30th Anniversary of BBC Report on 1983-’85 Ethiopian Famine
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the screening of the BBC report into the 1983-85 Ethiopian famine. Showing dramatic images of the effects of the famine, the broadcast was a seminal moment in crisis reporting and generated a massive public response. It influenced Bob Geldof to organise Live Aid, the successor to his initial Band Aid fundraiser, in order to encourage charity donations to help fight the famine. Millions of pounds were raised as a result.
While the report and the mobilisation it helped launch can be viewed as a decisive moment in the development of charity campaigning and fundraising, they have also been subject to serious and sustained criticism. The original BBC report ignored the effects of the Ethiopian governments efforts to fight a civil war against Tigrayan and Eritrean insurgents and instead focused on “failing rains, which kept things simple for both journalists and aid agencies.” What’s more, the conflict drove the manipulation of aid within coercive resettlement programmes, a reality not as widely reported and which led to the explusion of Medecins Sans Frontires from the country when they denounced the co-optation of aid by the Ethiopian government.
Live Aid itself and its precursor have also been criticised for reinforcing the “antipolitics” approach to understanding famine relief and the resultant humantiarian aid presented in the BBC report. It has also been criticised for appealing to an antiquated, hegemonic and simplified understanding of the life in Africa that is inherently disaster-stricken in order to encourage donations. The effects of this approach to presenting disasters such as famine by excluding human causes as wholly “natural” can still be felt today.