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Suzanne Franks: You can't take the politics out of humanitarian aid

It shouldn’t be a surprise that some aid to Ethiopia went to the military

The latest spat between the BBC and Bob Geldof over whether famine aid was diverted to buy weapons in Ethiopia ignores the context of the time.

Ethiopia in 1984-5 was a perfect example of two widely differing stories. The famous media images were of starving "drought victims" and the repeated explanation for the so-called emergency was lack of rainfall. Internal UK Foreign Office papers referred to the "Ethiopian Drought Crisis". Yet that was a long way from the whole truth.

The cause of the suffering was a long-term political problem that was largely ignored, in particular a totalitarian dictatorship fighting a civil war on three fronts. Dawit Giorgis, once a Politburo member who subsequently defected, revealed later that defence accounted for half of Ethiopia's total government expenditure.

Yet the war itself was officially a state secret and rarely featured in any media reporting. Government spokesmen told journalists they were just, "dealing with some bandits". In fact the conflict involved millions of soldiers and the biggest battles in Africa since El Alamein during Second World War. There was food available in Ethiopia but because of the fighting, it was not getting to the people in trouble. In some cases it was deliberately being kept from areas such as Eritrea and Tigray, which were being punished for political reasons.

Colonel Mengistu the tyrannical Ethiopian leader was bombing and terrorising the rebel territories, poisoning wells, attacking trade convoys. Markets had to be held at night to avoid the bombing. There was simultaneously a drought in neighbouring Kenya at that time – yet it did not lead to a famine, which demonstrates that man rather than nature was the cause.

It should hardly be a surprise, even to Bob Geldof, that some of the aid sent to Ethiopia in 1984-5 was diverted for military ends. The problem is that explaining and understanding humanitarian intervention seems to take place in two parallel worlds.

First there is the cosy media view which prefers to focus upon deserving victims and the need for fundraising. According to this interpretation "natural disasters" are always "Acts of God" and the job is simply a matter of getting the aid to the suffering.

Then there is the messy reality. On closer inspection many apparently "natural" disasters and famine in particular, turn out to be "man made" after all, and generally there is a war happening somewhere nearby. As a result there is often no "neutral space" in which to deliver the aid and no straightforward understanding about who deserves it.

The agencies on the ground may be well aware of these complexities and the need for delicate balancing acts. But they also know that raising funds is easier when the message is kept simple and preferably good old nature, rather than human folly, is to blame for the disaster.

For many aid agencies the relief effort in Ethiopia represented a watershed in this issue of so-called neutral humanitarian assistance. The oldest and grandest agency of them all, the Red Cross, had historically positioned itself as an honest broker which never took sides, no matter how unpleasant the protagonists. But crises such as Biafra or Cambodia had begun to demonstrate that in some cases it is not possible for aid to remain independent of politics. Any intervention helps one side or the other.

The Ethiopian relief operation was the largest ever and the popular perception held by both agencies and public that "a starving child has no politics" came under severe strain. In retrospect a senior Oxfam official observed that it was only much later that they were aware of the underlying political factors which caused the famine and were able to comprehend "the readiness of such regimes to manipulate famine and abuse aid".

Alex De Waal, the author of Famine Crimes, describes how incomprehensible these situations are to outsiders and potential donors, where leaders "use the humanitarian imperative for their own ends... deliberately cultivating starving children in order to attract aid... which can be used to feed soldiers or further war aims."

Many of the rules governing humanitarian action in what are now called "complex emergencies" were actually worked out as a result of what happened in Ethiopia. It was the more radical agencies of that period, such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, which tried to articulate the unforeseen dilemmas of humanitarian intervention and the vital need to understand the political dimension to the suffering.

They were arguing that in such circumstances it was no longer possible to choose between a political and a neutral position. And the resulting paradox emerged that, contrary to the received wisdom of the charitable givers, a starving child may know only politics.

Dr Franks is director of research at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent