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

Aid workers must be pragmatic -- so 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 Tigrayan 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 Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) simply sent people from Tigray to Sudan to be fed and housed by the United Nations and the international NGOs. It seemed a cheap and efficient way to manage a famine in Tigray. But the Sudanese were overwhelmed by the sight of 300,000 people arriving en masse.

The Sudanese camps suddenly turned into a second Korem, until enough aid could be delivered to reduce the death toll. The TPLF consistently denies that this was what it had done. Yet 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 its civilian wing REST, determined sensibly that buying from the producers to feed the consumers was better for everyone than dumping food aid into the market.

Why, the TPLF 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.

Whisky and fags

Khartoum, before sharia law and the "Courts of Prompt and Instant Justice", was a vibrant, dusty and chaotic city. TPLF soldiers swaggered around flashing their gold cigarette lighters. Johnnie Walker Black Label was their favourite tipple. REST had a large house in an expensive suburb where the 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 ageing 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 have 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 Paul Vallely's detailed explanations -- 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 missing.

The truth, I think, lies somewhere between the two positions. The proud young TPLF fighters in Khartoum and the earnest workers of REST mingled, 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), so it would be foolish to state anything too categorically. It was in the interests of both REST and the TPLF to ensure a sustained supply of resources to them and their people. This they did by providing a satisfactory level of access. That was smart and logical thinking.

What did the CIA know?

Had they not been of a Marxist orientation, they would have had an easier time of it from the United States, 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 Haile Mariam's regime.

Besides, the verdict has to be out on what the CIA in Sudan did and didn't know. At the time it seemed not enough, given its boringly incessant attempts to question aid workers coming out of Tigray, and yet rather a lot, given its involvement in the highly complex evacuation of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.

The people the CIA 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, after all, was 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 foolproof 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 more possible with the structures established by the Tigrayans than with those of the Eritreans. That this was so is still reflected in the different political realities of the two countries.

Not just a famine

So, I ask myself if the story even has the right focus. What happened to aid to the rebels in Eritrea, 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 its share would be a very foolish and naive assertion.

Today the TPLF -- sorry, government of Ethiopia -- owns vast tracts 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 a 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.

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