30 years on: Ethiopia and the business of hunger

30 years after images of Ethiopian famine haunted British TV screens, they still shape how we see Africa - and ensure we fail to understand.

Nick Dearden
24 October 2014

It’s 30 years since Michael Buerke’s harrowing report of a ‘biblical famine’ reached BBC TV screens. Following a year of cynical government inaction and silence, Bob Geldof launched a frenzied celebrity campaign to get aid to the famine-hit regions.

Money from the public, if not the government, poured into the country. But in the process, the politics of what was happening in Ethiopia was completely erased, and our ideas of ‘charity’, ‘hunger’ and indeed ‘Africa’, were changed in fundamental ways which to this day are difficult to challenge.

The BBC remains proud of its reporting of Ethiopia’s famine, and certainly it directed public attention to a horrific situation. But it did this at the price of understanding what was really happening in Ethiopia, a problem compounded by Bob Geldof who insisted on seeing the famine as a terrible ‘natural disaster’.

In fact Ethiopia’s authoritarian government under Mengistu Haile Mariam, heavily armed by the Soviet Union as a key proxy player in the Cold War, was waging a war against Eritrean and Tigrayan freedom fighters. Drought was being used by Mengistu as one tool to starve and defeat the rebel areas.

Yet when aid started flowing in, it largely went to the Ethiopian government itself, which further used that aid to forcibly displace thousands of opponents. In an excellent article for the Guardian yesterday, former BBC journalist Suzanne Franks makes clear just how problematic the aid effort was:

Victims of famine were lured into feeding camps only to be forced on to planes and transported far away from their homes. Some estimate the number of deaths from this policy to be higher than those from famine.”

As Franks says, Médecins sans Frontières refused to play along – a principled position they have maintained in humanitarian emergencies ever since. War on Want sent aid directly to rebel areas, where it was administered by the rebel infrastructures and senior Labour Party figures like Glenys Kinnock continued to support the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and expose the horrific circumstances they were facing.

But by and large, aid agencies played along with the politics as the best chance they had of getting aid in. Indeed, the Ethiopian famine played a huge role in the enormous growth of the aid industry over the next few years.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced that such a situation would be tackled more honestly today. Partly that’s because the way Ethiopia was treated fundamentally shaped the way we view Africa. Our idea of starving Ethiopians – helpless, passive and in desperate need of Western salvation – became our image of Africa as a whole. Media and governments played a role, but the biggest culprit was the aid organisations themselves, who understood it was untruthful, but found it an incredibly successful way of raising money.


Thomas Sankara/Wikimedia

In a report commissioned several years ago called ‘Finding Frames’, researchers found that this framing of Africa – what they describe as the ‘Live Aid’ legacy – remains incredibly strong today. Swept away is the political context of Africa – the decades of Empire and slavery through to structural adjustment and debt crisis. Also ignored are the many examples of African resistance and success – from the national liberation governments of the 1950 through to Thomas Sankara’s transformation of Burkina Faso up to 1987. Africa’s agency is marginalised.

The idea that we are a ‘Powerful Giver’ to ‘Grateful Receiver’ continues to dominate the aid discourse today, constantly reinforced by some aid agencies who still insist of perpetuating offensive imagery in order to raise funds.

It’s important we use the anniversary of the Ethiopian famine not simply to show ‘how far Ethiopia has come’, after all Ethiopian civilisation long precedes our own. Rather we should use it to review our image of, and relationship towards Africa, and refuse to support those organisations which still grow rich on the ‘Live Aid’ legacy.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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