Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Geldof should tell the whole African story

Reality of Ethiopian civil war
On 3 November, the BBC World Service apologised to Bob Geldof for implying that Band Aid money might have been diverted to buy weapons. In my opinion, the apology obscures a kernel of truth that would promote positive debate on the African crisis.

Bob Geldof should own up to the problems of distributing aid money in Africa. Transparency and an accurate portrayal of what is really happening are needed if we can hope to solve the problems. Glossing over the truth preserves a romantic view of the relationship between Africa and Europe that may actually perpetuate bad governments.

The BBC apologised for a series of reports claiming money raised by Live Aid to fight famine in Ethiopia was spent on weapons, saying it had no evidence. The claims prompted a complaint from Band Aid Trustees including Bob Geldof.

An edition of Assignment, broadcast on the World Service last March, initially reported (unspecified) aid money had been diverted by a rebel group to buy guns. That story was followed up online and on programmes including From Our Own Correspondent and the BBC News which went one step further and named Live Aid and Band Aid as the source of the misdirected funds - although they had no further evidence.

The BBC's additional reporting misrepresented the original story by identifying Band Aid. That is a great pity, because the World Service made an important point: cash and other aid provided to African governments, or to opponents of these governments who are involved in armed struggle, inevitably supports arms and war, directly or indirectly. Bob Geldof didn't deny Band Aid supported armed rebel controlled organisations. He simply says the BBC can't prove the money was spent on arms.

Look what happened: the people who were funded by Live Aid and others went on to win the war in Ethiopia, and are now becoming tyrants themselves. This message is valuable: chucking money at starving Africa isn't solving the problem. Famine relief must happen (maybe better managed and administered than Live Aid) but solving the problem involves looking truthfully at it, not glossing over it as Bob Geldof does in dealing with the BBC article.

Bob Geldof says there is no evidence Live Aid money went to fund arms. Because of British libel laws, the BBC has to give in to him because they cannot definitively prove the truth of their claims in court, even though people who worked in Live Aid say it is inevitable that some money was diverted. So the kernel of truth has been obscured: when we support one faction in a civil war, we should take responsibility for the consequences.

Africa has big problems including colonial legacy, African dictators and European arms traders. Live Aid and Live 8 are wasted opportunities, because the media extravaganza should be focussed on revealing the truth about Africa, not wallowing in romantic imagery of gallant Europeans saving starving Africans. If Bob Geldof focussed on revealing the power struggles that are behind destabilised Africa, we would see a disturbing picture of big business and arms dealers and ruthless African dictators taking power by force of arms for the sake of controlling mineral reserves. International business, including business controlled by Europeans, benefits from and interferes in this process. Wars are started and millions die. It is dangerously simplistic to blame the problems on drought or on capitalism as Geldof seems to do. In doing so, he provides cover for the criminal rape of Africa to continue. I hope in future he will focus attention on the reality of African government, e.g. in Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, and DRC, and provide more intelligent analysis than he has done so far, lest he be seen as contributing to a cover-up.

Well done to World Service for trying to tackle this issue, shame to BBC for misrepresenting the original reporting in such a way as to render it libellous, and to Geldof for failing to tell us the whole story. Why do they do that?

1. The apology broadcast on the World Service said: "Following a complaint from the Band Aid Trust, the BBC has investigated the programme. The investigation has concluded that the programme's evidence did not relate to money raised by Band Aid and Live Aid. However, 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." The corporation also apologised to Geldof after it "unfairly" said he refused to comment on the story because it was too sensitive.

2. According to Wikipedia: Aregawi Berhe, a high-ranking TPLF (rebel) commander living in exile in The Netherlands, told German radio Deutsche Welle that "the rebel movement, TPFL, had received the money under false pretences – through its development arm, the so-called 'Aid Association of Tigray' (MARET). But MARET belonged to the party. So after the aid from donors and aid charities was collected, it was made available through the budget of the party's central committee – for logistics and financing of the resistance."
Wikipedia on TPLF

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