Bob Geldof and charities deny aid was spent on weapons but corporation executives say reports are credible
The BBC is standing by a report that 95% of the $100m aid raised to fight famine in northern Ethiopia in 1985 was diverted by rebels and spent on weapons, despite denials by Bob Geldof and leading charities.
A programme broadcast last week by the BBC World Service’s Africa editor, Martin Plaut, suggested that rebels in the province of Tigray tricked aid workers into giving them the money, which was meant to buy food for the starving.
The Assignment documentary is expected to find itself the subject of a formal complaint next week when Geldof and several charities send a letter to the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom and the BBC Trust.
In the programme, two former members of the Tigryan People’s Liberation Front, Aregawi Berhe and Gebremedhin Araya, said the group had relied on the aid money to fund its campaign against the then ruling military junta. Berhe, a former TPLF commander, told Plaut that in 1985, only 5% of the $100m raised by charities ended up with the victims of the famine.
His assertion was supported by another ex-member of the group, Araya, who said the rebels had fooled aid workers by dressing up as merchants and selling them bags of sand rather than grain. The money they pocketed, said Araya, was then spent on military hardware.
Berhe and Araya subsequently left the TPLF following disagreements with the front’s leadership, which included Meles Zenawi, now Ethiopia’s prime minister.
Although a senior BBC World Service editor acknowledged that both men were “at odds” with Zenawi – who is standing for re-election in May – he said they were “credible voices”.
Plaut also pointed to a 1985 CIA report, which concluded that some of the money raised by insurgent organisations “as a result of increased world publicity … [is] almost certainly being diverted for military purposes”.
But the programme’s claims have met with anger and point-blank denials from Geldof and some of the biggest charities in the world.
The Irish musician, who masterminded the 1985 Live Aid concerts that raised millions to alleviate the Ethiopian famine, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show today: “There is not a single shred of evidence that Band Aid or Live Aid money was diverted.”
Oxfam has called the suggestions “preposterous”; Unicef said they were “misleading and unsubstantiated”, while the Red Cross has labelled them “completely untrue”.
Oxfam, Unicef, the Red Cross, Christian Aid and Save the Children are all expected to add their names to the letter.
Geldof, awarded an honorary knighthood for his fundraising efforts, said that while he could speak only for Band Aid, he had no reason to believe that any money had been “diverted in any sense”.
He also accused Berhe of bias and challenged the BBC to substantiate its claims. “Produce one shred of evidence; one iota of evidence – not some dissident, exiled malcontent,” he said. “Produce me one shred of evidence and I promise you I will properly investigate it,” he said. “I will properly report it and if there is any money missing, I will sue the Ethiopian government – who are the rebels who were fighting the war in Tigray – for that money back now and I will spend it on aid.”
Geldof’s defiance was echoed by five other charities, many of whom pointed out that they were well-versed in making sure that aid money got to those in dire need even in the most difficult circumstances.
“The British public who in good faith donated money to help distressed, starving people need to know that these allegations are preposterous,” said Phil Bloomer, Oxfam’s campaigns and policy director.
A spokeswoman for Save the Children described the Ethiopian famine of 1984-5 as “challenging and complex”, but added: “[We] had already been working in the country for 35 years, delivering life-saving aid directly to families through our own operations and had strong systems and well-developed networks in place. We were acutely aware of the risks of working in such a politically complicated environment and took care to scrutinise both the source of donations and how money raised was spent, wherever possible distributing aid rather than money.”
Christian Aid, which has confirmed its intention to support the complaint, said the affair was “a good example of the old adage that a lie can be halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on”, while Unicef said that its finances were strictly audited and that it had “no evidence to support claims that aid money in Ethiopia was used for anything other than its intended purpose”.
The BBC declined to comment directly, instead referring the Guardian to a blog entry written by the BBC World Service’s news and current affairs editor.
Andrew Whitehead said the programme had presented “compelling evidence that some of the famine relief donations were diverted by a powerful rebel group to buy weapons”, adding that the BBC stood by Plaut’s reporting.
He also noted that the programme had not suggested that any relief agencies had been complicit in the diversion of funds. “It explicitly stated that ‘whatever the levels of deception, much aid did reach the starving’,” he said. “But there is a clear public interest in determining whether some money given as famine relief ended up buying guns and bullets. And that’s what the evidence suggests.”