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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