Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Posts tagged “Famine

Did celebrity efforts like Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and USA for Africa’s “We Are The World” actually help alleviate famine in the 1980s?

In 1994 South African photojournalist Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer for this photo of a starving child being stalked by a vulture in the Sudan. Later that year Carter committed suicide.

Some people will say that the musicians selflessly raised large amounts of money to help the world’s neediest. Others – myself included – would say that when projects like this don’t involve professional humanitarianism and the beneficiaries (i.e. the people who are supposedly being helped), the law of unintended consequences allows for the best of intentions to pave a road straight to H-E-double-hockeysticks.

There’s three broad ways that Celebrity Aid is often asserted as a success, or conversely, criticized as a failure. Namely they are (1) the amount of aid that actually hit the ground, (2) the stereotypes of Africans it created in the media, and (3) that they may have actually been complicity in ethnocide in the Sub-Saharan African context. I’ll address each separately.

(1) The amount of aid that hit the ground.

Band Aid famously started when Bob Geldof led the charge to raise money for famine in Ethiopia. Naturally, it was done with the best of intentions. The problem is that whereas most people think of famines as natural disasters they are in fact socio-political disasters. To put it another way, there are two models of famine, “food availability decline” and “food entitlement decline” (this is most famously discussed by Amartya Sen). In most cases of famine – for example Ethiopia in the 1980s – there was plenty of food available – the problem is that the poorest people didn’t have access to it, i.e. they weren’t “entitled” in the sense that they couldn’t afford it. When crops fail, there is usually still enough food around to feed people, however the reduced amount of food creates inflation, thus driving up prices. Dumping more money into a hurting economy doesn’t help this (see Dambisa Moyo or Paul Collier’s discussion of aid and Dutch Disease), it worsens things by putting more money in the hands of the wealthy. Additionally, don’t forget that a huge amount of the money raised goes to covering costs of holding these events (honorariums for the artists are a part of this). Much is further siphoned off on the way (including by governments, I’ll get to that in part 3). This is assuming that the aid that arrives is delivered professionally. Humanitarian actors have learned in the last two decades that projects not directly involving local beneficiaries are doomed to failure, and this is still rarely put into practice. Therefore, though millions of dollars are raised, much of it doesn’t hit the ground, and what does hit the ground is more likely to cause further damage and upset the local economy, than to actually save lives.

(2) Media portrayals of Africa

By showing lots of images of starving children with flies on their faces, the image of Africa becomes one of suffering and backwardness, rather than being a continent of diversity of life, culture, religion and experience that rivals that of any other. This video of a tract by Binyavanga Wainana (read by Amistad’s Djimoun Hounsou) describes this issue much better than I can. Basically, the image of Africa as the ‘dark continent’ full of savage warriors and starving babies is not an accurate depiction, and events like Band-Aid and We are the World perpetuate these not only false but outright racist depictions of life in the developing world. The interaction that most people have with “Africa” as a concept therefore becomes the starving child with the flies on its face, rather than learning of the history of the Mali Empire, the Songhai Great Zimbabwe, Shaka Zulu, or of learning the literature of Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka, or even learning the inspiration recent struggles of anyone from Nelson Mandela or Zackie Achmat amongst countless others. Instead, when you ask people what happens in Africa, you get the image of the starving child. Band Aid played a more central role than anything else in constructing this image.

(3) Complicity in mass murder and ethnocide

This is the most controversial aspect of Band Aid and related endeavours that there are. Many (including Tim Allen, Alex de Waal) have argued that Band Aid was directly complicit in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people. This is a highly contentious point. A brief history lesson: Ethiopia was ruled by the West’s darling Haile Sellasse, before he was ov3ertrhown by a nominally-Marxist ruler called Mengistu Haile Mariam. His party, known as the Derg, received support from the USSR. In the early 1980s, a group of Ethiopian ethnic minorities rose up against his rule (a larger one was the Oromo Liberation Front, although Eritrean groups were very active). When crops began to fail (this occurred cyclically, with the worst year being 1984), Mengistu blocked aid to the region, blocked refugees from leaving, as while limiting the international assistance that arrived. What assistance did arrive was taken by the regime, and not sent to the minority areas. Though the regime definitely didn’t cause the famine, they undoubtedly made it worse, using it as a cheap form of counterinsurgency (similar uses of famine as a form of counterinsurgency occurred in the Biafran War in Nigeria in the 1970s, and in Darfur in the 2000s). Support for “Ethiopia” became support for the Derg, and the famine it perpetuated in minority areas of Gojjam, Eritrea, Hararghe, Tigray, and Wollo. Basically, in their attempts to raise money for starving children, fundraising ended up providing legitimacy to the Ethiopian regime, while also sending it lots of money that was inevitably re-directed to other areas (especially corrupt politician’s pockets).Along with Operation Lifeline Sudan, and assistance in the Biafran War, the Live Aid / Band Aid exploits are held up as the three most famous examples of humanitarianism gone wrong, and the best of intentions being manipulated by local actors to pursue policies of ethnocide.

