US response: short term solutions

  •  one month after the Live Aid concert when the head of the US Agency for International Development said the situation in Ethiopia had “greatly improved”.
  • A year later, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy said the famine in Ethiopia had ended – but these were misleading statements.
  • Even though US aid relief had improved the situation in Ethiopia in the short term, it had done nothing to address the underlying political aspects of the famine.
  • Instead, the US and the NGO’s active in the area, including the Red Cross, turned a blind eye to the horrors of Mengistu’s resettlement politics
  • As the US’s priority was not to save lives in the long run but to send money to gain political influence in the region.
  • The structural problems thus remained.

Normative spreading through US influence in Ethiopia

  • The short-sighted solution to Ethiopia’s structural problems were born out of the US’s geopolitical objectives in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was a “key nation” for the US – as described by Chester Crocker, the assistant secretary of state for African Affairs at the time – because the Ethiopian government had officially adopted communism in 1984
  • So, in line with the US’s containment politics at the time, the US had to intervene to prevent communism from spreading and the Soviet Union gaining more influence in the rest of the Third World.
  • This is also eminent in the 1985 CIA report on the situation in Ethiopia, which concluded the US should continue support for the sitting president Mengistu, turning a blind eye to Mengistu’s horrific crimes, because it was in their own interest to support him to gain Western influence in Ethiopia.
  • Thus, US’s aid relief can be understood as symptomatic of a colonial normative spreading of Western values (democracy) as they were interested in having them under their sphere of influence, rather than actually solving their structural problems.

Famine of 1948

  • The famine that broke out in 1984 was no exception. Four factors contributed to its outbreak:
  • First factor, a two-year drought across the Sahel sub-region.
  • Second factor, a civil war that had forced citizens to flee their homes
  • Third factor, a forced agricultural collectivization policy implemented by Ethiopia’s president Mengistu that forced every farmer in the country to accept artificially low prices for grains and coffee.
  • Finally, a growing population of 2.9% a year at the time.
  • What this evidently suggests is that without local and international political barriers, the famine could have been largely prevented.
  • However, the foreign policy of the biggest humanitarian aid sponsor in Ethiopia – the US – was oblivious to these complexities. Rather, the US focused on short term solutions and merely wanted to “help” in order to push through their own political agendas.

The situation in Ethiopia before and during Live Aid

According to the CIA report Ethiopia: Political and Security Impact of the Drought, published in 1985, the famine crisis under Mengistu mirrored the downfall of the former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Mengistu was aware of this and tried to retain his power by giving the military and their family members all kinds of benefits including food in return for support at the expense of the rest of the population. Eighty percent of the population affected by the famine lived in the north of Ethiopia, however, relief efforts to the north were sabotaged by Mengistu’s government and rebels. At the same time, concentration on relief efforts to the north distracted attention from other (though to a lesser extent) affected areas in the south. Subsequently, the famine crisis worsened.

In terms of Ethiopia’s foreign affairs policy, president Mengistu regarded the US as his biggest enemy as he believed that the US supported the rebels. He also continued to place limits on Western donor access. Despite this, however, the US still succeeded to reach an agreement with the Ethiopian Government to let the RRC handle the aid relief directly. Other key players in Ethiopian aid relief included the FAO’s World Food Program, the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children Federation, Lutheran World Federation, Church World Services, World Vision and Oxfam.

Furthermore, in the CIA’s view, Mengistu would survive the famine crisis if both the West and the Soviet Union would continue to support Ethiopia, the first with humanitarian aid and the latter with military and security aid. Mengistu also heavily relied on his own army and security services in order to stay in power.

New (provisional) research question

Was Live Aid effective in bringing development aid to Ethiopia or

Did Live Aid, as a Western humanitarian aid initiative, spread/reinforce normative Western values at the expense of the Ethiopians?

So, we want to explore the tension between humanitarian aid and normative power

By examining if/how the creators of Live Aid (consciously, perhaps unconsciously) profited from/exploited

  • neocolonial tensions regarding humanitarian aid and/or
  • exoticism/stereotypical portrayals of Ethiopia

And if this resulted in the spread of normative Western values at the expense of Ethiopia

Two angles: 1. from the audience’s perspective (how was it experienced) and 2. the implications (how it was created)

Find ways to connect these two angles.

Who is the agent in this project?

How much agency did the audience have?

How is agency manipulated?



The Live Aid Legacy report – Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)

On how stereotypes and Live Aid have had a negative impact on the public opinion on humanitarian aid in the UK

  • 80% of the British public strongly associate developing countries with (stereotypical) disturbing images of famine, disaster and Western aid;
  • This can lead to an impression that people in developing countries are helpless victims. 74% of the British public believe that the developing world depends on the money and knowledge of the West to progress;
  • As a result, these stereotypes create a psychological relationship between the Western and the developing world in which the Western world is depicted as “superior” over the “inferior” developing world. The Live Aid Legacy demonstrates this unbalanced relationship. Whilst the Western aid givers are portrayed as powerful and benevolent givers (by the media); the Ethiopian government/Ethiopians are depicted as grateful receivers. Likewise, the British public doesn’t seem to believe that Britain may gained something from the relationship with Ethiopia;
  • Researchers of the VSO who conducted the research on the respondents’ confidence report alarming one-dimensional responses characterised, showing a strong sense of stereotype thinking. The British respondents included in the interview are not willing to change their views on the topic. Images of the developing world published by media outlets have led these consumers to think that they have all the facts.
  • Link: