The BBC sexed up a report about aid to Ethiopia

The RAF dropping food from the back of a British Hercules

It has entered our collective consciousness that a large part – perhaps as much as 95 per cent – of the aid given to Ethiopia during the 1980s famine was diverted for military use.  This misapprehension was caused by a misleading programme on 4th March, compounded by the BBC’s publicity for the programme on television and radio and online.

As Mark Twain remarked, “a lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on”.

Today the BBC has apologised.  The apology is abject, and rightly so:

… the programme gave the impression that large amounts of Band Aid and live Aid money had been diverted.  The BBC wishes to apologise unreservedly to the Band Aid Trust for this misleading and unfair impression.  The BBC also wishes to apologise unreservedly to the Band Aid Trust for a number of reports on television, radio and online which went further than the programme itself in stating that millions of pounds raised by Band Aid and Live Aid had been diverted to buy arms. The BBC had no evidence for these statements, and they shouldn’t have been broadcast. [my emphasis]

On the World Service and BBC Radio 4 this morning the director of the BBC World Service, Peter Horrocks, made matters worse by trying to limit the scope of the BBC’s apology.  The BBC “had no evidence” that money from Band Aid had been diverted, he said, and he apologised for the fact that the report implied otherwise, but he said that the BBC stands by the rest of the report.  Yet the impression that the programme gave – that a substantial part of the aid given to Ethiopia in the 1980s was diverted to rebels – is false.

It isn’t just Band Aid to whom the BBC owes an apology, but to the British Government, other donors, a vast number of charities, and the public who gave so generously.  There is no evidence that any of the aid effort in the government-held areas of Ethiopia – the vast majority of the aid to Ethiopia – was diverted. The BBC programme was about a completely distinct, and very much smaller, relief effort in rebel-held areas. Either deliberately or accidentally the BBC sexed up their report in a way that smeared an extremely successful effort to save lives and an operation of which those involved are rightly proud.

This was, I suspect, a cock-up rather than a conspiracy.  The BBC took a dull, already well-known story about a small, distinct aid programme in Eritrea and Tigray, and sexed it up into something more interesting, but completely false, about aid to Ethiopia as a whole.  It is understandable that BBC is trying to limit the damage today by apologising only to the Band Aid Trust – to whom they have to apologise as it was they who made the complaint – but the BBC should now accept that the entire report was misleading.

The reality

I was a frequent visitor to Ethiopia during the 1980s famine and my father – declaration of interest – was the British Ambassador to Ethiopia a the time. So I saw first hand the difference that the aid effort made.

At the time of the Ethiopian famine in 1984-85, one of the challenges was getting aid safely to people who needed it in the (then) relatively small parts of Ethiopia controlled by the Tigrayan and Eritrean rebel groups.  The UN tried, and failed, to get agreement from the Ethiopian government to safe passage for aid convoys into rebel areas from the government-controlled areas.  Because they could not guarantee that the aid would arrive and would not be diverted, the government donors and most of the NGOS decided not to attempt to bring aid to those areas at all.  In the end most of the people affected by famine in Tigray moved to feeding centres in government-held areas instead.

However, a small number of NGOs, such as War on Want, a UK charity then under the leadership of George Galloway, and perhaps some governments with an eye on the Cold War politics (though not including the UK), did decide to try to get some aid into the rebel-controlled areas, usually by moving aid across the border from Southern Sudan. This aid was mainly channeled through a relief agency called REST (the Relief Society of Tigray) which presented itself as the humanitarian arm of the rebel groups.

The report by the BBC’s Africa Editor, Martin Plaut, alleges that some of this aid may have been diverted to support the Tigrayan and Eritrean fighters. The claim that “95 percent” of the money given to REST was diverted was based on a single uncorroborated claim in an interview with Aregawi Behre, a Tigrayan separatist.  Even if it were true that aid given to REST was diverted on such a substantial scale, it would hardly be news. Kurt Jansson, the Head of the UN Relief Operation in Ethiopia from 1984 to 1986, says in his book published in 1987 about aid given to REST that

“diversion to rebel forces further diminished its value” (p52).

The donors knew all along that there was a risk that money given to REST might be diverted to be used for equipment for the rebel groups.  That’s why very few donors did so.

If you had listened to the BBC report, you’d have got the impression that they had evidence which in some way related to the wider relief effort in Ethiopia.  But the aid given to the government-held parts of Ethiopia by the British Government on behalf of the UK taxpayer, by many other governments, by Band Aid, and the main international NGOs to the majority of Ethiopians was a completely separate aid operation.

Ethiopia from the window of an RAF Hercules in 1985

Through the window of an RAF Hercules in 1985 The RAF used Hercules to deliver food aid.

To this day there is no suggestion, let alone evidence, that any of the aid provided in government-controlled Ethiopia, by governments, Band Aid and others, was diverted.  Two thirds of this aid was entirely under the control of western NGOs; the rest was subject to rigorous accounting and audit by donors.  On the right is a photo which I took out of the window of one of the Hercules aircraft used to collect food from the ports where it arrived by sea, to deliver it to the large feeding centres where people were gathering, and to drop it from the back of the aircraft to get food to the most remote areas of Ethiopia. I saw food aid being delivered to a large feeding centre in Jijiga where it was used to feed starving people.   Nobody who was here at the time is in any doubt that the aid was arriving, nor is there any doubt that it saved hundreds of thousands, probably millions of lives.

Nothing in the BBC report relates to any of this.

The donors were extremely conscientious about making sure the aid was getting through.  One cause of false stories about aid diversion at the time was that Ethiopians, being poor and thrifty, reused the sacks that were used for food aid, which were stencilled with name and flag of a donor country, so these bags sometimes showed up in local markets full of locally-grown food.

The RAF dropping food from the back of a British Hercules

The RAF dropping food from the back of a British Hercules in a remote part of Ethiopia

Kurt Jansson, as Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, and the UN relief coordinator, describes in his book how he ensured that every allegation of diversion of aid was thoroughly investigated.  My father, as British Ambassador, personally investigated several allegations of misuse himself and found no basis for any of them.  The same view was reached by missions from the US General Accountability Office, and auditors from the EEC and Canada.

Everyone involved in the operation at the time believed that there was almost no misuse of the aid, and no evidence has ever been produced which suggests otherwise.  (My father has written about the BBC allegations on his own website here and I’ve drawn on his recollections for this blog post).

Again, the BBC allegations relate to none of this.

The specific claims made by this BBC programme relate only to the tiny amount of aid being smuggled to rebel-controlled Tigray.  How big was that? According to Jansson, REST claimed that it was delivering about 3,000 tonnes of food per month into Tigray – and this could well have been an exaggeration.  By way of comparison, the relief operation in the rest of Ethiopia was delivering more than 70,000 tonnes a month – peaking at 82,000 tonnes in September 1985.  So of the total aid arriving in Ethiopia, the aid coming in to the areas under rebel control was about 3-4% of the total aid going to Ethiopia.  Even if half of this was diverted (which seems very unlikely) that would still mean that 98% of aid to the whole of Ethiopia was being delivered as intended.

Was the programme sexed up?

To be fair, the BBC World Service programme by Martin Plaut broadcast on 4 March does not explicitly make any specific allegations about the 96% of aid to Ethiopia which was provided in government-held areas of Ethiopia.  But the programme was edited and publicised in a way that gave the impression that the story was about this broader relief effort.  It would have been possible for the BBC to have set the context for its story by reminding the audience of the famine, and the wider relief effort, including Band Aid, and for them to have made it clear that their allegations were about a completely separate, much smaller, relief effort in Tigray.  But not only did they not do this, they did the opposite. They juxtaposed their story with the main relief effort, so giving the false impression that this is what the story is about.  The first two minutes of the programme are entirely about Band Aid and Live Aid, complete with recordings of Bob Geldof and “Do They Know It’s Christmas”.   There are references to Geldof throughout the programme, and the  programme closes with an extract from  “We Are The World”. At no point does the programme distinguish the main relief effort in the parts of Ethiopia under government control from the much smaller amounts of aid being channeled into the parts of the country held by rebels.  So the listener is given the impression that the allegations relate to the money being raised by Band Aid and Live Aid, and the relief provided by the British government, other donors and charities.

The accompanying publicity compounded this false impression.  The article on the BBC News website says:

The crisis in 1984 prompted a huge Western relief effort, spearheaded by pop star Bob Geldof’s Band Aid campaign and Live Aid concerts. Although millions of people were saved by the aid that poured into the country, evidence suggests not all of the aid went to the most needy.

Although neither of these sentences is false, the way they are juxtaposed gives the false impression that the BBC had evidence of diversion of the money from Band Aid and Live Aid, and the Western relief effort.  The person who wrote them either did not understand the evidence reported in Martin Plaut’s programme, or wanted the audience to reach a conclusion that was not supported by the evidence.

The introduction to the programme on the BBC World Service website is worse:

It was a charity appeal on a global scale. In 1985, an unprecedented array of performers took part in two marathon televised concerts in Britain and the United States – all to raise money for a terrible famine in Ethiopia, and it worked. It is thought the concerts eventually generated about $250m in donations from the public.  But now, evidence has emerged that the aid agencies charged with distributing that money were hoodwinked: that millions of dollars were diverted to buy weapons for rebels in Ethiopia – and that the United States knew this was going on. [My emphasis]

This is not just misleading, it is false: the evidence that Martin Plaut gathered has nothing at all  to do with “that money”.

So the programme itself, and the surrounding publicity, created the impression that the BBC had uncovered evidence a substantial part of the wider relief effort in Ethiopia had been diverted.  As a result of this misrepresentation, the story was picked up around the world.  An article in The Times of 4 March by Catherine Philp reported (incorrectly) that –

The allegations that 95 per cent of aid money donated to help victims of the 1985 Ethiopian famine were siphoned off were made in a BBC radio programme broadcast yesterday.

As a result, it is now widely believed that a large part of the relief effort in Ethiopia was siphoned off.   The reality is the opposite – the Ethiopian relief effort of the 1980s was a huge success.  But the lie is now half way round the world.

The BBC says today:

“We note that the ruling validates the main thrust of the programme’s journalism; that there was evidence from a number of sources that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front had diverted money intended for famine relief and that some of this was spent on weapons.

But that wasn’t the “thrust” of the programme’s journalism.  The main message received by anyone who listened to the programme or encountered the surrounding publicity was that a substantial part of the money for Ethiopia as a whole (rather the separate relief effort in Tigray) was diverted.  None of the evidence presented in the programme, and no part of the Complaints Unit’s ruling, validates the main thrust of the programme nor the way it was promoted.

The BBC is a media organisation and its journalists are paid to communicate complicated ideas clearly and accurately to the audience. The BBC in general, and the World Service in particular, has a reputation beyond price for accuracy and reliability.  As Bob Geldof says, this is an unusual lapse in standards. In this case, most of the audience has been led to believe something that is not true, and which the BBC knows to be untrue.

Either the BBC gave this false impression deliberately, because it made a boring story more interesting; or it gave this false impression inadvertently, in which case this was an incompetent and negligent failure of editorial control.

Whatever the reasons, this was a profoundly irresponsible piece of journalism.  The BBC has today apologised to the Band Aid Trust, and rightly so.  But there is nobody to complain on behalf of the broader relief effort in Ethiopia, which the BBC has also smeared. By sexing up a dull story, the BBC will unfortunately have made it more difficult to raise money for future humanitarian relief efforts.  If the public believe that this kind of aid can be siphoned off on a huge scale for buying weapons and ammunition, they will be far less likely to give in future.  That in turn could lead to the unnecessary deaths of vulnerable people.

(Update: see my father’s blog post here.)

10 thoughts on “The BBC sexed up a report about aid to Ethiopia”

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  2. I read your blog article with interest, because I’m also trying to decide what to make of this BBC apology. The BBC Complaints Unit said:

    “…there was no evidence relating to money raised by Band Aid or Live Aid, and statements alluding to the fact should not have been broadcast”.

    So is it a fact or isn’t it? If it isn’t a fact, do we gather that Live Aid stands alone among major aid agencies in not having its money diverted? As you say, we were told that perhaps as much as 95% of famine aid given to Ethiopia in the 1980s was diverted for military use.
    – “Grossly inflated”, Christian Aid called that figure (without providing one of their own).
    – “If that percentage of money had been diverted, far more than a million people would have died”, said Bob Geldof, while admitting “It’s possible that in one of the worst, longest-running conflicts on the continent some money was mislaid” (but not being willing to estimate a percentage himself).

    I’m not convinced. It seems implausible that any charity operating in that environment (driving truck convoys through wildernesses controlled by starved and armed bandits) would have little of its aid diverted. And we heard about this at the time. And that’s talking about the food itself, without considering the mechanisms for diverting funds which both Bob Geldof and Christian Aid concede would have happened.

    I understand Bob Geldof’s point, that he saw first-hand the good work aid given to Africa was doing. But if not 95%, how ineffective *were* our donations in reaching their target? 70% maybe? 50%?

    I have to make my own judgement in the terms of what I know: that major charities are now apparently so corrupt that they don’t even understand what corruption is, because they’re so good at justifying it to themselves. They will justify to themselves that whatever percentage of donated money is sacrificed, it’s achieving more good work than if the donation had not been given.

    That truth came home to me when I learned about “Chuggers” who are paid £40-£60 by charities for doorstep/street sign-ups of the poor donors who think they are giving their hard-earned cash to benefit a good cause. We have to donate our “just-£2-a-month” for 1.5 to 2.5 years before the charity gets a penny; and that’s before all the charity’s own “admin expenses”. And the charities themselves (as explained by the one charity willing to be interviewed on Radio 4) are happy with this: they are net beneficiaries, regardless of the miserable value they’re achieving for their poor donors’ hard-earned cash.

