I have in recent days been preparing myself for the St. Andrew's Economic Forum, which is to take place this weekend - volcanic ash cloud permitting. I've been invited to moderate an exceptional panel on China-Africa relations, which will explore the developmental potential China brings to the continent, as well as other key issues pertaining to environmental sustainability, human rights, trends in Chinese investment and so forth.
In the course of my preparations, I happened to stumble upon a great piece by Richard Dowden - Director of the Royal African Society and one of the panelists - regarding the discovery this past March that millions of dollars in Western aid money which were sent to Ethiopia to aid victims of the 1984-5 famine were used not for purposes of food supplies, but rather to purchase weapons. This news of course set off bells and whistles among the donor community and do-gooder, pseudo-intellectual, save-the-planet types like Bono and - most prominently - 80s rock star Bob Geldof, whose 1985 Live Aid concert was used to fundraise for the cause. Geldof went on something of a rampage against the BBC - who first revealed the news - stating (shouting, in fact!): "Produce me one shred of evidence and I promise you I will professionally investigate it, I will professionally report it, and if there is any money missing I will sue the Ethiopian government for that money back and I will spend it on aid." Yes, good. Good luck with that.
Whilst Geldof's anger may be understandable, it altogether demonstrates a fantastic ignorance of Africa: its issues, needs and complexities. An ignorance which, unfortunately, persists today among celebrities and aid agencies who have placed themselves on a do-or-die mission to "save Africa." With respect to the Ethiopian case, Dowden hits the nail on the head:
The impression was made that nature had caused the great hunger, a terrible Biblical plague, an act of God. All the poor Ethiopians needed was food.
They did need food but they also needed peace. Rebel movements were driving the government and its army out of two mountainous region, Tigray and Eritrea. The government, headed by the military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, was backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba and had the biggest army in Africa.
Mengistu ruled with brutal Soviet-style policies of forced migration and starvation. Traditional trade routes and the movement of much-needed food was impossible. The well-organised rebels received almost no help from anyone. They lived off the land, captured weapons from their enemy and taxed the people to buy more guns and ammunition.
Ethiopia's famine, Dowden goes on to aptly note, was ultimately caused not by a localised drought, but by a dictatorship that led to war. War disrupted trade, prevented food being moved in and caused famine. The aid community at the time failed to realize this - or perhaps chose not to. Raising funds for weaponry to support a rebel movement is arguably more difficult and less glamorous than fundraising to feed starving African children, whose pictures flash across TV screens and appear in glossy magazines. Yet the reality of aid politics in Africa is complex, messy and - often - unpleasant. The aid community must finally and fully come around to this realization and, moreover, must cease treating the continent as a helpless child in need of rescue. As the Ethiopian case makes plainly evident, Ethiopia in the 1980s understood what it needed - weapons. Africa today likewise understands what it needs - trade, aid, investment; the rise of a middle class and an educated, skilled population.
It's time to change the nature of the questions we've been posing regarding African development, and get real. And Bob, stop your shouting.