BBC should present clear evidence about aid abuse

Posted on November 28, 2010


More than apologies, we expect excellent journalism from the BBC. If the network stands for its claim that Ethiopia has diverted aid money for military purposes during the 1985 famine, it should present indisputable evidence.


It was “excellent and robust journalism”, said Mark Thompson, general director of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His network’s report last March on the abuse of aid money during the 1985 famine was treated likewise. Media all over the world brought the news, leaving an audience of millions under the impression that Ethiopia massively diverted relief aid for military purposes. You can picture the reactions in ordinary households. Viewers that might have been donors back in the eighties, nodding their heads and concluding their money has been wasted.

It was a time to shine for the BBC, and especially its World Service Africa Desk, who initiated the research on which the report was based. Journalists take pride in their work, particularly when it’s a ‘scoop’, front-page news with a global reach. But the ‘excellent’ report proved not to be that ‘robust’ after all… an investigation following several complaints by NGOs about its accuracy left the BBC with no other option than apologizing for having no evidence for the accusations.

The excuses, which are admirable, focused largely on The Band Aid Trustee led by singer Bob Geldof, who raised millions of dollars from donors with his Live Aid concerts to fight the famine. The BBC claimed that rebels used the aid money to purchase arms for their struggle against Mengistu Hailemariam’s military regime. Although the report didn’t directly mention Band Aid, various programs following the broadcast indicated that Band Aid money was involved. The claims gave a “misleading and unfair impression,” the BBC acknowledged blame. “We had no evidence for these statements, and they shouldn’t have been broadcast.”

Remarkably, the Ethiopian government wasn’t mentioned in the mea culpa, presumably because the BBC stood by its former statements that it has “quite some evidence”. Being one of the direct targets of the accusations (after all many of the former TPLF rebels are now high officials in the ruling party EPRDF) its reaction was as obvious as understandable. It demanded an apology to Ethiopia and its people and furthermore raised the suspicion that the BBC could have had other intentions in broadcasting its news relatively short before its national elections.

The BBC program did actually brushed some of the truth. It is in fact believed that aid money has been diverted at the time of the famine, but, according to experts, this only applies to a small amount of relief money given to a very limited area of Tigray that was under Tigrayan and Eritrean rebel control. But the claim that 95 percent of the money given to REST – the humanitarian wing of the rebels – was diverted, is based on claims by former rebels who now oppose the Ethiopian government.

In a sharp plea printed in the British newspaper The Guardian Sir Brian Barder, ambassador of the United Kingdom to Ethiopia during the famine, argues that the allegations concerned around “3 to 4 percent of the total relief aid to Ethiopia” and definitely not the government-controlled areas. He is right to point out that the BBC’s report, picked up by media all over the world, has been interpreted as alleging that up to 95 percent of all famine relief aid for Ethiopia has been misused for military purposes.

Internal investigation has shown that the BBC claim was unfounded. In fact, until today, there’s no indisputable evidence that aid was diverted. The BBC denies this, but where is the evidence? Despite the apologies, numerous people are now under the (false?) impression that aid diversion was widespread during the massive campaign to fight the equally massive famine in the 1980s.

This “universal misinterpretation” defames the dedicated aid workers concerned, Sir Barder says, but also discourages people from contributing to disaster relief funds in the future. Therefore, the BBC owes not only Band Aid an apology, but, he says, also the concerned governments, donors, charities and, above all, ordinary people who gave so generously.

Although it’s not BBC’s, or any media’s for that matter, concern if ordinary people do or don’t give to relief operations in the future, media does play a significant role. It is largely based on their information that private donors decide to support what is often referred to as ‘the good cause’ and they are also largely dependent on journalists’ work to check if their money is spent well.

There is a clear relation between media coverage of disasters and the amount of aid given. We can clearly see this when we compare two of the latest natural catastrophes: the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan. In comparison to the earthquake in Haiti, media coverage of the Pakistan floods has been almost trivial. According to a report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, this has led eleven US charities to raise five million dollars, compared to 560 million dollars by 39 US charities in a similar time span after the Haiti earthquake.

More important is the role of the media to examine where the money goes of those who decide, as said mainly based on information by the media, to donate. The world of NGOs and humanitarianism is nothing less than an industry in which billions of dollars circulate, much like the public and private sector. It should therefore be treated likewise. Like they do with governments and businesses, the media has to examine aid institutions and hold them accountable for the spending of donated money. No sentiments allowed: good intentions are not enough!

Some good work has been done in recent years. Remember the destructive tsunami of 2004? Research pointed out that a significant number of aid organizations, despite the blood, sweat and tears they shed, couldn’t justify most of their expenses. Or, even more striking, the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda in which Hutu killers fled the country and regrouped in NGO run refugee camp, where they received food and shelter paid by donations and were even able to continue their hunt on the Tutsi’s, all this revealed by independent journalists. It is painful information, but of high interest to donors – both governments and ordinary civilians.

In the case of Ethiopia, the BBC has clearly made an attempt to fulfil its role as a watchdog by tracing back the huge amount of money donated during the famine. Unfortunately the attempt was a half-hearted one. And, even more unfortunate, the apologies for false accusations it led to seem to be even more half-hearted, unless there is in fact indisputable evidence about abuse of aid money. In that case: come clean and turn a ‘universal misinterpretation’ into ‘robust and excellent journalism’.

Capital, November 28, 2010