The idea that we must “do something” and that we must “save the world” is dangerous if you don’t deliver aid professionally, through professionalized humanitarian channels no embodied in organizations like MSF, Oxfam, etc., with the involvement of the beneficiaries on the ground. The rather embarrassing Band Aid saga speaks to this point as well as anything else. Good intentions and cash simply aren’t enough; we need to do better.

How much did Band Aid/ We are the World/Live aid help? The optimistic answer would be “not much”, while the cynical answer would be “it actually made things worse”. But the silver lining would be that it helped professional humanitarians (i.e. not musicians, but actual trained NGO staff) sharpen their game and improve their delivery, to avoid the disasters that come when you deliver aid in an unprofessional manner.

A Comparison of Ancient Rome to the United States:


Okay, first off, many people incorrectly use the term “Roman Empire” to describe “Rome in general,” but that’s like calling the Germanic statesGermany.” The name is similar, but it’s wrong at its core. For most of its existence, Rome was not an Empire – Rome was the Roman Republic, and that’s what people usually compare the United States to. Probably because the United States has stolen SOOOO much from Rome. The Senate? Yeah, that’s a Roman thing. How about a Republic? Yeah, Rome started that too, right? How about ‘Murica’s favourite symbol? Yeah, Rome started that too! So Rome and the United States are SO similar! Right? Riiiiiight? Well screw you and your cherry picking of history. You know what? I want to compare Canada to China. They both have C starting their name and they both are countries with lots of land and they both have slanty eyed people. Anywhoozles, let’s go into detail on why the US, while similarish to Rome, is nothing like Rome.

First off, let’s put things in perspective. The United States is almost 250 years old. When Rome was 250 years old, it was nothing more than a city. A city embroiled in a conflict that spanned a century with the Veii, but still just a city. The United States started off as a republic, absorbing the ideals of classical nation states to uphold blah blah blah. Rome started out as a monarchy, because FUCK DA POLICE! Depending on what story you’re looking at, it could have been a dude raised by a wolf who decided “ROME BE HERE,” which is considered a legend by most sane people, or you could look at archaelogical evidence that shows that Rome was built over centuries due to it having a fantastic position, both defensively and for trade. Farmers in the area banded together, eventually creating the city.

  • First point against the similarities. Starting off, they were completely different.

Let’s look at some of the people Rome idolized – one in particular. His name was Cinncinnatus, and he’s commonly compared to the George Washington of Rome. To be fair, he didn’t have anything to do with Rome’s founding, didn’t save the country, didn’t fight in glorious wars or what have you. He fought one battle that he was famous for. But something that might differentiate him a bit from Washington….He was a dictator. To be fair, that word had a completely different connotation to the Romans of antiquity. Cinncinnatus was the model of a perfect Roman. He was conservative, he was an honest farmer who worked just like every man, he was called by his people to take over in time of need (dictator), and as soon as that need ended, he resigned and went back to his farm. He was only dictator for two weeks the first time, and one week the second. So comparable…ish to Washington? But then you realize that while Rome idolized a man known for poverty, Washington was one of the richest presidents of all time. Washington is frequently described as an unattractive man – even the flattering portraits don’t attempt to show him otherwise. He’s always depicted in his full dress clothes. Meanwhile, Cinncinnatus is rarely depicted in his full getup (toga), being more well known for his farming lifestyle – the only physical description we have of him is that he was hardy, but aging.