    Big charities are institutionally corrupt – corrupt in their very thinking. Of course they are concerned to protect their donors from the truth, in case they have that “short sighted” view about most of their donation not reaching its destination. It’s understandable – I myself am such a short-sighted ex-donor.

    But for these reasons I’m very sceptical that the BBC’s report about Live Aid diverges significantly from the fact.

    You quoted Mark Twain, “A lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on”. But suppose the biggest lie was the actual effectiveness of our charitable giving at all levels, which has been concealed from us while independent journalists have been getting their boots on.

    Owen replies: As I think I made clear in my post, there was been a considerable effort to monitor the delivery of the aid programme to government-controlled Ethiopia in the 1980s by a wide variety of people. There has never been any kind of evidence of diversion of waste.

  3. It seems to me that, while the battle for better and more professional aid is getting won in academics, the public is returning to old narratives we thought were abandoned a few decades ago: white knights in shining armor, better to give directly to a missionary; how much of this money will reach the beneficiaries?

    I think that more and more, like shown by UNICEF, to maintain legitimacy, the communication campaign must be part of the results. I am afraid this expertise is not part of the skill set of most donor agencies.

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  5. Hi Owen,

    Thanks for the detailed explanation. It is good to hear that donors were alive to these concerns at the time. One thing I did note: you said that as a result most donors supplied emergency food aid to government controlled areas only, and that as a result (at least some of) the population in rebel controlled areas had to migrate to government territory to receive relief. It strikes me that this could be interpreted as implicit support for the government. Thus, although the donors’ decision seems reasonable, it also confirms that they were an actor in the conflict with effects beyond just saving the lives of starving people. This will not come as a surprise to anyone involved in development work, but was not probably not understood by the millions of people in the West who donated (at least through their governments) to the famine relief operation.

    Thus, although in this case the BBC were clearly guilty (seemingly through the editorial process at the corporate level) of drastically over-egging the story – for which a full apology is indeed required – I do think it is a good thing that journalists now are starting to question some of the simple messages put out by the development industry.


  6. Dear Owen,

    As an Ethiopian who had witnessed the 1984 famine in my country, what you wrote is largely true.

    The aid distribution was divided in two:

    1) Goverment-held Ethiopian areas (may be 85% of Ethiopia),
    2) Rebel-held Tigray (may be 15% of the aid recepients)

    Martin Plaut’s story was focused on the aid that was heavily (and with substantial evidence) misused by rebels that controlled Tigray. But the report failed to state that aid distribution in government-held areas of Ethiopia was a success.

    What the Tigrayan rebels (then being led by current Ethiopia’s dictator, the prime minister Meles Zenawi) committed a crime by ordering a mandatory exodus of the entire Tigray people to neighboring Sudan, a thousand miles away on foot. Thousands died before they reached the destination. Plaut was right on point when he said the people were held as a begging bowl. The rebels received an estimated over $100 million, but over 95% of this money was used entirely for consolidating the military and logistical needs of the rebels themselves, according to Gebremedhin Araya, who was then a senior rebel in charge of finances.

    Now an emigre in Australia, Gebremedhin is now a household name among Ethiopians because he not only testifies on numerous Ethiopian media but also campaigns to take the government of Meles Zenawi to the international criminal court for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

    Further details may be available on, arguably Ethiopia’s leading website known for its credible stories.

    Owen replies: thanks Yohannes. I think we agree on the point I was making in my post, which is that the aid that was delivered to government-controlled Ethiopia was delivered and not diverted, and that the BBC broadcast was misleading in the impression it gave to the contrary. You say this was 85% of the aid; I think the correct figure is more like 95% or more. Either way, the BBC broadcast was extremely misleading in implying that a large proportion of aid to Ethiopia in the 1980s was diverted to military use.

    I have no first hand knowledge of the what happened to the small amount of money that was given to rebel-held areas, which is what your comment is primarily about. Your account is consistent with, and from the same source as, Martin Plaut’s account.

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  8. Thank you Owen for providing your take on, on what has happened.

    I wish people, be it those in BBC or outside, do really have a look at what they say and/or do before they come to conclusion and put a last long impression, usually negative one.

    I am very much surprised by Yohannes for two things
    1. claiming as a credible website, when it known that it is website run by one of the Ethiopian oppositions.
    2. Citing the same witness namely Gebremedhin as a source to justify the point. Gebremedihin is also a low rank fighter who had no access to information on what the top had decided.

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