Dangerous Pity

When a good cause has bad effects

| July 7, 2005

Just over 20 years ago, images of starving Ethiopians rocked the conscience of the West. In a then novel approach, pop singer Bob Geldof led the charge to avert the deaths of thousands by putting on the international Live Aid concerts.

Millions were raised and thousands were saved. But David Rieff raises the uncomfortable possibility that just as many people may have been harmed by the world's best intentions.

'[T]here is no necessary connection between raising a lot of money for a good cause and spending that money well, just as there is no necessary connection between caring about the suffering of others and understanding the nature and cause of that suffering,' Rieff writes in Prospect.

A fundamental misunderstanding about the Ethiopian famine was that it was simply a natural disaster -- mass starvation brought on by a two-year drought. Also at work were the fallout of the country's wars with rebels and its 'forced agricultural collectivization policy pursued with seemingly limitless ruthlessness,' Rieff explains.



Under the mantle of fighting famine -- suddenly a cause c?l?bre worldwide -- Ethiopian leaders forced the resettlement of 600,000 people from the north to the government-controlled southwestern region. '[It] was at least in part a military campaign, masquerading as a humanitarian effort,' Rieff writes. 'And it was assisted by western aid money.'

A conservative estimate puts the death toll from resettlement at 50,000. The well-meaning motives of Geldof, NGOs, and those who rallied to the Ethiopians' cause were ultimately twisted to devastating effect. It's a cautionary tale in the age of what Rieff calls 'the global altruism business.'
-- Hannah Lobel

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