Ethiopia: Is humanitarian aid bad for Africa?

“The face of hunger was transformed, and the face of aid was Ethiopian,” writes Peter Gill, in his important new book, Famine and Foreigners. Today, Bob Geldof and his partner, Bono, are major players in the aid establishment. (They guest-edited a recent edition of The Globe and Mail.) Largely thanks to them, Western governments and non-governmental organizations have poured billions of dollars of aid into Africa.

Last March, an investigative program on the British Broadcasting Corp. made an explosive claim. It alleged that most of the money that Mr. Geldof raised back in 1985 had been diverted to buy arms for the rebel army fighting against the government. The enraged Mr. Geldof demanded an apology. “There is not a single shred of evidence that Band Aid or Live Aid money could have been diverted in any way,” he declared.

Last week, Mr. Geldof received a full apology. This week on the CBC, he insisted to Jian Ghomeshi, the host of Q, that he has yet to see an NGO “where the money went astray” or any situation in which aid didn’t reach the people for whom it was intended. “The Canadian government are saying we can’t determine whether this aid is accountable or not, therefore we are going to suspend money to the poorest people in the world – this is disgraceful!”

Yet a growing number of humanitarian and development experts – including former true believers – argue that aid money frequently prolongs wars, props up dictators, impedes democracy, aids oppression and stifles human rights. Nowhere, they say, is this chain of unintended consequences more apparent than in Ethiopia itself.

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