  • So Rome and America idolize two different caricatures. One is a wealthy aristocrat, fighting against impossible odds, despite his own imperfections. The other is a poor man, coming to his people’s aid in time of need, immediately dropping the power as soon as that time of need expired.

Next – on to the system of governments. They’re both Republics though, right? What could POSSIBLY be different there! Well uh, just about everything, really. Let’s start off with a quick description of the system in the US. We have three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. They all have checks and balances on each other, and they all get along wonderfully, thanks to the framework of our constitution, etc etc etc.

Well, let’s check out Rome’s system of government. They had a Senate of 900 men, who were “elected” from the Senatorial class of Rome. In other words, you had to be born into the right family to get into the Senate. Now, I’ll know you’re thinking “Well, the US is a bit of an oligarchy too ’cause you have to have lots of money and contacts and stuff to run for office,” but the problem with that is that legally, anyone who meets the age and citizenship requirements can run for office. Not so in Rome. Heading the Senate, they had two consuls who were “elected” (again, mostly from the aristocratic patrician class – though plebians were allowed to run for consul), who were the equivalent of the President. They served one year terms, had the power of veto (including on each other, which made for fun politics, especially when they only served one year terms), they had administrative, legislative, judicial, religious, and military power. They would often lead the armies of Rome in battle, unlike US presidents – it was their duty to do so.

Rome had no “judicial” branch, per se. Heck, you couldn’t even pay someone else to defend you in court. However, someone COULD volunteer to defend you. So you could give them a gift for being such a good, close friend! Or you could give them a loan at 0% interest that they would never have to repay, just because they were in dire financial straits! So Rome had the best judiciary that money could buy – but for big cases (like the Good Goddess scandal), the Senate was the judge, jury, and executioner.

Taxes were also handled differently – I don’t believe the Roman tax system changed over much during the transition from a Republic to an Empire, (but I can tell you about how it was done during the Republic.) Simply put, the Romans used contractors.

There were quite a few different classes in Roman society – plebiansequestrians, the senatorial class, and the patricians.The ones that are involved with Rome’s tax system are the equestrians, who are sometimes called the “knight class” of Rome (The name hints at it a bit) They were also (generally) the businessmen of Rome – essentially the wealthy guys who know they have power, but prefer to remain a bit behind the scenes with it. They don’t need to be involved in political battles, risking their lives (and fortunes) to try to achieve a political position.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way! There were a whole BUNCH of different kinds of taxes – and not all of them were money as we might think it (over 300,000 long tons of grain were shipped from Egypt and North Africa to Rome ANNUALLY). The United States has the tribitum capitis, which was a tax imposed on the population of certain provinces. The tax was not equal, and was a tax either from property that wasn’t land or a poll tax levied as acapitatio (taxes paid per head, or per animal – these taxes were only paid by the lower classes who were not wealthy enough to pay taxes on their whole property as assessed by the census. Only healthy men who could work – 14-65 – were assessed, but not in equal measure.) *Remember, this tax was only for the colonies!

So, in Rome the Contractors would hold “auctions.” They would put…say…Gaul or Hispania up on the table and say “Ok! We have Gaul here! Who’s going to get the most money from them?” And the bidding would start off. Whoever promised the most money to Rome from the province was granted tax collecting privileges in that province. As you can imagine, this system was rather corrupt, and people made their fortunes off of it. Tax collectors would take TONS more money than was required of them and pocket some before sending it higher up to the man in charge. He would pocket all the extra and send the required amount to Rome. Tax collectors were Roman officials, so they had the local garrisons of legions on their side – and the subjugated people had generally learned their lesson. These guys were known as the publicani.

The Republic actually made the claim that it raised fewer taxes in provinces than the preceding Hellenistic kingdoms and did not introduce new ones. To be fair, that’s almost true – the poll tax that was started by Augustus was the only significant new tax imposed before the late third century. Granted, that’s not to say that the taxes that were paid were INEXPENSIVE…but hey, you can’t have everything, right?

Ah, but there’s another tax I hadn’t talked about! There’s the tributum soli, which is, in English, the land tax of Rome. They taxed all land, forests, croplands, ships, slaves, animals, and other moveable property. This tax was solid so long as the armies of Rome kept bringing in massive amounts of loot from their conquests, but it proved to be REALLY insufficient later on, when Rome stopped expanding. Later emperors increased taxes on the land, with the result being that farmers abandoned their less productive fields, slashing agricultural output. The emperors increased the frequency of collection, which eventually converted the tax into a sales tax.

