The first time Bono and Madonna got together to save Africa, the unintended consequence was the death of perhaps as many as 100,000 people. That’s aid expert David Rieff’s conclusion in the July 2005 issue of the resolutely liberal American Prospect magazine regarding the end result of Live Aid in 1985.
Billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Live Aid was a multi-venue rock concert held on July 13, 1985 in London and Philadelphia in order to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. With an estimated 1.5 billion viewers watching the live broadcast in 100 countries, the event reportedly raised $250 million.
The money was supposed to go towards relieving hunger. In reality, argues Rieff, the rock stars and well-intentioned donors became unwilling participants in a civil war and unwitting supporters of a Soviet-style resettlement project that vastly increased the severity of the famine.
Rieff points to three causes of Ethiopia’s famine, one natural, a two-year long drought, and two “entirely man-made.” The man-made contributing factors were, first, “the dislocation imposed by the wars being waged by the central government” against rebel groups in the north of the country, and, second, “by far the most serious, the forced agricultural collectivization policy pursued with seemingly limitless ruthlessness by Mengistu Haile Mariam and his colleagues who had overthrown emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, and officially adopted communism as their creed in 1984.”
The impact of this government-mandated collectivization, contends Rieff, was “every bit the equal in its radicalism to the policies Stalin pursued in the Ukraine in the 1930s, where, as in Ethiopia, the result was inevitable famine.”
As Francois Jean of the medical aid organization Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) described it at the time, the Mengistu regime was employing “shock treatment in order to transform Ethiopian rural society.” Comparing the Ethiopian resettlement policy to its Chinese and Soviet predecessors, Francois Jean wrote that all three terror famines “proceeded from the same approach to reality, the same vision of the future, the same extreme commitment to radical social transformation.”
This famine-inducing resettlement policy in Ethiopia, the movement of 600,000 people from the north and the “villagization” of millions of others, was “at least in part a military campaign, masquerading as a humanitarian effort,” concludes Rieff. “And it was assisted by Western aid money.”
Initially, few people came forward when the authorities in Ethiopia called for volunteers for the resettlement plan. “The response was swift,” explains Rieff. “A campaign of systemic round-ups in towns and villages across three targeted provinces began. Those caught up in these sweeps were either airlifted south or transferred by land, sometimes in vehicles the authorities had requisitioned from international relief agencies — vehicles that were there to transport foodstuffs. The trip usually took five or six days. To this day, no one knows how many people died in route. The conservative estimate is 50,000. MSF’s estimate is double that.”
“We are witnessing the biggest deportation since the Khmer Rouge genocide,” charged MSF’s president, Claude Malhuret, in late 1985. In an exercise of deadly compassion, humanitarian “aid to victims was unwittingly transformed into support to their executioners.”
In other words, Madonna sang, activists bemoaned the self-absorption of life in the rich world, Bono felt good about himself, and music fans phoned in the money that would buy the trucks that would deliver the bodies to the Marxist murderers in the Mengistu regime.
When asked about these unintended consequences, concert organizer Bob Geldof seemed to have few second thoughts. “The organizations that are participating in the resettlement program should not be criticized,” he told the Irish Times on November 4, 1985. “In my opinion, we’ve got to give aid without worrying about population transfers.”
This time around, Chris Martin, the frontman of Coldplay and a former student in World Studies at London’s University College, told the Live 8 audience that the July 2, 2005 concerts were “the greatest thing that’s ever been organized, probably, in the history of the world.”
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