geldof’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? The “charity single” had all of Britain’s finest, from Paul McCartney to Boy George, from Siobhan Fahey (of Bananarama) to Sting. The song opens with African drums and Phil Collins’ drum kit, and then the flow of British vocalists, with a young Bono in full flight. Geldof named their charity super-group Band Aid, a name that morphed as the fever caught, into Live Aid, Sport Aid and so on. BBC ran the Band Aid song non-stop. It raised millions of pounds to buy relief for the survivors of the Ethiopian famine.

Not to be undone, Harry Belafonte and Ken Kragen hastened to bring their friends into the studio in Los Angeles to sing a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, produced by Quincy Jones (they called their project USA for Africa). The superstars of the U. S. billboard charts represented themselves, from Paul Simon to Stevie Wonder, from Diana Ross to Bob Dylan. Bob Geldof specially traveled to sing in the chorus, and Ray Charles held it together at the end. The British had been silly, singing about snow (the only place that gets snow in Ethiopia is its highest mountain, Ras Dashen, in the Simien Range). But the Americans did what they do best, singing, “We are the World.” And, indeed, so it seems to be.

Geldof and the other artists turned their attention to Ethiopia in 1984 because of a famine that broke out in 1982 and lingered on till 1990. In fact, the Horn of Africa suffered a plague of famines from 1973 onward, when the desiccation of the Sahara put paid to both the livelihood of nomads and petty farmers, led to acute drought and further deforestation. When the Ethiopian regime of Haile Selassie failed to provide relief to the people whom the Ethiopians call the bekum mot, the living dead, young radicals in the armed forces moved in and seized control of the country. They constituted themselves as the Derg, the Committee, drew from their own version of Marxism, and set in motion some haphazard forms of agricultural regeneration. The Derg were always hampered by three factors: the inherited agricultural crisis which would be its undoing; an empire that was not a nation, with secessionist provinces (such as Eritrea, ceded to Ethiopia by the UN in 1950) unwilling to bow to the rule of Addis Ababa; a hostile Atlantic bloc, ready and able to bring whatever pressure was needed to bring the Derg to its knees (Jimmy Carter’s evangelical humanism came alongside a cynical policy of anti-communism, which in the Horn meant a strategy to encircle Ethiopia and, with a wink and a nod, embolden its irredentist neighbors and secessionist provinces).

The Derg had little capacity to deal with any of the problems that beset the new republic. Civilians who returned from exile when the Emperor was deposed found that the military Marxists had not the temperament to make room for them. One of the most difficult problems for the new regime was the land question. Imperial Ethiopia gave the land over to the aristocracy (the mesafint) and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, both of whom neglected that section of Acts 4:32-37 which enjoined the believers to share all that they had so “neither was there any among them that lacked.” In March 1975, the derg pushed forward a radical land reform law, whose immediate impact was in southern Ethiopia. Seven million households benefited from the reform. A flurry of activity around urban housing, literacy and relief for the destitute provided some dynamism to the otherwise devastated country.

Early in the derg’s tenure, it set-up a Minimum Package Program to increase the productivity of the new small-hold farms. Before these initiatives could bear any fruit, the derg began to conscript young farmers into its growing army (for the battles against a Somalian incursion into Ogaden, against Eritrean secessionists and against northern rebels, particularly in the province of Tigray). High fuel prices didn’t help, and nor did pressure from Washington and Moscow. Cuba tried to mediate. Castro met Somalia’s Siad Barre and Ethiopia’s Mengistu in Aden, along with the South Yemen Marxist leader Abdul Fattah Ismail. Nothing came of it. The Horn of Africa was rife with various strands of nationalism and Marxism, including Soviet-backed regimes and Albanianists. It was a mess, wide open for the machinations of the Cold War.

It did not help that the Derg faltered. It took refuge in the flotsam of policies that came north from Tanzania, including forced resettlement (the policy has its origins in an 1958 attempt by the Emperor’s government). As in Tanzania, the policy failed: people did not wish to leave their ancestral lands, nor were they convinced that their new homes would be the promised cornucopia. Drought, war, and now agricultural chaos: the famine of 1982-90 entered world history.

