The world might have remained supremely indifferent to famine that took Ethiopia in its iron grip during 1984. But late that year a BBC crew documented the rapidly intensifying disaster with reporter Michael Buerk using evocative phrases like ‘the closest thing to hell on earth’ and ‘a biblical famine in the 20th century’. Graphic reports and harrowing pictures of starving children galvanized British and, as the publicity bandwagon rolled, worldwide public opinion.
Rock stars Bob Geldof and Midge Ure wrote a charity song entitled Do They Know It’s Christmas?, assembled a group named Band Aid and released the record to support Ethiopian famine relief. It went to Number One, selling 3.5 million copies in Britain alone. Mightily encouraged, Geldof organized Live Aid in July 1985, when simultaneous pop concerts in London and Philadelphia raised a vast sum for Ethiopian famine relief.
Had it not been for this magnificent effort – and equally significant official interventions such as food drops by governments spurred into action by newly aroused public awareness – the famine could have been every bit as serious as the great Ethiopian famine that killed 3.5 million people a century before. Even so, the country saw a serious humanitarian disaster unfold before the famine ended in 1988.
The Ethiopian government was interested only in fighting insurgencies in the north (by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) and south (Oromo Liberation Front), while continuing friction was caused by the troubled federation with Eritrea. Half of all national resources were devoted to military spending, even as low rainfall caused a succession of poor harvests. This imbalance ensured that no efforts were made to prepare for the impending famine, while medical provision was run right down. It was a recipe for prolonged suffering that would cost innumerable lives and see millions of Ethiopians become displaced and destitute.
Death toll: Despite the best efforts of relief agencies and donor governments, the famine still resulted in an estimated one million deaths, the majority in 1984 before it came to international attention.
You should know: Live Aid concerts at Wembley Stadium in London and Philadelphia’s JFK stadium became one of the most widely watched live TV events ever staged, with an estimated audience of 400 million. The original intention was to raise £1 million through ticket safes, but when the final revenue total was calculated the figure was a staggering £150 million. Even so. Live Aid’s real triumph was in inflaming public opinion to a degree that governments simply couldn’t ignore, thus greatly enhancing the relief effort.