Finally, you have another piece to the puzzle that The United States has nothing like. You have the tribunes. The tribunes are considered by some to be one of the major catalysts of the Fall of the Republic, and there are some good reasons for that. The tribunes had the power to veto anything (including each other, including each other’s vetoes), and they were elected by the people to one year terms. The well-known ones were either demagogues or puppets – sometimes they served the Senate’s interests, sometimes they served their own/the peoples’. They could propose laws directly to the people, whipping them up into a mob until the Senate was forced to submit. The most famous ones also had a knack for getting killed off.

  • So, their governmental system was ALSO nothing like the United States. On the surface, maybe. In action? Not so much.

Another thing I want to point out is that the military system for Rome was completely different from the system of the United States, especially after the Marian reforms. Before the reforms, Rome didn’t really have a standing army – it had citizen levies. In other words, a glorified militia. Probably the best militia the world has ever seen, but still… not a standing, trained army (like the United States.) When the Marian reforms happened and the army became a standing army, their loyalty was not to Rome or to the consuls – it was to their individual generals, who were the ones who gave the soldiers their pay, land, rewards, loot, and comforts. Hence the constant string of civil wars, when the generals decided to use that power to their advantage.

Finally…the Fall of Rome. Both the Republic and the Empire. First off, the fall of the Republic. You can analyze the last century of the Republic and point to all the dominoes that fell, and sometimes make comparisons (you can compare the US to the Mongols if you really want to.) However, the last fifty years of the Republic was like nothing the United States has ever seen. It was the equivalent of the US being at war with South America, Europe, and China all at the same time, while being devastated by constant civil war. And when I say constant, I mean that Rome went through six civil wars in about sixty years. Yeah, that’s fucking nuts! The US went through ONE and is still recovering. The people of Rome were GRATEFUL for the centralization of power, just because it was an end to the chaos. Oh right, and Rome was completely bankrupt too – something that the US isn’t anywhere close to.

Now, the Roman Empire’s fall. The Empire had a WHOLE lot more against it than the Republic. First off, it was split in half ’cause it was too damn big. So the Eastern half was too far away to help the Western half when it needed it. And the Western half was facing random civil wars every few years whenever a general felt like being Emperor, revolts all OVER the place by the “barbarians” in those provinces, they cut Briton off because they couldn’t afford to keep it any more, barbarians were invading and plundering everything throughout the nation, AND Rome was so far beyond bankrupt it wasn’t even funny. Oh right, and famines were happening too (on and off from 400 to 800; may have killed 20 percent of the empire’s population.) And plagues (in the 500’s.) And earthquakes.

Yeah, it was way worse than the fall of the Republic, and that was WAY worse than anything the US has ever faced. Ever.

I’m not saying that there were no important similarities between Rome and the United States. Blanket, all-encompassing statements like that are just as bad as people saying that the US is the reincarnation of Rome. However, what I’m saying is that Rome and the United States are not comparable. The thing is, there are comparisons that can be made with any country, time period, government, or situation. That doesn’t necessarily make them accurate so much as it makes them people trying to construct a straw man to prove their point. The reason I explained Rome’s governmental system as I did was because most of Rome’s problems were caused by its government. And that government, strangely enough, was so alien to us that it wouldn’t even be considered a modern democracy. Which debunks most of the points people make right there. One of the few points I can sort of agree with is that many of Rome’s troubles (and downfall) were caused by incessant infighting by their political factions – the Optimates (conservatives) and the Populares (liberals.) However, that comparison can also be debunked a hundred different ways. First off, you’ll note the fact that I said factions rather than parties – there were no political parties. Secondly, Rome had no police force, so gang warfare was a huge element in these political machinations. Thirdly, technology has changed so much that it’s impossible to compare these speakers who could whip a crowd into a mob with their passionate language to “Yes We Can.” And the mob was a HUGE force in Rome, whereas today, you can just get your news from the TV. Of course, who were the ones whipping up these mobs in the first place? Generally, it was the tribunes. A position that the United States does not have.