Like Haile Selassie, the Derg at first refused to admit to the famine. Visnews Kenyan bureau chief, Mohamed Amin finagled his camera into Ethiopia, and broadcast the first images of the growing disaster. It was this intrepid work that brought the attention of the BBC’s Michael Buerk. All the channels wanted in. Their initial interest, after a few years of disregard, was media competition. Mary Kay Magistad (now The World’s Beijing correspondent) wrote her master’s thesis on what she called the “Ethiopian bandwagon.” “Literally overnight,” she wrote, “it seemed that everyone wanted to cover Ethiopia. Reporters deluged Addis Ababa by the hundreds; many aid workers who had been trying for more than a year to pull the news media’s attention to the famine were now finding themselves too busy briefing journalists that they barely had time to do their normal relief work.” Mohamed Amin was largely forgotten (in 1996, Amin was on Ethiopian Airlines flight 961, which was hijacked by three men who wanted political asylum in Australia. Amin negotiated with the hijackers all the way till the plane crash that killed all passengers). The world media made Ethiopia the icon of misery in the post-colonial world. State failure in the former colonies would now be blamed on that toxic brew of nationalism and corruption. The picture of an Ethiopian child with a distended belly and a tear resting on his cheek beside an engorged fly was on the cover of many glossy magazines.

The BBC’s Martin Plaut, who reported from the famine regions of northern Ethiopia in the 1970s, went back this past year and investigated the famine and the relief. His radio documentary unsettled the aid industry, and Bob Geldof. Plaut found that most of the relief money did not go to alleviate hunger. Instead, it went to buy arms for the rebels of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) through its aid cut-out, Relief Society of Tigray (REST). The TPLF was in the midst of an armed campaign against the Derg, offering a second front to give relief to the Eritrean rebels. It now turns out, according to Plaut’s report, that while the TPLF was blindsiding the aid workers, it did not surprise the CIA. A CIA report from 1985 quite clearly pointed out, “Some funds that insurgent organizations are raising for relief operations, as a result of increased world publicity, are almost certainly being diverted for military purposes.” Robert Houdek, who was Washington’s chargé d’affaires in Addis, confirmed to Plaut that his government was aware of the redirection of funds. Indeed, this went along the grain of the overall Contra strategy pushed by the Reagan administration (National Security Directive 75, from January 1983, which pointed out that “US policy will seek to limit and destabilize activities of Soviet Third World allies and clients” as well the 1981 presidential finding to authorize the CIA to support “democratic resistance” to the derg). The Contra strategy was in play in Nicaragua, in Angola, in Afghanistan and in the Horn of Africa (all this explicitly put by Reagan in his February 1986 Message to the Congress on Foreign Policy). The TPLF and its various allies were the contras of the region.

As Mary Kay Magistad points out, the British and American governments were motivated less by humanitarian imperatives than by political ones. “This,” she writes, “was highlighted by the contradiction of the government’s rhetoric that it was committed to helping starving Africans, and the fact that it was at the same time cutting its aid budget by an average of 6 percent per annum.” Not only were aid budgets being cut, but the United States pressured 22 of the 34 low-income countries in Africa to succumb to structural adjustment policies (devaluation of currencies, cuts in social services, and so on); this was the price to be paid for short-term financial assistance from the IMF. The mighty dynamo of the newly formed Group of Seven (G7, formed in 1974) threw itself into the narrowing of spaces for independent action by the new states in Africa, Asia and Latin America: punitive policies came alongside modern forms of gunboat diplomacy, with the occasional Contra insurgency to hit recalcitrant regimes in the neck. Ethiopia never stood a chance. It was fated to be destroyed, as was its neighbor Somalia. The detritus that stands before us now is a consequence of this ghastly history.

