The BBC’s allegations over Ethiopian aid: what is the truth?

The food shortage in Ethiopia is still on-going. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Nicholas Winer, Newstatesman

Aid workers must be pragmatic – if food was getting to people, then the money was doing its job.

I have followed, with a certain incredulity, the recent story put out by the BBC that 95 per cent of the aid to the Tigrayean rebels was diverted. I mean, 95 per cent is a vast amount of money, and why, I ask myself, would any group of self respecting conmen steal it all? Surely they would need to show that enough good was being done, so that the cash cow would come back again and again and again. The cross-border aid process ran from 1984 to the fall of Mengistu’s regime in Addis. This was no one-off smash and grab.

Initially, the TPLF simply sent people from Tigray to Sudan to be fed and housed by the UN and the international NGO community. It seemed a cheap and efficient way to manage a famine in Tigray. But the horrific sight of 300,000 people arriving en masse was overwhelming. The Sudanese camps suddenly turned into a second Korem, until enough aid could be delivered to reduce the death toll. The TPLF consistently deny that this was what they had done. I, and others, couldn’t conceive how such a vast sea of people could have moved through such tightly controlled rebel territory without the active guidance of the TPLF.

What happened next is the crux of the BBC’s story and of Paul Vallely’s refutation in the Independent. There had been a good harvest in western Tigray, but the poor had no money to buy it. The TPLF, through their civilian wing REST, determined sensibly that buying from the producers to feed the consumers was better for all than dumping food aid into the market. Why, they argued, suppress the price of food for the few who had managed to grow enough to sell? This impeccable free trade logic from hardline Marxists won immediate sympathy. And so began the process of meeting merchants, handing out cash, and checking on both food distribution and nutritional levels.

Khartoum, before Sharia law and the “Courts of prompt and Instant Justice”, was a vibrant, dusty and chaotic city. TPLF soldiers swaggered around with gold cigarette lighters, and Johnnie Walker Black Label was their favourite tipple. REST had a large house in an expensive suburb, where rents were too high for us Oxfam types. It was a friendly house, with an endless flow of people coming and going. As foreigners, we never knew who was who, but no one was turned away, and the atmosphere was beguilingly appropriate for beginning a relationship of trust.

The recent angry response to the BBC by aging colleagues that every effort was made to build checks and balances into the purchase and distribution process speaks volumes about their real anxiety that many things could’ve gone wrong. They wanted to be sure that if food or money did go astray, it wouldn’t be because they’d been negligent. On that basis — and the detailed explanations of Paul Vallely — the more extreme claims made by the BBC must be discounted. But for the very same reason, so too must any outright denial that anything did go astray.

The truth, I think, lies somewhere between the two positions. The proud young TPLF fighters in Khartoum and the earnest workers of REST intermingled, working for the same cause, under the same authority. There was much we were never privy to as aid workers (and the same applied to journalists), and so it would be foolish to state anything too categorically. It was in the interests of both REST and the TPLF to ensure a continued supply of resources to them and their people. This they did by providing a satisfactory level of access. That was smart and logical thinking.

Had they not been of a Marxist orientation they would have had an easier time of it from the USA, and perhaps would not have needed to be so accommodating: they could have done with their own Charlie Wilson. As it was, the best they could have hoped for was to be considered the good ‘commies’, as opposed to the bad ones of Mengistu’s regime. The verdict too has to be out on what the CIA in Sudan did and didn’t know. At the time it seemed not enough, given their boringly incessant attempts to question aid workers coming out of Tigray, and yet rather a lot, given their involvement in the highly complex evacuation of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.

The people they seemed most interested in were often the health workers who travelled widely, witnessed bombing raids by the Ethiopians, and saw where TPLF fighters were based. This was precisely what the spooks wanted to know about. The health workers, on the other hand, weren’t too pleased with these extra attentions, but they were the ones who knew whether the process was working or not. If the people weren’t hungry, then that was what counted. That was, after all, what the grain buying programme was for. That was what determined whether the money was well spent. Counting bags of grain was never going to be a fool-proof process, nor could it have been a guarantee of success. The process did work. The flood of refugees into the border camps slowed to a trickle, and health levels improved in Tigray. That’s what people gave Sir Bob their money for and, by and large, it did what was expected of it.

It was always evident that greater access, and thus greater accountability, was mroe possible with the structures established by the Tigrayeans than with those of the Eritreans. That this was so is still reflected in the different political realities of the two countries. So, I ask myself if the story even has the right focus. What happened to aid to the Eritrean rebels, where accountability was much harder to establish? What of the tales of an underground TPLF political prison in Gondar, to which no aid worker was ever granted access? No surprise there. This wasn’t just famine, but a nasty and brutal war zone. To suggest that the TPLF never pulled a fast one and took their share would be a very foolish and naive assertion.

Today the TPLF — sorry, government of Ethiopia — own vast tracks of sorghum-growing estates on the Sudan border, right next to Western Tigray where this all began. In a land where private property is illegal, these (ad)venture capitalists are a real success story. As ever, someone else is paying the price.

Nicholas Winer is the former director of Oxfam in Sudan and Ethiopia. He is also the author of “The Tethered Goat” a political thriller set in Mengistu’s Ethiopia.