Twenty years ago one million people died of starvation in Ethiopia following a severe drought. In response to the tragedy Bob Geldorf organised charity concerts and released 'Do they know it's Christmas' as part of the benefit. Since then many Ethiopians have relied on aid to stave off famine. Today followers of Sir Bob will release a new version of the same record in the face of a much more extensive crisis in and around the Horn of Africa. In other words, the problem has got worse over the last 20 years.
Famine created by capitalist rivalries
This year the Ethiopian government began driving 2 million people away from the arid eastern highlands, claiming this will be a lasting solution to famine in the country. This is hardly convincing given that the drought of 2002/3 has been much more extensive than that in 1984 (Northern Highlands) or 2000 (South Eastern pastoral region), covering areas never previously needing food aid. At the same time, Somalia has fallen apart with effectively no central government since 1991, its new 'president' sworn in not in the Somali capital but in Kenya. Most of the little industry it had has been sold off as scrap metal by the local warlords, and its agriculture and pastoralism is threatened by desertification. To the west, Sudan is suffering the very worst crisis as drought in the neglected Darfur region has sharpened the competition between settled and pastoral people for scarce water and pasture. It was the government that turned this into a massacre by sending in the military and recruiting the Janjaweed, so that now 70,000 have been slaughtered, 1.6 million driven from their homes, and the tragedy extended to Chad with the refugees from Sudan. The whole situation has been worsened by this year's rain, making it harder to bring in aid, and by the plague of locusts being blown in first to Chad and then to Darfur.
The role of imperialism
The Darfur tragedy "would have been so easy to avoid. None of this had to happen" according to General Ibrahim Suleiman, who as governor had been one of those most instrumental in causing it (quoted on the New York Times web site, 17 Oct). The role of the Sudan government in arming the militia to put down the SLA and JEM rebels in Darfur has been well publicised.
But this is no mere local conflict; it is a small corner of the conflict between the great powers for control of the strategically vital Red Sea and North East Africa. The long running conflict in Southern Sudan was stirred up and used first by the Western and Eastern blocs in the 1970s and 1980s (with the SPLA being supplied by Russia via Ethiopia and the government armed by the US), and is now being used in similar ways by the US and its former allies turned rivals (see WR 276). In the conditions of instability that followed the collapse of the blocs, each country, rebel army or warlord will seek its backers among the great powers while the latter seek influence with whatever client they can use against their rivals. So the SPLA has been backed by Russia, and later by the US, when Sudan was backed by France. Meanwhile France has armed both the SLA and JEM in Darfur (discretely, via Chad), once Khartoum began to get more friendly with Washington again.
In the 1970s and 1980s Ethiopia, as a client of the USSR, supported rebels in Sudan and in turn suffered Western-backed rebels launched from Sudan and Somalia. The pro-Russian regime fell in 1991 following the collapse of its backer.
Somalia fell into the US orbit in the 1970s and 1980s. The fall of its government in 1991 was even more catastrophic, with mass starvation and the country plunging into the grip of ruthless warlords. The US invasion in the 1990s only added to the chaos.
In these circumstances we can understand the current 'humanitarian' intervention by the various imperialist powers as simply the expression of their self-interest. EU foreign minister Javier Solana's visit to Ethiopia and Sudan, with the promise of 100 million Euros to support the increase in the size of the African Union force in Darfur from less than 500 to more than 3,000, is nothing more than the effort of the powers he represents to gain influence in the region. The US sponsored Security Council resolution threatening sanctions against Sudan is likewise a manoeuvre aimed at keeping its domination of the region. And the opposition to that resolution from China is a completely understandable response from Sudan's main trading partner.
The imperialist role of aid
Without doubt there are presently millions in the Horn of Africa and Sudan totally dependent on food aid to survive. Yet international aid has not prevented the succession of famines and massacres in the region. Even worse, aid is given in circumstances in which it cannot be anything but an instrument of imperialism. With aid provided by nation states this is crystal clear, as a report on US aid shows: "U.S. national interests are clear: stability and security will not be achieved in the greater Horn of Africa region without putting an end to conflict and stopping potential Somali support for terrorism" (www.usaid.gov).
This has always been the case: "In 1984 16,000 tons of emergency food aid went to Somalia of which 9% went to the armed forces, 21% to other government bodies and 58% was left to rot!" (WR 157).
Non-government organisations cannot escape becoming integrated into the plans of imperialism, whatever the intentions of those who work for them or donate money to them: "Through them [imperialisms] not only channel aid to their clients, but also get the working class to help pay for this through charitable donations. The aid agencies may not give arms to war-lords, but they do something equally as important: they feed and care for their populations for them. Without this 'aid' they would not have the cannon fodder they need to wage the war: a war that causes the famine and misery in the first place" (WR 219). In this period the refugee camp becomes the base for the war lord.
It is no accident that Sir Bob got his knighthood for arranging aid that got Western agencies into Ethiopia at a time when it was a Russian client. Today in the name of 'doing something practical', Sir Bob has become an open advocate of US and British government 'Plans for Africa'. This is the fate of the ideology of charity in an epoch when revolutionary politics are the only realistic hope for humanity.