And so we come to Haiti

What the G-7 wrought was a world of people who labor hard, but nevertheless suffer usurious debt rates and have little space to exercise their political desires. The New International Economic Order (NIEO, 1973), passed by the UN General Assembly, carried a reasonable platform for the transformation of the planet’s economic relations. Trade regimes would be altered, so would financial devices and restrictions on technology transfer. The dream was to shape the world not toward outrageous profits, but toward genuine development. The G7 was formed to smash the NIEO. Its interests were toward Wall Street not the Addis slum of Tekle Haymonot. The NIEO would have circumvented the debt crisis that wracked the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America in the 1980s. Absent the Contra strategy, there might have been the possibility for the creation of stable political structures in much of what would become the Global South. Debt and the absence of democracy was the gift of the G7, and of course with petrodollars, the massive expansion of the role of finance over the planet’s political economy. One major function of the expansion of neo-liberalism (not mentioned by David Harvey in his otherwise excellent short history) is the orchestrated destruction of the NIEO, the highest point of the Third World project.

The best of the North’s liberalism, however, was not in Band Aid, but on the Brandt Commission, a panel of eminences set up at the behest of a very guilty Robert McNamara (then of the World Bank) and led by Willy Brandt, the socialist leader from West Germany. The Brandt Commission offered several of the NIEO proposals without the politics, and in a much more moderated form. Brandt was as much a threat to the G7 as the NIEO, indeed more because it did not come from Algeria’s Houari Boumediène but from the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham (one of the Brandt Commissioners). Margaret Thatcher persuaded Reagan to go to the Cancun North-South Summit (1981) to smash the Brandt dynamic; “The whole concept of ‘North-South’ dialogue, which the Brandt Commission had made the fashionable talk of the international community,” she wrote later, “was in my view wrong-headed.” Reagan smiled, and the “quality press” went along with him and Maggie. This is all before Murdoch ran the news business.

Haiti never had a chance. It had been treated as a standing threat since its revolution in 1804. Democracy was never to be permitted to it. Since the 1980s, its leading democratic leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was twice removed from his democratic office by the United States. When he came back to power in 1994, it was under the most benighted conditions, these set by the Clinton White House and Wall Street. They wanted Haiti to become a maquiladora, not a country. Haiti’s debt has spiraled out of control. It took the January 12 earthquake to move the U. S. to consider  joining Venezuela in debt cancellation. That is now on the agenda. But only for Haiti. Not for Ethiopia, and not for the Global South. According to the World Bank, for every $1 of aid sent South, $25 goes to the North in debt-servicing. It is a standing outrage. Furthermore, the attempt to democratize the United Nations, led by former General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua, has been thus far treated with contempt by the G7. What is the point of financial assistance if there is no accountable, political institution to make the best use of this money, this aid?

How is the aid that now goes to places like Haiti being spent? In the case of Ethiopia, the United States eschewed civilian agencies. The Inter-Agency Task Force on the African Famine was run by the Department of Defense, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as AID and the Department of Agriculture. The leader was retired Lt. Gen. Julius Becton who would lead FEMA under Reagan’s second term (1985-89). Aid was always militarized. As well in the current Haiti case. And NGOs were already at the center, with an express purpose of displacing the State. Most of their work is “band aid,” in the pejorative sense (even the New York Times recognized this in an editorial on March 25, “The little country is swarming with well-intentioned organizations, each trying to do their little bit of help. One group is trying to distribute thousands of flashlights to women and girls. It’s a kind and practical gesture, but what they really need are shelters from sexual violence, and adequate policing. Haiti has neither, Amnesty International reports”). Paul Farmer, the UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti, also calls attention to the “flock of trauma vultures, consultants and carpetbaggers.” There is money to be made in a disaster. As my friend P. Sainath put it, “everybody loves a good drought.”

Raising money for Haiti is all well and good. But which Haiti is getting the money? That question was not asked of the Ethiopian aid effort, and it is not being asked now. Is the Haiti of structural adjustment, the raft on the Caribbean, fated to being reduced to a factory and a port for Royal Caribbean’s cruise ships? All the efforts thus far seem to suggest that this is the Haiti that is being promised. There is an alternative. If all that energy that goes toward raising money went toward a political campaign to erase the “odious debt” owned by the South to the North it would clear space for an alternative. That’s the first step. Another is the revival of a 21st Century New International Economic Order.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at:


Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).